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 know I'm not the first person to leave this type of comment, but this seems like a great example of finding a correlation and calling it a causation.


Nice to see some data from outside America.

I wonder if this correlation holds up when asked about being spiritual as opposed to religious affiliation. The more you learn, the more you realize that lots of religious organizations don't match you politics or are doing distasteful things or b) you learn the history and origin of a religion and don't really like what it reveals. Education challenges people to be critical about what they think they know, but I don't think it necessarily makes people non-believers.

Kyle Plunkett

I've been going to church since I was little. When I was in middle school, I was debating on what's important. Have high knowledge or stand out what you believe? So, I've spend 4-6 years trying to figure what's important. I rarely goes to church since high school and now. I just realized what I want, I want to have high knowledge. So, I've been studying days and nights. I got tired of showing what I believe. So, in general I think knowledge is more important than beliefs.


"Education" in and of itself, probably doesn't have much of an effect. The educational community however, I think drastically affects a person's likelihood to believe in the future. Educational communities are just that, communities of people, and the influence of a group of people's worldview on an individual within that group is tremendous.

I wonder what an examination of homeschool statistics would turn up if the right questions were asked.

Christine Fraser

Thinking perhaps that the same number of people participate in religious traditions in their homes now (Christmas, Chanukka, Ramadan, etc) as when they were kids but are less likely nowadays to disclose affiliations (religious, political, etc) because they're more aware of their rights and the laws protecting them in hiring practices and they've learned to be wary of internet data collection abuse. My daughter is aware of both of these things because she's taught these things in a Canadian high school. and her education is nowhere near complete.

Also, I don't see how it follows that just because I'm highly educated, I would discard the traditions I was raised with. I'm far more likely, if I'm smart enough (not to be confused with passing educational standards criterion), to know that stability in a family is strengthened through tradition-based practices.

Sounds to me like you're on your way to proving that more highly educated people are not as smart as they used to be with regards to how religion is a foundation for their lives, but that sort of academics is the responsibility of their chosen church to teach, not the public school system.


Sanyog Padelkar

Does more Education lead to less Religion? I don’t fully agree to the study conducted. The study conducted here, only views two variables, first, attending religious ceremony and secondly, increases in education level. There are various other factors in between them which are totally ignored and the most important factors of them are time and priorities.

To certain extend education shapes our life scientifically; hence we always seek scientific proof to believe in something or the other. Religious things are something that is beyond science and thus eventually lose its importance especially with respect to an educated person than to an uneducated person who knows very little about science.

Finally the most educated persons are busiest persons and hence find very little time for his disposal. All the time he prioritizes things like very important, important, less important and unimportant things. To an educated person Religion becomes very less important or unimportant thing as he knows he is not going to find any answer to it in a scientific manner.



There is cache about not being a believer. You are thought to be more sophisticated, more reflective, more intelligent. There are several simple reasons (probably among many others) of why this is the case....

1) Many believers are indeed less educated. NOT because you have to be uneducated to "believe that stuff," but because religion, whatever intellectual appeals it may also have, is primarily one that appeals to the non-intellectual side of our being. And since most people are not intellectuals, not academics, they make up the largest demographic of believers.

2) Those who complete the rigor of a good education are taught, in a thousand different ways, to be skeptical, to employ the scientific method, to think mathematically, to critique arguments, to discriminate between this and that, etc. They are surrounded by others who think this way. And frankly, though I am a believer and (it is hoped) an intellectual, the most visible version of Christianity--fundamentalism--is indeed an inviting target for those who are skeptical/critical. That is, if you take fundamentalism to task, it is going to leave a lot of gaps that must be filled in by faith...which is not something the academic mind is eager to do, since it tends to seek explanations.

3) There can be an elitist view toward the "simple-minded believers" who, not having a great education, embrace religion. This elitist belief can express itself in the rolled eyes, the smug chuckles, and the knowing glances of professors who are confronted with a fundamentalist student. With all of their academic training, it is like taking candy from a baby--the believer will soon be left with nothing but faith alone to sustain their religious beliefs (we believers like to believe that along with faith, there is EVIDENCE...even if there is no proof).

