Field of Science

Is education the main reason why some countries are less religious?

There's no shortage of hypotheses for why some countries are religious and others are not. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a different idea - coming up with hypotheses is easy. It's testing them that's the tricky bit!

Part of the problem is that you need a lot of data for a rigorous test, but many of the data we have are not very good. You can, if you look hard enough, pull out huge numbers of different datasets with information that might possibly be relevant, but how do you figure out which ones to choose. Whatever you do is going to be arbitrary.

Claude Braun, a psychologist at Université du Québec à Montréal has approached this problem basically by pulling together a vast mound of information, and then engaging in a kind of statistical fishing expedition to see what bites.

He begins by listing out 16 different explanations that have been put forward to explain variations in religiosity - things like material wealth and security, cultural factors such as freedom and permissiveness, birth rate, gender equality and education.

For each of these, he put together a selection of potentially relevant measures, and then tested to see which, if any, correlated with religion.

He found that almost all the different variables, and hence all the different explanations, correlated in the expected way with national variations in religious fervour. The exceptions were 'prophylaxis' (the idea that religion impedes risky health behaviours) and 'the value of human life' (taking in factors like suicide rates, capital punishment, abortion and murders).

But of course correlations can occur for all sorts of reasons. The question is, which of them really matter? Braun tackled this question in two ways.

Firstly, he used a technique called factor analysis. This picks out variables that tend to vary in unison, and lumps them together in one or more "factors".

Doing this, he found the most important factor, which explained around half the variation of religion around the world, was made up of Global Mortality, Child Mortality, Education, and Purchasing Power. He called this factor "material/intellectual wealth".

The second factor was made up of variables like Religious freedom, Empowerment, Workers rights and Political prisoners. But this factor, which he called "liberty/justice", explained only 15% of religious variations.

The third factor was relatively unimportant (7% of the variation), and was made up of a mixed bag of variables (Inequality of purchasing power 2012, Ratio of men to women, Armed conflict, Religious freedom and Purchasing power). Pretty hard to interpret what that means - probably nothing, in my opinion.

The other technique Braun used was multiple regression. Basically you start with the strongest single correlation, and then keep adding in other variables to see if you can make the correlation stronger (and then check to see if you can take any of the earlier variables out.

Doing this, he found that 70% of the international variation in religion can be explained using just three variables. In order of importance they are: Education, Fertility and Worker rights.

What to make of this?

Well, for a start, this is easily the most comprehensive analysis of possible explanations for global differences in religion that has ever been published. And it shows that education is clearly the single strongest correlate.

This certainly supports the idea that, although things like wealth, security and freedom are relevant, education and intellectual development is the most important factor. That's interesting, because that's a hypothesis that has fallen out of favour in recent years.

I do have some niggles with this analysis. The idea that fertility "causes" religion in the same way that education "causes" non-belief is a bit silly. So including it in the analysis could be obscuring things a little. A few of the other explanations Braun includes suffer from the same confusion.

Then too this is, at the end of the day, a fishing exercise. You will always find one variable that is more strongly correlated than others with the topic of interest, but you can never really be sure why that is (perhaps it's just that education is a better measure of material security than things like average wealth, or social spending).

But on the whole this is a really strong analysis, simply by virtue of the fact that it is so comprehensive and methodical.

So the observation that education is such a potent predictor of international differences in religion has surely got to give even the most opinionated internet pundit pause for thought!
Claude M.J. Braun (2012). Explaining Global Secularity: Existential Security or Education? Secularism & Nonreligion, 1 (14)

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


  1. Well, I don't have a complete answer... but that education and religion are not the best friends is obvious!

  2. Haven't read the paper yet, but I can't help wondering about the direction of causality here. Are less religious nations more educated, or are more educated nations less religious?

    Also, how does this result related to the one you reported earlier this year:, that the relationship between education and religion changes between nations?

  3. "70% of the international variation in religion can be explained using just three variables. In order of importance they are: Education, Fertility and Worker rights."

    He is wrong. He is looking at exactly one variable but he's unable to see it. The variable is something like this: "the percentage of the country resorces that are used to the benefit of the commoners". For two countries with the same amount of resources p/c, the higher the share the less religious are the people.

  4. After reading Prof. Braun's paper, my only doubt is: if in Quebec there are 83% of Catholics and 5,6% of 'no religion', why in the on line dating site analized in his book (Braun 2011) he found 177,172 Catholics and 32,704 atheists? what is the reason for this over-representation of atheists?

    OK, this also to say that I would have preferred, as more interesting and significant, an analysis of the different regions of Canada rather than a study of all the countries of the world.

  5. Mauro, well you would think so, but a lot of well-educated people are quite religious. Often they believe in quite a different god (a remote, impersonal one) but they are still religious.

    Josh - I don't know, although from a historical perspective what came first is education. I do think that education is a marker for something bigger - self-empowerment, maybe.

    I think these results are compatible with the earlier ones. Education, IQ and other measures of intellectual development are really difficult to separate. The earlier study suggested that the benefit of eduction/IQ gets saturated at a certain point. That's probably the case - although you would still find a relationship in a linear model like the one used in the current study.

  6. Neither 'education' nor 'religion' are sufficiently well-defined in these studies to elevate them above the level of JUNK social studies.

  7. @1stAnonymous: If that were so, religiosity in the West should be going up, not down.

  8. This result confirms the obvious. The more intelligent a person is, the less likely one is to be attracted to the absurdities of religious dogma. I friend of mine who once was a Jehovah’s Witness mentioned that the instant he started THINKING, his whole edifice of dogma collapsed.

  9. I can't say I'm surprised at how many people here denigrate the intelligence of others and laud themselves as so well educated. It is obvious the only correlation in this study with the findings is that industrialized 'well educated' countries demonize and purposely distort the truth of the Bible and Gospel and so there is a disconnect in religiosity in western countries.

    The study is clearly flawed because it doesn't analyze the education of members who are religious, versus people who are not religious, where you would find a fairly even split because there is actually no correlation.

    So much for you people and your supposed science, not one of you is a critical thinker.


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