Pew Analysis: The More Formal Education You Have, the Less Religious You Are April 27, 2017

Pew Analysis: The More Formal Education You Have, the Less Religious You Are

If memory serves me correctly, someone at a lecture once asked Richard Dawkins for his thoughts on the word “Bright” as a label for the non-religious. Didn’t it imply that atheists were smarter than Christians? Dawkins’ response: “Aren’t we?”

I don’t know if that story is accurate — I was unable to find any link confirming it — but there’s undoubtedly a belief among many atheists that more educated people are, the less religious they’ll be. No wonder people think we’re arrogant. There are also plenty of researchers who try to correlate religiosity with IQ as if that’s a scientific way to prove the point.

It’s never that simple, of course. There are many brilliant Christians and lots of dumb atheists, and it’s foolish to think that being smart and being non-religious are linked together in a way that you can’t have one without the other.

But a new Pew Research Center analysis, building on their extensive 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, offers us a better way of having this conversation.

Forget intelligence. There’s no single way to measure that. What we can measure, though, is how religious people are based on their church attendance and beliefs about God, and we can compare that to their level of formal education. (The word “formal” matters. There are educated people who never go to college and uneducated people who have grad school degrees.)

So while there may be pitfalls in asking if there’s a link between religiosity and formal education, at least we can attach some numbers to it.

Here’s what the Pew analysis found:

1) The more formally educated you are, the less likely it is that you believe in God, think religion is important, or pray daily.


Looking at the U.S. public as a whole, however, the answer to the question of whether more education is correlated with less religion appears to be yes. Among all U.S. adults, college graduates are considerably less likely than those who have less education to say religion is “very important” in their lives: Fewer than half of college graduates (46%) say this, compared with nearly six-in-ten of those with no more than a high school education (58%).

Highly educated Americans also are less inclined than others to say they believe in God with absolute certainty and to pray on a daily basis. And, when asked about their religious identity, college graduates are more likely than others to describe themselves as atheists or agnostics (11% of college grads vs. 4% of U.S. adults with a high school education or less).

2) Among Christians, however, the numbers are roughly the same on all those fronts regardless of college attendance.


among those who do identify as Christians, college graduates tend to be about as religiously observant as those with less education — and in some cases more so. For instance, more than half of college-educated Christians say they attend religious services on a weekly basis (52%), compared with 45% of Christians with some college experience and 46% of Christians with a high school degree or less.

Overall, 70% of Christians with college degrees have a high level of religious commitment on a scale incorporating four common measures of religious observance (worship attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one’s life), as do 73% of those with some college and 71% of those with no college experience.

3) That also applies to Muslims.


According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of Muslim Americans, Muslims with a college education and those with no more than a high school education attend mosque and pray at about equal rates: Roughly half of Muslims in both of these educational groups attend services at least once a week, while two-thirds pray some or all of the five salah (Islamic prayers) each day. Nearly all Muslim Americans in each educational category (95% each) say they believe in God.

4) College graduates still attend church with roughly the same regularity as non-graduates.


Americans with college degrees are no less likely than others to report attending religious services on a weekly basis. Roughly a third of U.S. adults with college degrees (36%) say they attend a house of worship at least weekly, about the same as the share of those with some college (34%) and those with a high school diploma or less education (37%) who say they attend services once a week or more.

I don’t think that last part contradicts the first. It’s not unusual that college graduates are less likely to believe in God, but just as likely to attend a religious service. There are a lot of reasons that might be the case, ranging from the social aspects of church — community, networking, finding a sense of purpose, etc. — to the belief that religion is a force for good whether or not you believe in God.

It’s also important to note that this analysis isn’t about causes. We don’t learn why more formal education makes people less religious from this report, though my own theory would be that exposure to new beliefs and constantly being challenged on your views contributes to the realization that the God you grew up with may not be real. It’s hard to remain in a religious bubble when you’re exposed to a battery of people and ideas that can pop it with little effort.

There’s a reason conservative Christians tend to fear institutions of higher learning — at least secular ones. They think exposure to different ideas (and non-Christians) will make students less religious. And they’re right. But if that exposure is enough to change your views, maybe that’s because your beliefs weren’t valid to begin with.

Being challenged isn’t a bad thing. May the best ideas win. And a good university is one that pushes you out of complacency and encourages you to hold onto beliefs only after you’ve given them serious scrutiny.

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