This is the second installment of my five part series on what we know (and don’t know) about intelligence and religion. Inspired by questions about and challenges to a video I was in, particularly questions about my statement that the religious are not more or less intelligent than the non-religious. In part one, I introduced the series by briefly discussing some of the very diverse areas of one’s life that are impacted by your religious belief system.
This post will review what we know, scientifically, about the relationship between religious beliefs and education. As a person’s level of educational attainment is generally related to his or her intellectual ability, this is an area of research relevant to the central question of this series – are non-theists smarter than theists? There have been several studies correlating educational and religious variables that we can examine. In particular, the variable of religious fundamentalism appears to have a major influence on educational attainment.
Loury (2004) evaluated the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY) in an attempt to demonstrate that higher levels of church attendance were correlated with higher educational attainment. She analyzed the responses of 2,748 white Catholics and Protestants who were surveyed as teenagers and then again during their late twenties to early thirties. When all social and educational aspiration factors were accounted for, each week of church attendance per year during adolescence amounted to a 0.01 year increase in educational attainment. This translates to roughly a one-semester difference between those students who never attended church and those who attended at least once a week. These findings are similar to the earlier findings of Argyle (1958), whose analysis of the 1954 Gallup Poll showed that 51% of people who had completed college attended church weekly, compared to 47% and 43% of those who had completed high school and grade school, respectively.
In contrast, Hunsberger (1978) evaluated the findings of both a cross-sectional and a longitudinal study of Canadian college students, and found a consistent decline in frequency of church attendance as level of education increased. It is important to note that frequency of attendance, however, is a poor predictor of religious beliefs (Village, 2005) and thus cannot be equated with actual religious belief, especially in adolescence as children are often still under the direction of their parents.
This difference (actions versus beliefs) is important, as several studies have shown that people who have attended college are more liberal in their religious beliefs than those who have not. Symington (1935) authored one of the earliest of these studies. He surveyed 612 students, from high school seniors to graduate students, and found that those who were farther along in school held more liberal religious beliefs. In another early study, Jones (1938a, 1938b) followed a group of 77 students over a period of four years. He found that their religious beliefs became slightly but significantly more liberal as they gained more education. A study three decades later also found that students’ religious beliefs became slightly more liberal during their time in college (Young, 1966). Similarly, higher parental education appears to lead to less religious children. Hadden (1963) showed that people who had liberal religious beliefs were significantly more likely than those who held fundamental religious beliefs to have a father who had gone to college, stating that “higher education of the father is associated with the secularization of the child” (p. 214).
The relationship between education and religious fundamentalism in white Protestants was evaluated using responses from Middletown, IN, households (Burton, Johnson, & Tamney, 1989). Participants were contacted via telephone using computer generated random-digit dialing to allow for inclusion of people with unlisted phone numbers. A total of 281 responses were used in the analysis. Participants who completed four years of high school or less were placed in the “low education” group (n = 145), and those with one or more years of college made up the “high education” group (n = 123). Fundamentalism was measured in this study using a scale containing four questions, all of which were significantly correlated (albeit with a weak Cronbach’s ? of .22 to .39). Possible scores ranged from 4 to 20, with higher scores indicating higher levels of fundamentalism. One of the fundamentalism scale questions concerning scriptural literalism was followed by an inquiry as to whether the respondent was raised to believe in such a way. This allowed researchers to further divide the sample into four groups based on whether they were fundamentalists or non-fundamentalists and whether they were socialized into or converted to that belief system.
The data showed a negative correlation of -.22 (p < .001) between education and fundamentalism. The mean education level for those belonging to the socialized fundamentalist group was significantly lower than that of participants in the other three groups (converted fundamentalist, socialized non-fundamentalist, and converted non-fundamentalist). Also, the mean education level for all participants raised fundamentalist, regardless of current fundamentalist status, was significantly lower than those raised as non-fundamentalist. Based on these findings, Burton, Johnson, and Tamney (1989) concluded that fundamentalist upbringing has a negative impact on an individual’s educational attainment. A later study by Altemeyer and Hunsberger (1992), using a fundamentalism scale applicable to a broader group than simply Christians, also found a significant negative relationship between subscription to religious fundamentalism and level of education.
Darnell and Sherkat (1997) examined the discouragement of educational pursuit by fundamentalist Protestants. To do so, they analyzed survey data from the Youth Parent Socialization Panel Study (YPSPS), which followed 1,135 students from high school through their mid-30s. Students’ final educational attainment (level of education when surveyed in their mid-30s) was classified into completion of high school (22.7% of the sample), some college (41%), college (24.4%), or graduate degree (11.9%). Those who did not complete high school were omitted from the study. Students and parents were identified as conservative Protestants based on the fundamentalist orientation of their self-reported denominational affiliations and a question about their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. A variety of other factors were assessed, including high school GPA, college preparation, educational intentions, parental education and income, and other demographic factors.
