The effect of education on religion

Voltaire was stinging in his criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He provided his own definition of a Christian as follows: “A good-natured, simple fellow; a true lamb of the fold, who, in the innocence of his heart, persuades himself that he firmly believes unbelievable things that his priests have told him to believe, especially those he cannot even imagine. Consequently, he is convinced that three x’s make fifteen, that God was made man, that he was hanged and rose to life again, that priests cannot lie, and that all who do not believe in priests will be damned without remission.”

Voltaire was being sarcastic when he made the statement that Christians are necessarily ‘good-natured’ because elsewhere he makes clear that he knows that religious people are capable of incredible evil. But he may have genuinely thought that one had to be simple (in the sense of naïve) to believe in god because he viewed the whole concept of god as requiring one to believe preposterous things. As he said: “The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it.”

And to reiterate his view that to adopt religion involved the abandonment of reason, he said: “The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning.” (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764), taken from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations.)

The authors of the current crop of atheist books have attacked religion head-on by showing how untenable the claims of religion are, and how antithetical to rational thought. I have argued before that there are no mitigating benefits for religion that cannot be obtained from other sources. Since people should have the right to believe anything they want, the practical question becomes: What is the best way of making the unappealing aspects of religion better known so that more people will voluntarily relinquish it?

Since the liberal intellectual tradition holds that education leads to critical thinking, the solution is thus seen to lie in more and better education, the idea being that this leads to more reasoning minds, which in turn will lead to greater skepticism towards beliefs that fail the tests of reason and evidence, and hence to the decline of religion.

But this may be too optimistic a view of the power of education. I am not so sanguine that education holds the key. I think Voltaire was wrong in his belief that only the unreasoning could believe in god. As I have repeatedly pointed out, smart people are quite capable of believing weird things and finding reasons to do so, provided the desire to do so is strong enough. So more education will not necessarily lead to less religion. In fact, a longitudinal study of 10,000 adolescents actually found the opposite effect, that those who did not go on to college had greater declines in attending services, in the importance or religion, and in disaffiliation from religion.

This result was not a surprise to me, despite the widespread critiques by some people that universities are liberal hothouses, indoctrinating students away from ‘traditional’ conservative values such as religion. As a teacher of many years, I have found laughably naïve the notion that college teachers have such power over student beliefs.

It is true that students are likely to encounter faculty who are, in general, less religious than the general public. An interesting analysis of religious beliefs in academia finds that “academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are significantly less religious than the general population. Almost 52 percent of scientists surveyed identified themselves as having no current religious affiliation compared with only 14 percent of the general population.”

But this may not be decisive. As I had said earlier, to some extent, the more education one has, the more one is able to find sophisticated reasons to hold on to whatever one wants to believe. As Michael Shermer says in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002, p. 283): “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

What more education (especially in college) does to student beliefs may depend on what the students’ prior inclinations are. For those who arrive already doubting, the discovery in college that they are not alone, that there exist like minded students who share their views, and the general willingness of academia to treat doubt and skepticism as positive traits, could well speed them along the path to greater non-belief.

But for those who are determinedly faithful, college could provide them with better tools to defend their beliefs. Reason cannot easily overcome the will to believe. As Jonathan Swift nicely put it: “You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.”

So up to a point, more of traditional education actually aids belief, because much of it focuses on information and skills rather than deep learning. The point at which more education leads to disbelief is when people start really looking closely at evidence for beliefs, start trying to integrate different areas of knowledge into a coherent worldview, and begin to get in the habit of making reasoned judgments using incomplete knowledge. This becomes more likely to occur when students do more research-like activities because then the ability to form and defend judgments based on data and evidence and reason becomes paramount.

We see this in the fact that members of the National Academies of Science have far higher rates of disbelief in god than other scientists or the general public. “In a poll taken in 1998, only 7 percent of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, the elite of American scientists said they believed in a personal God.” (Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 10.)

Charles Darwin is a good example of both aspects of this phenomenon. We know that he was religious in his youth and obtained a degree from Cambridge University in the sciences. At the time of his education, the prevailing view of life was special creation, that god specifically created species to make the fit into particular ecological niches. Nothing he learned at university dissuaded him from this belief and in fact he was strengthened in them and was considering a life as a clergyman. In his autobiography, he discusses how on his round the world voyage on the Beagle, the plants and animals and insects he saw in South America, seemed to challenge the view of special creation. In order to deal with this, he said he started inventing increasingly complex reasons to sustain his belief in special creation. He took this to such an extent that the sailors on the boat, although far less educated than him, found his explanations highly amusing. In other words, those much less educated than he could see the problems with the theory of special creation that he could not because not only did he not want to see them, he had the tools to explain them away.

But as he became more and more absorbed in his studies, went deeper and more global in his thinking, and tried to create an integrated theory to explain his findings, his religious beliefs just could not be sustained and he abandoned them completely, ceasing to believe not just in special creation, but in god as well.

The long-term solution to religion may not be more education but creating a climate where more doubt and skepticism are prevalent and acceptable. It is only then that education has something to work with. The current crop of high-profile books arguing against religion are creating just such a climate and are thus to be welcomed.

POST SCRIPT: Storms in tea cups

Lewis Black lets loose his frustration with political grandstanding over non-issues.