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.

caleb baucom

I call bunk on this study. Where is the control for income level? It's well documented that an increase in education is associated with an increase in earnings (this blog has pointed this out on numerous occasions). So even if there is a notable decrease in religious affiliation, how are we to attribute this to an increase in education and not an increase in earnings.

It could be that there is a decrease in religious affiliation simply due to an increase in earnings. Which would make sense because the rich don't exactly need God to provide for them.


another paper that (probably) supports the findings above.


First, I'm a big fan of Dan Hungerman's work; however, I would be cautious with the title of this blog post. Perhaps a better question would be, "Does more education, of a certain kind, lead to less religion?" Probably not all kinds of education lead to lower religiosity. So it depends on what knowledge is being supplied.

Mr Coffee

Any work done on people who attend bible college?


(For the man who moderate [and correct, in my case] the comments: sorry on my vary poor English, I get no English teaching in my school, and I am from Israel, not from some English speaking country :)
1. The ultra orthodox rabbis are against universities at least hundred years, and exactly for this reason: university destroys faith. So, it is very unlikely that the correlation of their opinion to this statistics is incidental.
2. If the reason is logic, it will be marked more in students of exact science. If the reason is the world view of the lecturer, it will be in students of humanities also, (and perhaps more significant among them).)
(and if the reason is society, it can vary according to supply of dormitories in the university,,,).
[advise: religion debates never end, it is better never begin one .]


This may have been posted by someone else, but is it not equally possible that it is one's religiosity that leads to lower levels of educational attainment? I can imagine a segment of religious parents discouraging pursuit of higher education, inadequately home-schooling their children, etc. so that the most religious students either cannot, or choose not, to pursue higher education.

Although I think education is definitely an answer to addressing erroneous and unsupportable beliefs, I also think that those achieving higher levels of education may have been less religious to begin with.

Craig Ruttan

I would be interested to know if the decline in church observance is stable across all religions studied or if some religious groups buck the trend.

Are there any subgroups in the data set where church observance increases with education?


Philip Schwadel. The Effects of Education on Americans’ Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Affiliations. Review of Religious Research, 2011

Also among the study's findings:
Education had a strong and positive effect on religious participation. With each additional year of education, the odds of attending religious services increased 15 percent.
Increases in education were associated with reading the Bible. With each additional year of education, the odds of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9 percent.
Education was related to respondents' switching of religious affiliations. The odds of switching to a mainline Protestant denomination increased by 13 percent for each year of education.
The more educated respondents were, the more likely they were to question the role of religion in secular society. Yet, they were against curbing the voices of religious leaders on societal issues and supported those leaders' rights to influence people's votes.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2011, August 8). Education affects Americans' religiosity -- but not how you might think. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 13, 2012, from­ /releases/2011/08/110808124245.htm



Not the level of education but the professional commitments,employment,desire for earthly wealth.


I find this to be generally true, with an exception. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - aka The Mormons, a higher education leads to higher adherence of religious practice. This oddity occurs in the US as well as Canada and in fact around the world. Check it out for yourself....