JUST one extra year of schooling makes someone 10% less likely to attend a church, mosque or temple, pray alone or describe himself as religious, concludes a paper published on October 6th that looks at the relationship between religiosity and the length of time spent in school. It uses changes in the compulsory school-leaving age in 11 European countries between 1960 and 1985 to tease out the impact of time spent in school on belief and practice among respondents to the European Social Survey, a long-running research project.
By comparing people of similar backgrounds who were among the first to stay on longer, the authors could be reasonably certain that the extra schooling actually caused religiosity to fall, rather than merely being correlated with the decline. During those extra years mathematics and science classes typically become more rigorous, points out Naci Mocan, one of the authors—and increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe.The full text of the paper is now available online. Drawing upon the literature review in that study, the Economist also nicely summarized other studies:
Another paper, published earlier this year, showed that after Turkey increased compulsory schooling from five years to eight in 1997, women’s propensity to identify themselves as religious, cover their heads or vote for an Islamic party fell by 30-50%. (No effect was found, however, among Turkish men.) And a study published in 2011 that looked at the rise in the school-leaving age in Canadian provinces in the 1950s and 1960s found that each extra year of schooling led to a decline of four percentage points in the likelihood of identifying with a religious tradition. Longer schooling, it reckoned, explains most of the increase in non-affiliation to any religion in Canada between 1971 and 2001, from 4% of the population to 16%.As I have often argued, it is not religion per se that matters when it comes to extreme beliefs and actions--it is religiosity. Even an additional year of education can reduce superstition and make a person less intensely religious. That doesn't mean they become atheists--just more intelligent consumers of religion. That kind of critical thinking is really what we need in this world.