Why Do We Believe That Higher Education Leads to Atheism If It Doesn’t?

Undoubtedly, educational attainment is closely associated with intelligence. So any link between intelligence and atheism seems persuasive. A majority of Nobel Prize winners in science have been atheists, but they are a small and unrepresentative sample. College faculty members are much more likely to self-identify as atheists than average Americans are. Daniel Dennett calls his followers, many of whom are atheists, “Brights,” and a much publicized 2010 paper by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa also claimed to show that atheists were smarter than believers.

As regards atheism, one mistake often made, even by many experts, is a failure to differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion. Certainly, higher education since the days of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment has encouraged critical thinking, skepticism, empiricism, and free inquiry, all of which are often seen as inimical to supernaturalism and traditional religious beliefs. But you could argue that these values do not necessarily encourage atheism per se, but rather its closely associated philosophical or theological position: agnosticism.

There’s also a historical or cultural lag explanation as to why people get it wrong about the well-educated in the contemporary United States. Most people still think of higher education in terms of an elite liberal-arts education that stresses Enlightenment values. But in recent decades, the recruitment pattern into higher and post-graduate education has changed in terms of disciplines as an ever greater proportion of the population has received a bachelor’s degree (now approaching one-third of young adults). The newer cohorts of the credentialed are more female and more Southern—traditionally groups with more theistic beliefs—and often received very little exposure to the natural sciences and philosophy. As a result, today’s well-educated Americans are more religiously diverse than in the past. Statistically, these processes inevitably involve a regression to the mean of American religious conviction, which reflects the majority belief in a “personal God” (73 percent according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008).

Barry Kosmin is a research professor in the Public Policy and Law Program and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College.

Category: Q&A


9 Responses

  1. Tom Rees says:

    Your data show that, even in 2008 (when ‘elite’ is not as elite as it used to be) the prevalence of non-belief is about 50% higher among the educated than non-educated.

    e.g. atheist/agnostic 2.4% elite, 1.6% “USA” (presumably excludes elite. If not then the difference in favour of elite is even greater).

    Similarly: secular 15% vs 10%, disagree strongly/somewhat that God exists: 7% vs 4%

    The only wrinkle is the “Do you believe in god, where the elites are less likely to say yes but much more likely to say there’s no way to know. Surely this just reflects and intellectual nuancing. People who say that “there is no way to know” are atheists in every practical sense.

  2. Tom Rees says:

    Barry, you might also be interested in the “Monitoring the Future” study, which looked longitudinally at changes in religiosity in college years. They found a mixed picture – for some disciplines it goes up, for others it goes down. As you suggest, it seems that be exposure to the Humanities is critically important. I posted some data from that study here: http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2010/05/studying-science-doesnt-make-you.html

  3. Bill says:

    Discussing the demographics of religion among college graduates, the author states,

    “The newer cohorts of [bachelor’s degree recipients] are … groups with more theistic beliefs — and often received very little exposure to the natural sciences and philosophy. As a result, today’s well-educated Americans are more religiously diverse than in the past.”

    To condense that: It used to be that people bright enough to graduate college were more likely to be non-religious. But we made it easier to graduate (by reducing the amount of science and philosophy in the curriculum). This is makes it possible for more religious people to earn degrees.

    Not only did the author fail to dissociate theism from ignorance, he actually managed to strengthen that link. It almost sounds like some kind of affirmative action program. “Our colleges don’t give enough degrees to ignorant people, so let’s modify the curriculum until the average college grad is just as ignorant as the average non-grad.”

  4. slow17motion says:

    You cannot divorce “atheism” from “disbelief.” Atheists do not all contend to KNOW that there is no “god.” All that is required to be an atheist is a LACK OF BELIEF IN GOD.

    Also, “agnostic” and “atheist” are not mutually exclusive terms. “Agnostic” describes what can be known. “Atheism” describes what one believes. Hence the existence of “agnostic atheists.”

    Perhaps you should educate yourself a bit more on the topic at hand before writing another article.

  5. Greg says:

    You may have spotted slow17motion try to defend atheism via the “lack of belief” line of thinking. What a logical buffoon.

    I am an atheist and I take offence at such stupidity. First off a lack of belief does not exist, there is no such thing. As well saying Jim lacks belief does not talk about Jim or atheists when used that way.

    Atheism is the disbelief that a god exists and disbelief is itself the belief that a proposition is false. True what they said, atheists do not claim to know there is no god, they believe there is no god.

    To answer the question this article poses, the reason we relate atheism with higher education is that so many poorly educated people believe in a god and so many of the beliefs that religions hold to violate known reality of studies in higher learning…. from logic to ethics.

  6. slow17motion says:

    “A lack of belief does not exist.”

    Wow, are you mentally handicapped?

    Are you are implying that we must believe in EVERYTHING? You’d have more faith or belief than anything else. If you suspect someone is lying, but don’t know for sure–you LACK belief in what they are saying. You don’t automatically just call them a LIAR.

    Also, the line between the word disbelief and the expression “lack of belief” is incredibly thin. It appears that you are arguing that atheists actively disbelieve in any god/s. That is simply untrue. You want to subscribe to the least inclusive definition of atheism–which also happens to be an incorrect one.

    Theisic means a belief in god/s. Atheistic is a LACK OF belief in god/s–and does not require one to commit to the statment, “I believe, without any reservation, there are no god/s or higher powers.”

    This isn’t something that is debatable, and if you don’t like this definition find a new one. Some people have classified atheists as well (which is not helpful at all imho).

    Besides, if what you were saying were true then there would be no such thing as agnostic atheists. Yet–they exist!

    Defining atheists in this manner is often an attempt by Christians to shift the burden of proof and demonstrate that atheism is an actual BELIEF. IT IS NOT. Atheism describes no beliefs whatsoever. And the only reason people resist the term atheist and prefer something else ludacris like “non-believer” is because of the social stigma that is attached to the word.

  7. slow17motion says:

    You should go to youtube and watch sisyphusredeemed’s channel. He actually addresses this issue.

    To say that one must either believe in god or believe there is no god is ridiculous. Not believing in god, while not making the claim that there is no god does not make you an agnostic (because agnosticism is a claim about what can and can’t be known). The only term left to describe this is “atheist.”

  8. @slow17motion

    You are completely correct, this guy doesn’t even understand basic epistemology. Signed, a Philosophy major with honours.

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