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Despite a long-time understanding among sociologists that certain forms of religious belief and identification undercut educational attainment, contrarian social scientists and religious apologists often argue that education and religion are completely compatible. Recent arguments by Ilana Horwitz and Ryan Burge go further to claim that religion may even enhance educational success.

Such arguments wither under basic scrutiny.

Reliably offered by cheerleaders of religion, this perspective sees religious belief, identification, and participation as nurturing intellectual development and educational attainment. Religion is seen as fostering conscientiousness, a striving for perfection, beliefs in a higher purpose, and connections to a faithful community.

In short, religious commitments are seen by advocates of religion as a prerequisite to achieving a meaningful and flourishing life.

The problem with this view is that it fails to contend with the nitty-gritty of religious life: Which religious identifications? What religious beliefs? Why religious participation? Situating educational outcomes in the context of American religion is crucial for understanding the results.

Educational attainment—especially higher education—has consistently been shown to increase apostasy and reduce subscription to core religious beliefs. For instance, I have used data from the Youth-Parent Socialization Panel Study (YPSPS) to show that college preparatory coursework in high school and attainment of a college degree lowers beliefs in the veracity of the Bible later in life and increases the likelihood of renouncing religious identification. Those studies used high-quality data and the analyses controlled for a variety of potentially confounding factors like ethnicity, gender, parental social status, region, and rural residence. The negative associations between educational attainment and religious factors are also evident in cross-sectional data on apostasy taken from the General Social Survey (GSS), and GSS data also show that educational attainment reduces certainty of beliefs about gods and increases the likelihood that people reject beliefs in gods.  

As a non-Twitter user, I was amused to see a tweet by my former graduate student, Ryan Burge, promoting his new book on supposed myths about religion.  

Burge tweeted the following:

Doing interviews for 20 Myths, I often get asked what’s the biggest falsehood I see when it comes to data about religion. It’s education leads people away from religion.


I have not read 20 Myths. However, the “data” from the tweet are apparently from a large, online, non-random “panel study” used to do quick and dirty analyses.

I trust Dr. Burge is familiar with the Literary Digest fiasco, if not the Gaussian assumptions about the need for random samples to extrapolate to population parameters. In any case, I guess he didn’t take my statistics courses at Southern Illinois University. Huge fractions of Americans do not use the internet at all. Almost no normal (in the Gaussian sense) individual would agree to participate in such a panel. And online panels are notorious for producing low-quality data that have no hope of estimating true population parameters.

Table 1: Association between degree attainment and religious factors: 2000-2018 GSS
DegreeNo Religious IdentificationApostateNon-TheistBible is FablesBible Word of GodReligious ParticipationNever Participate% of Full Sample
Less than High school16%9%11%14%54%3.428%13.9%
High School17%12%18%16%36%3.424%50.9%
Junior College17%12%19%18%30%3.620%7.8%
Bachelor’s Degree19%14%26%24%20%3.720%17.6%
Graduate Degree21%16%31%34%13%3.720%9.7%

In his tweet, Burge amplifies the centrality of “nones” but doesn’t try to ferret out the dynamic of how one’s education might influence that. Table 1 (above) presents data from the 2000-2018 GSS across a variety of identification and belief categories. First, Burge’s problematic data get the estimates dead wrong: There is a clear, almost linear positive relationship between degree attainment and non-identification with religion. While 16% of high school drop-outs are non-identifiers, the figure is 21% among those with a graduate degree.

The relationship is even stronger if you look at apostasy—people who reported having a religious identification at age 16 and now claim no religious identification. Only 6% of high school drop-outs are apostates, while 16% of people with graduate degrees relinquished religious identification. Comparing the distribution of nones and apostates is instructive. Among drop-outs, 56% of non-identifiers are apostates, while among those with graduate degrees 76% of nones were raised in some faith. This very much suggests that education plays a role in apostasy, even though many of the less educated are growing up without a faith commitment.

Burge’s problematic data get the estimates dead wrong: There is a clear, almost linear positive relationship between degree attainment and non-identification with religion.

Looking at the three belief items, the association is even more stark. Nearly a third of people with a graduate degree are non-theists (atheists, agnostics, or people who believe in a “higher power but not a god”) which is more than twice the total found among either high school graduates or drop-outs.

A similar difference is found for belief that the Bible is a book of fables. The least educated reject secular beliefs, while the most educated embrace them. While 34% of those with a graduate education believe the Bible is only a book of fables, only 16% of high school graduates and 14% of dropouts hold this view. Belief that the Bible is the literal word of God follows the opposite trajectory, with 54% of high school dropouts embracing literalism and only 20% of college graduates and 13% of those with graduate degrees. Ideally, one would have longitudinal data (as I did in my YPSPS papers) to show the influence of education more directly, but the association is very clear: higher education is associated with weaker religious beliefs and identifications.

The association is very clear: higher education is associated with weaker religious beliefs and identifications.

One place religious apologists can find solace is in the well-known positive association between social status and religious participation: religious participation is somewhat higher among those with at least some college education when compared to those with only a high school degree or none at all. Much of this is because higher fractions of the less educated don’t participate at all. Among respondents with no high school degree, 28% report never attending religious services, while among respondents with any type of college degree the figure is 20%. The less educated believe but don’t belong, while the more educated belong but don’t believe.

The explanation for this differential relationship between belief and belonging by social status is also well-established in the sociological literature. Religious participation is a social activity that requires time and resources. It grants people myriad social benefits through social capital formation, business networking, and the attainment of status in the community. High school dropouts and those who never went to college are unlikely to find such connections useful, and interactions with people who exceed their social status are unfulfilling and likely negative. The more educated also have more free time and fewer occupational impediments to religious activities. They don’t have to work at Walmart or Popeyes on Sunday. The more educated can afford wardrobes of appropriate attire to convey their status to the rest of the congregation. They are more likely to be married and to have well-behaved children who enjoy interacting with friends in the congregation.

It isn’t “religion” that brings the more educated into religious congregations, it’s the social rewards that religious groups can generate.

The less educated believe but don’t belong, while the more educated belong but don’t believe.

     Social scientific research shows that education undermines religious commitments and that religious commitments also undercut education. Religious fundamentalists and those who identify with sectarian denominations dissuade their children from taking college preparatory coursework in high school and from going to college, and the effect of parental religiosity on children’s educational attainment is particularly negative for women. Young people who embrace fundamentalism and sectarian Protestant identifications are also less likely to attend college and to graduate if they do attend. When sectarians and fundamentalists attend college, they typically attend less prestigious schools and often choose the shelter of fundamentalist colleges which have minimal offerings and questionable curricula. In the end, this results in religious conservatives having less prestigious occupations, attaining lower levels of income, and ultimately accumulating less wealth over the life course.  

Conservative religious commitments also undermine education through the political process, hamstringing education at every level for the entire society. Political movements rooted in sectarian Christianity undermine the teaching of everything from math to science to history. These movements use political power to influence textbooks, curricula, and personnel decisions in public educational institutions, and militate for the funding of religious schools and charter schools to the detriment of secular education. The vast network of conservative Christian alternative educational institutions help facilitate this, with the goal and result that Americans are less educated and less capable of sophisticated thought and scientific understanding.

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Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University. His research focuses on religion and politics, religion and social stratification, and religion and sexuality. His recent articles have been published...