Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Education’s effect on religion

Woman studyingReliable information can be hard to come by. Ask an atheist about education’s effect on religion, and the atheist, reflecting on personal experience, will likely say education hurts religious belief. Yet, ask a believer the same thing, and one will likely hear the opposite answer. Fortunately, science can intervene. Specifically, Yoav Ganzach (Tel Aviv University, Israel) and colleagues found that for those with a strong religious background, education boosts religious belief, but for those with a secular background education hurts it.

Intelligence further complicates matters. That is, the researchers believe that one cannot assess the relationship between religion and education without also accounting for intelligence.

With the extra variable of intelligence in mind, the authors make two hypotheses. First, education’s effect on religiosity depends on a person’s religious background. Second, intelligence’s effect on religiosity likewise depends on a person’s religious background. In both cases, the scientists hypothesize that a strong religious background will mean that education and intelligence will have a positive effect on religious belief, and, by contrast, a non-religious or secular background will spell the opposite: education and intelligence will have a negative effect on religious belief.

To test these hypotheses, Ganzach and colleagues conducted two tests. The first test used data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which sampled nearly 9,000 Americans (although not proportionately: it oversampled African Americans, Hispanics, and economically disadvantaged whites). The survey chose participants born from 1980-1984 and started interviewing them in every year from 1997 to 2008. This allowed the researchers to gather data about a participant’s religious background and intelligence (using the Armed Forces Qualifying Test) in 1997 and then about his or her education in 2008.

The results showed an overall negative correlation both between education and religiosity and between intelligence and religiosity. However, after controlling for intelligence, the relationship between education and religiosity lost statistical significance. In other words, education does not seem to affect religiosity on its own but only when mediated by intelligence. The situation changes yet again when religious background enters the fray. With religious background as a factor, neither intelligence nor education has a significant negative effect on religiosity for those with a strong religious background. As for those with a weak or no religious background, the negative correlation persists.

The second test used data from the General Social Survey, which covers a span from 1972 to 2010. This survey, like the previous one, surveyed Americans only, but, unlike the previous one, relied on verbal intelligence as its sole measure of intelligence.

Once again, religiosity negatively correlated with both education and intelligence. As before, controlling for intelligence effectively explains away education such that education does not have an independent statistically signficant relationship with religiosity. Finally, also reinforcing the findings of the previous test, religious background mediated both education’s and intelligence’s negative correlation with religiosity.

The researchers conclude that “The results of the two studies do not support the idea that there is a universal pattern by which education mediates the effect of intelligence on religiosity, nor do they support the widely held notion that education leads to apostasy.” They add: “Our results even suggest that for those who came from strong religious backgrounds, education had a positive effect on religiosity, which leads to a positive indirect effect of intelligence, even though the direct effect of intelligence was negative. On the other hand, education had a negative effect for those who came from secular backgrounds.” It appears, to every teacher’s chagrin, that education on the whole seems merely to reinforce what people already believe.

For more see, “On intelligence education and religious beliefs” in the journal Intelligence.


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