Here's a conundrum. In the USA, better educated people are more likely to go to church services. Yet, when you look across different religious denominations, those that have a generally better educated membership have the lowest level of attendance.
The reason, according to research by Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Bruce Sacerdote at Dartmouth College, is that education simultaneously drives attendance but lowers the intensity of religious belief (which indirectly lowers attendance).
They used both US and international data to make their point. In Western countries, educated people are more likely to go to Church but, interestingly, the situation is reversed in the former Communist countries. They put this down to the powerful anti-religious component of Communist school curricula.
However, there is an 'impressive negative relationship between education and religious beliefs' (God, Heaven and the Devil) across the international sample. Meanwhile in the US, they estimate that being in the top 5% or so of education will lower your chances of believing in heaven by about 10%.
Then they model how beliefs and education combine to drive attendance and find, not surprisingly, that beliefs are more important. But education is a strong second – about half as powerful as beliefs in explaining religious attendance.
As a result, the direct effect (education increasing attendance) is a little bit stronger than the indirect effect (attendance decreasing beliefs, and so decreasing attendance).
Why does education have this effect? With beliefs, they provide some evidence that the effect probably works both ways – that education reduces beliefs, but also that people with stronger religious beliefs are less likely to get a good education. This would match with earlier research that suggests religious fundamentalists deny educational opportunities to their children.
As far as attendance goes, they show that the link to education is probably they same as the link between education and other kinds of formal social activity. Educated people are conscientious (they stick at education, after all) and school demands the same sorts of skills that are needed for other social activities.
In other words, educated people are more socially engaged. In countries where going to church is the done thing, that's what they do - even though they don't believe what they hear when they get there!
Edward L. Glaeser, & Bruce I. Sacerdote (2008). Education and Religion. Journal of Human Capital, 2 (2), 188-215 DOI: 10.1086/590413
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