There is a deep anti-intellectual streak that runs through much of religious America, and it’s entirely justified. No, I’m not saying that we ought to give the thumbs-up to poor thinking skills and the inability to distinguish facts from fiction. I’m saying, rather, that fundamentalists are right about academic learning: the more of it you do, the less likely you are to attend church or to talk to God.
New research by economists at Louisiana State University offers some tantalizing evidence:
The study finds that more education, in the form of more years of formal schooling, has “consistently large negative effects” on an individual’s likelihood of attending religious services, as well as their likelihood of praying frequently. More schooling also makes people less likely to harbor superstitious beliefs, like belief in the protective power of lucky charms (rabbit’s feet, four leaf clovers), or a tendency to take horoscopes seriously.
Major caveat: While the study is new, the data are old — and from Europe.
The researchers examined the effects of compulsory schooling reforms undertaken in 11 European countries, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. “While some cohorts of children were impacted by these law changes, those who just missed the age cut-off of the law were exempt from the mandate,” the authors write. And voila: you now have treatment and control groups for a real-world experiment. The authors then looked at how the different cohorts answered survey questions about religiosity and superstition later in life.
They found effects of education on religion and superstition that were significant, and fairly large. One additional year of schooling:
— reduces the propensity to attend religious services at least once a month by about 14 percentage points;
— decreases the propensity to attend religious services at least weekly by about 10 percentage points; …
— reduces likelihood of belief in the protective powers of a lucky charm by 11 or 12 percentage points;
— and decreases the propensity to consult horoscopes frequently by 11 percentage points.
Then again, notes the Washington Post,
While belief in God has remained constant over the decades [has it though? — TF], more and more people are deciding they don’t need a church to worship Him/Her as they see fit. It is possible that as people become more educated, they become more skeptical of the external trappings of religious belief — the churchgoing, the rules, and the other features of organized religion.
That’s still a damn good development.
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