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Social science has traditionally considered education and religion to be somewhat opposing forces. As societies become more educated, the reasoning goes, they will become less religious — a phenomenon known as the “secularization hypothesis.”
Recent trends have complicated this understanding, particularly in the United States. Educational attainment has been on a steady rise for decades, but Americans are, by and large, just as religious as ever — if not more so. A 2002 Harvard study of 59 countries found that increased economic development led to increases in some forms of religious behaviors, like overall belief, but declines in things like church attendance. Overall, the evidence on the secularization hypothesis is, at best, mixed.
Now, new research out from economists at Louisiana State University provides new evidence in support of the secularization hypothesis, at least as it pertains to some religious and superstitious behaviors. Not only that, but it also uncovers evidence of a causal link between increased schooling and decreased religiosity.
The study finds that more education, in the form of more years of formal schooling, has “consistently large negative effects” on an individual’s likelihood of attending religious services, as well as their likelihood of praying frequently. More schooling also makes people less likely to harbor superstitious beliefs, like belief in the protective power of lucky charms (rabbit’s feet, four leaf clovers), or a tendency to take horoscopes seriously.
The researchers examined the effects of compulsory schooling reforms undertaken in 11 European countries, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. “While some cohorts of children were impacted by these law changes, those who just missed the age cut-off of the law were exempt from the mandate,” the authors write. And voila: you now have treatment and control groups for a real-world experiment. The authors then looked at how the different cohorts answered survey questions about religiosity and superstition later in life.
They found effects of education on religion and superstition that were significant, and fairly large. One additional year of schooling:
These results were robust to various demographic controls, like employment and marital status.
How do we square these findings with what we see in the U.S., where schooling has grown, but overall religiosity has remained largely unchanged? The first thing I’d note is that what holds true in Europe may not similarly hold true in the U.S., particularly when it comes to religion. Many European countries have much cozier church-state relations than the U.S. — several of the ones included in this study, like Spain, the U.K., and Ireland, have official state religions.
The U.S., by contrast, maintains fairly strict church-state separation, which has led to a more dynamic and competitive religious marketplace. While many Americans express a desire for more religion in their politics, paradoxically the separation of the two is what makes religion such a powerful force in contemporary American society.
This isn’t to say that American religion isn’t changing, however. While belief in God has remained constant over the decades, more and more people are deciding they don’t need a church to worship Him/Her as they see fit. It is possible that as people become more educated they become more skeptical of the external trappings of religious belief – the churchgoing, the rules, and the other features of organized religion. Still, though, education may have less of an impact on humans’ core belief in a higher power.