Barry Kosmin, whose American Religious Identification Survey is one the basic datasets for anyone trying to understand religion in America, isn’t convinced higher education causes people to become atheists:
Undoubtedly, educational attainment is closely associated with intelligence. So any link between intelligence and atheism seems persuasive. …
As regards atheism, one mistake often made, even by many experts, is a failure to differentiate atheism from disbelief and indifference to religion. Certainly, higher education since the days of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment has encouraged critical thinking, skepticism, empiricism, and free inquiry, all of which are often seen as inimical to supernaturalism and traditional religious beliefs. But you could argue that these values do not necessarily encourage atheism per se, but rather its closely associated philosophical or theological position: agnosticism.
I tend to think that’s true, and would go farther. I’d say that, all else being equal, this sort of background will lead to an indifference towards theistic claims. Of course, that also happens to be my own position, so maybe I just assuming that I’m normal – a dubious assumption! But Kosmin’s distinction is important. For all the talk that happens about the high rates of atheism in Europe (a theme of various gnu writers, and a common counter to the “religion is inevitable, so let’s just work with it” position that accommodationists sometimes adopt), I would guess that Europe’s low rate of church membership is less a matter of principled atheism and more an indifference to religion, theological claims, etc.
That apathy towards theistic claims is probably also pretty common among Jews and Catholics, and probably in plenty of other mainline Protestant groups. People go to church, or affiliate themselves with a particular church group, for lots of reasons, many of which have little to do with theology. My guess, and I haven’t tried to parse this out using survey data yet, is that you’d find that many American theists are apathistic theists. I’d also argue that getting into arguments with such people about theism specifically will only tend to accentuate their theism (cognitive research shows this to be a common reaction to having your beliefs challenged), and will make theism seem more salient, thus reducing their apathy.
Returning to Kosmin’s essay, I’d add that what I think tends to move people out of an apathistic agnosticism and into outright atheism is a reaction against religious douchebaggery. The attacks of September 11, 2001, did that for several of the New/gnu/extreme/affirmative atheists, as does the wingnuttery of fundamentalists and the radical religious right. Again, I’m still poking around for data that would test this claim, and welcome suggestions.
Kosmin continues by noting some confounding factors in the correlation between educational attainment and atheism:
There’s also a historical or cultural lag explanation as to why people get it wrong about the well-educated in the contemporary United States. Most people still think of higher education in terms of an elite liberal-arts education that stresses Enlightenment values. But in recent decades, the recruitment pattern into higher and post-graduate education has changed in terms of disciplines as an ever greater proportion of the population has received a bachelor’s degree (now approaching one-third of young adults). The newer cohorts of the credentialed are more female and more Southern—traditionally groups with more theistic beliefs—and often received very little exposure to the natural sciences and philosophy. As a result, today’s well-educated Americans are more religiously diverse than in the past. Statistically, these processes inevitably involve a regression to the mean of American religious conviction, which reflects the majority belief in a “personal God” (73 percent according to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008).
In the comments, the incomparable Tom Rees points out research from last year which found that training in the natural sciences is less corrosive to religious belief or practice than training in the humanities or the social sciences. Biology, engineering, and physical science/math majors tended to have lower rates of theistic belief than a comparable cohort that didn’t go to college, but tended to attend church more often. Humanities majors and social science majors tended to decline even further in theistic belief, while also attending church less often. This is a surprising result, as is the study’s authors’ conclusion: “it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity.”
And now, off to examine polling data and edit pictures from last weekend’s wedding.