Field of Science

Science education inoculates against religion

At the back end of 2007, I wrote that science education doesn't inoculate against religion. But the time has come to indulge in a bit of revisionism.

Here's why. Darren Sherkat (who has a paper out on religious fundamentalism and verbal ability that I covered in the previous post) has also taken a look at the link with scientific knowledge. The paper isn't published yet, but he sent me the manuscript - and he's also blogged it, if you want the 'horse's mouth' version!

As before, this is an analysis of the US General Social Survey, which includes a set of 13 questions on general science topics. As you can see in the graph, people who think the Bible is a book of fables scored nearly 40% higher that those who think it is the literal word of God.

You get a similar result for people who are members of Conservative Protestant sects. What's more, it persists even after controlling for other factors that might explain the difference - like age, education, income, race, immigrant status and region.

It seems that there is something about conservative Christianity in the US that works directly against science skills. In part, this might be down to the nature of the questions.

Sherkat omitted from the analysis the question about evolution, but there are also questions about continental drift and also the Big Bang. A Young Earth Creationist, might give the wrong answer to these even though they had been taught the correct answer.

So why did I previously suggest no link between science proficiency and religiosity? Well, I looked at international student scores on science collected by PISA, and correlated these with data on how often people in those countries prayed. I didn't find any link.

But Sherkat's work suggests that the link is strongest with people who have a rather extreme attachment to their religion. So I went back and redid the analysis, using the latest religious data from the World Values Survey.

This time I looked at people who rated themselves '10' on a 10-point scale asking how important God is in their life. This is a question that really picks out the very devout.

It turns out that countries with a lot of these really devout people do very poorly at educating their children about science.

In a way that's not too surprising, because these countries also tend to be poorer and less well educated in general.

But PISA also provide data adjusted for socioeconomic differences between the countries. So this score reflects how effective countries are at educating their children on science, after taking into account their different circumstances.

The data are only available for OECD countries, but that's good because these countries are broadly similar to start with. Unfortunately, the WVS didn't collect religious data from all OECD countries, which makes the sample even smaller. But even so...

The remarkable fact is that even within this small, relatively homogenous, pool of countries there's still a significant correlation.

Although this is an ecological study (it didn't look at individual data, like Sherkat's can do with the GSS data), it does support his findings.

Either highly religious people shield their children from science, or good science education shifts people from being highly religious to a more moderate stance (or perhaps both, of course).

Either way, I'm going to have to revise my previous belief that science education and religion aren't linked!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I would like to see the '13 questions on general science topics.'
    The reason is that I have found that in terms of science it is important to know what science is being considered. Most people with a type of religious delusion will not take the effort to learn about various sciences because the science has no personal relevance to them. Evolution - can't see it being done-probably not true and who cares.
    Geology - who cares about rocks???
    Astronomy - not real, big numbers that can't be visualized, and doesn't put food on the table, will never go there. And on and on.
    Studying them to learn starts to crack the delusion of good-evil-life after death-have to think about headache causing stuff, so they stay inside their comfortable delusion and will not let anything in to disturb it.

  2. My personal impression is that there is an anticorrelation between religiosity on the one hand and, on the other, science knowledge, education level and intelligence, but that the anticorrelation is fairly weak. Do you think that these results bear out this general impression. It would make sense that the anticorrelation would be strongest in the case of the most religious.

  3. The thirteen questions used in my study are basic questions on scientific literacy. I omitted evolution because of its politicization in the United States, and claims by conservative Christian "scholars" in the US that anti-science orientations among fundamentalist and sectarian Christians (correlated traits, each of which afflict about one-third of the US population) are only about evolution or moral issues like stem-cell research. The gap in scientific literacy between religious folks and other is quite substantial--comparable to the racial gap between African Americans and whites. On Tom's point (thanks for the great overview!), I'm more in the religion prevents science education camp, though I also think science will shift religious beliefs and attachments away from fundamentalism. Anyone who wants a copy of the paper is free to find me (not hard to do) and I'll send you a copy.

  4. Konrad, I suspect what we're seeing here is a specific anti-science effect, rather than a more general anti-intelligencia problem. Darren's analysis adjusts for education and also for other factors that can act as proxy markers of IQ (age, sex, race).

    My guess as to what's going on here is that conservative religious are particularly suspicious of science, because elements of it conflicts with their doctrines. But it's that conflict that can also draw people away from conservative religions.

    When a child is taught something in their science class that conflicts with what their preacher is telling them, they have to chose which authority figure they are going to align with. If they choose the preacher, then the authority of their teacher is undermined - and with it their chances of getting a good science education.

  5. Religion is in essence anti-scientific ( and the other way around too).
    Why would it surprise anyone that adhering to one makes one less proheficient to the other is beyond me ...

  6. Tom,

    I think you're missing the bigger story, which is the strong negative correlation between scientific achievement and religiosity.