Even after controlling for social factors that influence educational attainment, such as parents’ education level, household income, and race, differences in the means among the education variables showed, once again, that the negative impact of being a conservative Protestant or Biblical inerrantist on educational attainment is significant (Darnell & Sherkat, 1997). Conservative Protestants had lower educational aspirations than other respondents. Both conservative Protestants and Biblical inerrantists were less likely than others to have taken college preparatory classes in high school, and they had lower levels of education when surveyed as adults. Further analyses showed that conservative Protestants were significantly more likely than others to hold Biblical inerrancy beliefs. Parents who indicated conservative or inerrant beliefs had significant positive correlations with their children’s religious beliefs. Students who held inerrant beliefs had significantly lower education variable scores, indicating that parents’ religious beliefs are an indirect, negative influence on the educational attainment of their children. Level of education has since been shown to be negatively correlated with belief in Biblical inerrancy in other studies as well (e.g., Village, 2005).
Further analysis of the YPSPS study was undertaken to clarify conservative and inerrantist parents’ negative effect on their children’s education (Sherkat & Darnell, 1999). They hypothesized that a Protestant fundamentalist orientation in parents would negatively impact daughters’ educational pursuits more than sons’, and fundamentalist children’s more than non-fundamentalist children’s. Fundamentalism of participants and their parents was measured based on the strength of respondents’ belief in Biblical inerrancy. Enrollment in college preparatory classes was also evaluated because it predicted educational attainment more strongly than any other variable in the data set. Sherkat and Darnell (1999) found that for children of fundamentalist parents, fundamentalist children were significantly less likely than non-fundamentalist children to enroll in college preparatory courses. Female children of fundamentalist parents were significantly less likely than male children to enroll in such courses. Moreover, being a female non-fundamentalist child of fundamentalist parents lowered a child’s odds of taking college preparatory classes by 63%.
Educational attainment data showed similar trends (Sherkat & Darnell, 1999). Fundamentalist parents significantly reduce their non-fundamentalist daughters’ educational attainment but not their fundamentalist daughters’. Interestingly, being the fundamentalist son of fundamentalist parents significantly increases a student’s educational attainment. As such, having fundamentalist parents has differing impacts on children, depending on gender and religious beliefs of the child. According to the results of this study, the most educationally disadvantaged child appears to be the non-fundamentalist daughter of fundamentalist parents.
Beyerlein (2004) used data from the 2000 General Social Survey (GSS) to evaluate the relationship between conservative Protestantism and educational attainment. The goal was to provide a clearer assessment of the relationship between Protestantism and educational attainment than previous studies (i.e., Darnell & Sherkat, 1997) by further dividing the Protestant group. Unlike other studies that lump all conservative Protestant religions into one category, this study grouped participants based on their self-placement into the following Protestant categories: fundamentalist, Pentecostal, mainline, liberal, and evangelical. The responses of 2,758 adults to questions concerning religious self-identification, education, socioeconomic information, and demographics were used in this study. Beyerlein (2004) placed respondents into one of two dependent variable groups based on educational attainment, those who had earned a four-year college degree and those who had not. Religious variable groupings were as follows: Pentecostal Protestant, fundamentalist Protestant, evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, liberal Protestant, other Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and non-religious.
A logistic regression was used to predict the likelihood of earning a four-year or higher degree as a function of religious affiliation (Beyerlein, 2004). Background and demographic information was included in the model to improve its fit. Using evangelical Protestants as the reference category, Pentecostal Protestants were 5.1 times less likely and fundamentalist Protestants were 2.3 times less likely to earn college degrees. Catholic and non-religious respondents were 2.6 and 1.7 times less likely, respectively, to earn a four-year degree. Jewish people were 1.6 times more likely to earn a college degree, and those classified as other Protestant were 2.7 times less likely to complete college. “Other Protestant” was not a homogenous group though because it was simply composed of the more than 35% of Protestant respondents who did not choose a specific affiliation. Mainline and liberal Protestants did not show a significant difference from evangelicals in likelihood of obtaining a four-year degree. Beyerlein (2004) theorized that Pentecostal and fundamentalist Protestants were less likely to get a college degree because of the “cultural tradition of defensive separatism” (p. 514) present in these religions, but not found in evangelical Protestantism.
Summary / TL;DR
As detailed above, early studies analyzing religious belief and educational attainment showed that greater church attendance often correlates with obtaining a slightly higher level of education, although later studies found the opposite. When religious devotees are identified as fundamentalist or liberal, however, amount of church attendance becomes less significant and level of fundamentalism becomes the major determinant of educational attainment. Commitment to religious fundamentalism and attainment of higher education appear to be almost mutually exclusive. Fundamentalists are less likely to enroll in college preparatory classes than are their liberal counterparts, and they typically terminate their educational pursuits at a lower level. In addition, religious beliefs tend to become slightly more liberal during college. The literature appears to support the idea that people who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs are at an educational disadvantage.
But, what does this mean about overall intelligence? As we will see in the next few posts, this relationship is much less clear-cut. My next post will focus on the relationship between religious beliefs of scientists, who would be generally assumed to be highly intelligent. Follow-ups will examine the relationship between directly measured intelligence and religous beliefs, as well as a summary of the total literature and a map for where to go next.
(Many thanks to Julie White for allow the adaptation of her thesis – which I supervised – into this series. For a list of cited works, please contact me.)