The Myth of Atheism and Higher Education

One meme that frequently makes the rounds on New Atheist blogs is the supposed connection between atheism and educational attainment. So the story goes, the more education one has, the more likely one is to be an atheist. They point to the number of scientists that are atheists and the fact that more developed countries tend to be more secular. They rely heavily on polls and vague correlations in advancing this argument. Of course, they ignore the religious history of such countries and the educational institutions in which those scientists reside, but New Atheists aren’t ones to let facts stand in the way of a good meme.

More thoughtful and objective observers though find much to question about such claims. Obviously, some of the most intelligent countries in the world have some of the most religious populations (US and Italy come to mind) and some of the most atheistic ones (like Estonia and Latvia) have measurably lower IQs than the more religious countries like Poland and South Korea. So there is much for the truly skeptical observer to question about the blind assertions of New Atheists; and a recent study makes their claims even less tenable.

Indeed in a recent study sociologist Phillip Schwadel found that contrary such claims by the New Atheists, the more education one has in the US, the more religious one becomes. Utilizing the General Social Survey, which has been collecting data reglarly since 1972. His found that with each additional year of education:

– The likelihood of attending religious services increased 15%.

– The likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9%.

– The likelihood of switching to a mainline Protestant denomination – Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian USA or United Methodist – increased by 13%.

Now the most conservative Christians won’t find much here to crow about either. In fact, it seems to affirm the belief many have that Christians often trade the power of their faith for the form of it; that is over time people tend to become institutional or nominal Christians rather than devoted ones. Nonetheless, as Schwadel puts it, it tells us something about the importance of religious belief amongst all demographics:

“What it all says to me is that religion matters to people of all education levels in the United States,” he said. “It’s just that, depending on your level of education, you behave and believe differently.”

And it also tells us a bit about how this myth has developed in the atheist community:

Academics are at least moderately less religious than the general public, Schwadel said.

“When we see these trends, we tend to exaggerate them,” he said. “Most people see a trend and they think everyone’s like that.”

As one who has many conversations about the growth of atheism with New Atheists, I have frequently seen this tendency at play. The slightest correlation, however isolated and recent, is seen as ‘proof’ that atheism will inevitably dominate our culture. And all evidence to the contrary, like the consistent correlation between secularization of a country and its decreased replacement rate, and the explosive growth of Christianity around the world, is summarily dismissed. This tendency to exagerrate is certainly understandable, considering that atheists continue to be (as they have always been) a very tiny group when one considers larger demographics in the world. 

And of course this is but one piece of a larger puzzle. The reality is is the growth of religious belief, especially Christianity, has always waxed and waned in it’s influence. This is  especially true in the US. I am old enough to remember when there was no such thing as the ‘religious right’, when Christian music was mostly represented by hymns and listened to by only the most devout. No one would have imagined that their would be an entire industry devoted to Christian artists of all genres, much less that many of these artists would produce mainstream music. And I never met a person who homeschooled their children until I was well into my twenties – in fact you could be arrested for doing so in my home state until the late eighties.

So from my perspective (which I would offer is more informed by historic knowledge and experience than many twenty-something atheists that dominate the New Atheist movement) Christianity has experienced tremendous growth and influence in the last few decades, even if fewer people call themselves Christians.

3 Responses to The Myth of Atheism and Higher Education

  1. […] but it may lead to more nominal faith instead of authentic faith.  See via The Myth of Atheism and Higher Education « Wide as the Waters. One meme that frequently makes the rounds on New Atheist blogs is the supposed connection between […]

  2. Atheist says:

    I stopped reading after you said the US was highly educated

  3. jackhudson says:

    You know, if the results of the most recent election are any indicator, you may have a point.

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