    The higher you go in science, the less likely you are to be religious.

    Science professors are more likely to be irreligious than other professors, scientists at first-rate schools are more likely to be irreligious than other scientists, and top scientists like NAS and Royal Society members are overwhelmingly irreligious.

    Ecklund and Scheitle (of RAAS study fame) like to make it sound like the best predictor of religiosity among scientists is how religiously they were raised. Of the factors that they explicitly compare, that's true, but their own data show a much more important effect that they don't want to talk about. (They're funded by Templeton.)

    Science itself is a better predictor of irreligiosity than any of the factors they consider.

    Most U.SU. scientists were raised religious, and end up nonreligious, and the higher they get in science the less likely they are to be religious. (And if they are religious, the less likely the are to be orthodox about it.)

    Given how few notheists there are in the general population, it's pretty striking how the situation is reversed in the upper range of science. Nontheists are about many, many times more likely to be top scientists than theists.

    That's a huge effect, far bigger than things like race, income and religiousity of household of origin.

    You may be interested in some of my comments about this in an old thread at Gene Expression:

    -- Paul W.

  7. Paul, true enough. Top scientists are rarely religious. Of course, there may be cultural factors at work here (non-religious people may feel alienated, and so it might not be individuals getting less religious, but religious people not getting into the higher echelons).

    But I agree with the wider point, that religion and science do seem to be broadly incompatible world views. Problem is proving it!

  8. There are a few major flaws in this. I consider myself a highly religious person, but I find science to be quite exciting as well.

    First, I'd like to say that there are many more less religious countries who took this "test" than there are non religious. Making the graph unfair. There's no even data. You can't compare 10 students with 2, if one does fair and the other poor, their average is going to end up lower than 10 kids where 3 did poorly, 5 did fair, and 2 did well.

    Also, in the second graph, the scale changed dramatically, and the results contradict each other. In the 80-100s on the first, there are no results in the 450-500s, but on the second, they are all between. (the two countries, supposedly) Maybe it's because of the adjustment, but the change in scale suggests the need to point out the difference in the results. Bias.

    It's my personal experience that more religious people do better, because they have a drive to do well in life. Yes, there are those idiotic religious people that are blind to science, but there are plenty of bums who are not religious at all and don't try at all because they have hardened hearts, they are merely shells of humans who do not care. And therefore do not search for a better meaning of ANYTHING.

    I just don't know. It's odd the graphs are the same format, when they're supposedly from two groups. I just smell something bad with this entire thing. Maybe it's because I consider myself to be a highly religious and intelligent person, and have many friends who are both religious and intelligent.

    Hm. Well I have to say, I believe in both evolution and creation, if you would like to discuss this with me, email me at or add my msn, (Don't ask.)

  9. Hi Samantha, while there are fewer countries with very high level of highly religious, that doesn't result in systematic bias. It could be that we got unlucky with the sample and happened to get religious countries that scored badly (while the ones that weren't in did well). But that's stats for you! You have to hope your sample is representative.

    The odds of getting a result like this by chance are pretty small. But possible, of course.

    The second graph is adjusted for socioeconomic status, which explains why the range is smaller. The gap in the level of science education is partly explained by socioeconomic status (religious countries are poorer, and that helps explain why their science scores are worse). Adjust for that, and the gap gets smaller.

    But it's still there. That's the point.

    As for whether religious people can be scientifically minded. Well of course they can. And remember that in my earlier analysis I found no relationship between religion in general and science scores.

    The difference is that this one focusses only on people who are highly religious (e.g. the evangelicals). It's here that you find a negative relationship with science skills.

  10. It's my personal experience that more religious people do better, because they have a drive to do well in life

    Excuse me? I don't have a drive to do well in life?

    I realize you are just trying to ask questions, and that's great... but you need to check yourself a bit on opinions like these. It is no more fair for you to assume that atheists have no drive to do well in life (which is highly contradicted by data, BTW) than it is for someone to assert that all religious people are dumb Creationists.

    I'm not even going to touch the "merely shells" comment. Watch the bigotry, Samantha.

  11. I meant for myself, on the average. I'm sorry if this offended you, in the same way I was offended by the post to begin with. I understand that many atheists have drives, physical drives for an achievement, acceptance, popularity, etc.

    Also, in the "shells" remark, I am not referring that to atheists as a whole, rather the idiots I find at my school that sit and talk shit about religion while just getting by, or even the ones who drop out, ignoring the success they could receive by actually trying.

    Hopefully you don't find what I said offensive, but for any offense that was taken, I will admit that I do find myself a tad judgmental at times, it goes along with being a teenager. I'm truly sorry, though I don't think I'm a bigot, I change my views constantly because of what others share with me, and if you have your own views to share with me, my email was provided. I love people's opinions, I do not shut them down if I don't agree, just add my own two cents.


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