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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.