Does More Education Lead to Less Religion?

According to a new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Daniel M. Hungerman, an economist at Notre Dame who studies religion, the answer is yes. At least in his Canadian data set:

For over a century, social scientists have debated how educational attainment impacts religious belief.  In this paper, I use Canadian compulsory schooling laws to identify the relationship between completed schooling and later religiosity.  I find that higher levels of education lead to lower levels of religious participation later in life. An additional year of education leads to a 4-percentage-point decline in the likelihood that an individual identifies with any religious tradition; the estimates suggest that increases in schooling can explain most of the large rise in non-affiliation in Canada in recent decades.

A key paragraph:

The estimates suggest that, all else equal, one extra year of schooling leads to a 4 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that an individual reports having no religious affiliation at all; a reasonably large effect. Results broken down by religious tradition are somewhat imprecise, but suggest that most of the rise in non-affiliation is driven by a decline in Christian-but-not-Catholic participation. The effects of the laws are not driven by any particular Canadian province. The results suggest that gains in educational attainment can explain over half of the striking rise in non-affiliation seen in Canada during the past half century. These findings provide compelling evidence that education leads to secularization, a result that stands in contrast with most prior research.

Photo: iStockphoto

Among the other papers Hungerman has written or co-authored are “Does Church Attendance Cause People to Vote?” and “Does Religious Proscription Cause People to Act Differently?” It is good to see someone trying to answer important questions like these through empirical means rather than falling back on stereotypical explanations.


I'm thinking this a case of correlation not causation. Is there a correlation between wealth accumulation and affiliation. It seems that Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes shed light on possibly the motivations for pursuing education or wealth. Maybe the motivation leads to a disinterest.


Yes it does. I guess thats because learning how the world works makes you think in terms of scientific proof, and also gives you a sens of your own worth. Religion, on the other hand, is a mode of thinking that needs faith more and proof less, and also is designed to make you stay within prescribed norms of behavior or thought or other related things.

Eric M. Jones

Higher native smarts correlates with higher education which causes (or helps cause) lower religiosity. Well, Duh....


Check out "Higher Education as Moral Community: Institutional Influences on Religious Participation During College" in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by one of my sociology professors. He just presented his research to us for the Sociology Club at my school about a month ago and it appears that his research shows a similar result. It appears that there are more secularist at the most elite schools. This article also provides data on the religious practices of those who attend religiously-affiliated institutions. My professor got his PhD from Notre Dame, so perhaps the studies are related.

Scott Templeman

May be overlooking that athiests, not having a faith-based belief structure to fall on, would be more inclined to study sciences and human studies in greater detail. I am also curious about the data set- he mentions Canada's compulsory schooling laws in his abstract. Does the data include students who went to private (religious) schools? Does he segment by the type of religion (different religions are more science friendly than others)? He looks at athiesm and agnosticism as the symptoms of increased schooling, does he explore if this may be a product of the current conditions? If theologians and academics have been at each other's throats for decades, if one was subsidized heavily would we not see an increase the kind of sentiments they would teach?


What does this say about divinity school Ph.D's?


LOL! "What about Hamburger University Masters Degrees?"


As the son of two doctors who are both devout Catholics, I found this study to be untrue. While this is just a personal example, I think using Canadians instead of Americans makes a difference. Also, many of the professors in these elite colleges are atheist/agnostic, and they try to convince their students to be as well.


I'm curious where you get your data that professors are more likely to be atheist or agnostic and likewise the data that supports their evangelising of students. Any pointers?

herman melvillain

Isn't that sort of like saying more alcohal leads to more intoxication?


Wait, more educated people are less likely to be superstitious and believe in fairy tales? Get out.


How about something as simple as 18-year-olds living away from the structure of home for schooling, extended travel or the military?


I would be interested to see if this correlation holds across all religions; I have seen some evidence to suggest that more educated Mormons actually have higher levels of religious participation than non-educated Mormons. This of course may be attributed to the fact that a large proportion of Mormons received their education at Brigham Young University, a church school.


So is the argument then that those who are religious are less intelligent? Or that the academic system stymies religion through it's liberal bias?


What argument? Isn't this a study of correlation rather than a debate put forth with a specific argument in mind?

You're going off half-cocked by being primed to suddenly jump to the defense of religion rather than examine the data and form new lines of rational inquiry.

Caleb B

For me, more education led to an increase in religious faith (I attended a state school). Pascal’s Wager basically says that if God exists, it’s logical to bet that He does because if He exists and you DON’T believe, you lose infinitely to the downside (hell), but if you believe and He doesn’t exist, you only lose living an unholy life. Since most religions teach to treat your fellow human beings with fairness, you really don’t lose that much by living a holy lifestyle.

I can’t prove that God exists, but I’d argue that it’s not illogical to guess that he does. I tell my atheist friends, if I’m wrong, I’ll never know it, but if you’re wrong, you get an eternity in hell to try prove that God doesn’t exist. I think I win either way.

Joshua Northey

You really need to examine the philosophical literature around Pascal's wager a bit more carefully. It is a pretty foolish gamble, and the modern academic literature is unambiguous on that point. I think you must not have attended a very good school if this was not discussed when Pascal's Wager came up. It was discussed during the lecture and in the text at my state school.

What about Tlaloc? Are you sacrificing children to him to hedge your bets against retribution from him as well as your bet hedging against retribution from the christian god?

Does it strike you at all odd that your are behaving under the premise that some all-powerful being wants to punish you for not behaving in some way or other?

Assuming you cared about and followed the affairs of ants, or of "The Sims" characters, would it make the slightest bit of psychological sense for you to assign deserts to them based on their actions? The idea is bizarre.



Pascal's Wager has always puzzled me: you're supposed to pretend that you believe in hopes of a future reward. But since we're talking about an omniscient deity, wouldn't you suppose that He/She/It would know that your belief is only pretense, and so assign you to an even worse afterlife for trying to play silly buggers?

Daniel H.

Not surprising, considering faith and education both often appeal to people through their ability to provide means for filling voids that these people perceive in their lives. These voids can take many different forms, with perhaps the most common being "how did we get here", "why are we here", and "what is truth". Education takes over this role for many, as scholars attempt to fill these gaps with secular philosophies and scientific explanations. Because faith requires reliance on Something or Someone outside of ourselves, and involves being held to account for our actions by a Judge of some form, many people would naturally prefer to reject this in favor of self-reliance and self-accountability. This of course does not mean a religious person is necessarily less educated, just that those who are more educated have found extra alternatives to religion.

Joshua Northey

Of course. Religion is a an obsolete mechanism to cope with ignorance of the natural world and the fear of its capriciousness.

The main way it survives is through indoctrination of children with a set of beliefs no longer in coherence with the current understanding of the world. The more education outside of that indoctrination someone receives the more likely they are to drift away from it.

Particularly harmful to religious belief is unbiased education about ALL the religious traditions of the world. When you can make the analogy between the sheer idiocy and ignorance of a rain dance (or worse yet, sacrifice) and the nearly indistinguishable activity of praying to some metaphysical father...well your behavior usually doesn't persist.