Every once in a while I either read or hear an atheist tell people, as though to make atheism sound like a more intellectually plausible position, that there is a measurable connection between education and atheism. In short, the message is that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist, or at least the less likely you are to be a religious person of any sort. You may have heard Richard Dawkins say at one of his public speaking events that this is a fact that studies have shown.
Here’s a sample of such publicity that I’ve grabbed at random:
Dawkins also mentions that of 42 studies carried out since 1927, all but four found an inverse connection between religion and intelligence — that is, the higher the intelligence and education, the less likely people are to be religious. Of scientists, a very low percent are religious.
Very often, what a person is confident that “studies show” will depend very much on what a person is looking for in a study, perhaps even on what they want the studies to show. Here’s a good example: In 2007 a study was conducted wherein 728 students from Oxford University were interviewed about their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). 49.6 percent of these students said that they had no religious affiliation, while 57.3 percent of them were prepared to say that they were either “atheist” or “agnostic.” Most polls put only around 5 percent of all Britons in this category.
OK, let’s stop reading the data there. Pretend that’s the whole story. How do you suspect someone like Dawkins will interpret this fact? Why, it naturally reinforces the claim that educated people are more likely to be atheists, and by extension, that atheism gains some credibility from this fact. Right?
When I hear such studies cited, I wonder how much information is being left out, perhaps accidentally, but probably not. For example, I failed to mention in reference to the Oxford students that postgraduate students – those who had successfully completed their undergrad courses and were now pursuing higher degrees – were noticeably more religious than undergrads. Does this mean that atheism is more for people who have just discovered higher education and who prematurely think they know it all, but when they learn a bit more they calm down and reconsider theism? Or perhaps it means atheists are over-represented among those whose results are not good enough to move on to postgraduate study. I have no idea, but for some reason you never hear facts like this cited by the atheists who make the appeal to education.
You likewise don’t hear that it’s not just atheism that shows a correlation with education. For example, a World Values Survey from 2005 showed something interesting:
What is more, the survey shows a far stronger correlation between education and certain “irrational” beliefs: for example, only 29.6 per cent of those without even an elementary education believe in telepathy, compared with 51.8 per cent of people with degree-level education.
To be consistent, what’s good for atheism must surely be good for telepathy.
To be consistent, what’s good for atheism must surely be good for telepathy. Or maybe the truth is that people with a tertiary education are creative enough to come up with defences for strange and perhaps silly beliefs, such as belief in telepathy (or atheism).
Although they don’t state it quite like this, check out the longer piece on this in New Scientist. Also at that page, have a look at the conclusions of David Voas, who notes that the supposed atheism-education connection “has not only weakened but reversed.”
Is this an argument against the truth of atheism? No. It is a response to one type of sociological argument against religious belief. It isn’t even a necessary response, since if there are reasons to believe something, then it makes no difference that educated people have believed otherwise. But it’s a useful response nonetheless.