4) Three hundred years ago, western intellectuals were almost all believers. Some will claim this was due to fear of the Church, but surely we can agree that many or most were true believers. In those days, when the "cache" of intellectualism INCLUDED faith, well, intellectuals believed. But as times have changed, as the cache of intellectualism has changed to the point where it almost REJECTS faith, our students, subtly and not-so-subtly, are sent the message that it doesn't make sense to be a believer.

And so many stop being believers. They've seen one too many young, naive fundamentalist defeated at the hands of a skilled professor.

It's not that it's SMARTER to not be a believer, it's that it SEEMS to be so.

But I just keep asking myself where did matter and energy come from? God? No? It has just always existed? Then why don't atheists allow that God--or some form of intelligence--could also have always just existed?

There may be an infinite number of universes? The multiverse? And if so, that means there would be an infinite number of IDENTICAL worlds, with someone who looks, acts, and is named like me? (After all, there are only so many ways you can rearrange all the particles in the universe--and it's somewhere far south of infinity.)

At some point, it becomes easier to just believe in God...than to believe that there are infinite numbers of universes, infinite numbers IDENTICAL universes, identical numbers of posters who are writing the same thing I'm writing now. Ockam's Razor, FOR ME, is God.



The CENTRAL reason for that education leads to less religion is...EVOLUTIONARY THEORY.

Very simply, fundamentalists largely define what Christianity is thought to be in the western world. And two of their core beliefs--inerrancy and literalism--are at direct odds with the accepted truth of evolution.

That is, if you DEFINE Christianity as "the things that fundamental Christians believe," then if you accept evolutionary theory, you are not going to be able to believe that the creation story is literal. And if it's not literal, then that must mean (since fundamentalists believe the Bible to be literal unless the text is clearly not intended to be literal) that there is an error in the Bible. And if inerrancy is true, then a SINGLE ERROR in the Bible, causes it ALL to come tumbling down!

Of course, some of us do not define Christianity in that way. We may very well believe that Jesus is the Son of God, died, rose again, and so forth--i.e., we may believe in the supernatural--yet at the same time NOT hold that the Bible is always literal, or that it will all come tumbling down if there is but a single contradiction!

But since fundamentalism is the "official" version of Christianity for the time being (accept no substitutes!), a well-educated person who is likely fairly well exposed, versed, and accepting of evolution, is going to be FORCED to either compartmentalize their faith...or lay it aside.

However, let's be clear that fundamentalism is NOT Christianity itself. While fundamentalism is held by millions of good-hearted, decent, loving believers, and does them a world of good perhaps, that does not mean that it is the only way to be sincere toward God.

Let me give you THE KEY EXAMPLE....

Let us say that there is a glaring contradiction in some detail in Jesus life. Let us suppose, for instance, that one of the Evangelists has Jesus being in Jerusalem a week before another Evangelist says He arrived. That is, Jesus is...and is Jerusalem at X time. (NOTE: This is not the case, but is an example!).

Well, IF IF IF IF IF they ALL agree on the key point--that Jesus rose from the dead (and they do)--then THAT is the real issue. That is, IF IF IF Jesus DID rise from the dead (and this being the week after Easter, it is perhaps appropriate to argue this point here), then all else pales to insignificance. That is, we can say, "Yep, Matthew made a mistake on the date that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem," and yet Christianity would remain fully intact. After all, when you add one Risen Savior to the mix, does anyone really care that some academic has found a historical flaw in this or that story?.

My point is not to argue that Jesus arose (though I do believe that), but that academics need to realize that defeating fundamentalism is not to deny the truth of Christianity. It is simply to deny one particular VERSION--albeit the main one--of Christianity. Further, my point is that to take aim at inerrancy is not the same as winning the ultimate argument.

So while evolution does bring thinkers in conflict with FUNDAMENTALISM, it does not necessarily bring them in conflict with Christianity or the core truths of the gospel. But because many educated people THINK it does, they turn away from religion. At least that's how I see it. And maybe I should know...for I had to rearrange my fundamentalist beliefs somewhat upon completing my formal education.

Very simply, evolutionary theory challenges fundamental Christianities notions



The homeschoolers are going to have a field day!