Thursday, August 11, 2011

Education and Religion

Last week I commented on a study which seemed to show that both Christians who consider themselves "born-again" and unbelievers suffer from greater degrees of atrophy in the hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial for processing memories, in old age. Several hypotheses to explain these findings have been suggested by the researchers themselves and also by various commenters. Without more information it's hard to say what might be the mechanism behind this difference between the affected groups and members of more mainstream churches, but another study posted today by CNN may help shed a little more light on some of the factors involved.

This latest study links education level and religious belief. The reason that this link is important in the context of the previous study is that there is a great deal of research showing that higher levels of education tend to help counteract various forms of cognitive decline. These findings on the protective effects of education line up prettty well with basic common sense - the more you develop the connections in your brain the longer they take to start falling apart are you age. Educated people also tend to have a greater understanding of methods that have been found to stave off cognitive decline to some degree such as working with puzzles and brain teasers.

So if it turns out that better-educated people are more religious in some particular way that is not shared by "born-agains," it may be that the additional brain connections cultivated by education and mental exercise are the real key rather than characteristics of particular spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, if more educated people gravitate toward mainstream churches the same mechanism could be in play. This means that the findings of this latest study are quite important in terms of understanding the results of the previous one.

The latest study found, first of all, that as people became more educated they also became more religious by some measures.

After analyzing data from a large national survey, University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel found that people actually tend to become more religious - by some definitions, at least - as they further their education.

“It all falls down to what you consider to be religious,” said Schwadel, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If it’s simply attending religious services, then no. Highly educated people are not less religious; in fact, they’re more religious.”

“But if it’s saying the Bible is the literal word of God and saying that only one religion is the true religion, then they are less religious,” he continued.

The latter statement is characteristic of most "born-again" groups, so what this shows is that more educated people tend to have more active religious lives, but they are less likely to fall into the "born-again" category.

Schwadel found that with each additional year of education:

– The likelihood of attending religious services increased 15%.

– The likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9%.

– The likelihood of switching to a mainline Protestant denomination - Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian USA or United Methodist - increased by 13%.

So in addition to being more religious (but less "born-again") educated people also are more likely to belong to mainstream religious denominations. A 13 percent shift is pretty significant, and may be enough to explain the previous study's findings without resorting to any new mechanism - the study participants who experienced the least cognitive decline may have simply been better educated. The previous study's authors mention controlling for age, depression, brain size, prayer and meditation, but not for education level.

It still is not clear how unbelievers fit into the picture, but it may be that the "no religious affiliation" category used in the previous study was simply too wide. Most people who describe themselves as atheists tend to be better educated, but whether this is also true of agnostics and people who are uninterested in the social aspects of religion is hard to say. Breaking out this group by education level and using greater granularity (that is, distinguishing between atheists, agnostics, and the socially unaffiliated) would help to determine whether or not the role of education in these findings is significant.

I found the graphic at the top of this article over at Deric Bownd's Mindblog as part of a post that went up back in May. Because it's so detailed you will probably want to click on it to blow it up, but if you look along the horizontal education dimension you can see that if you draw a circle around Baptists, Pentecostals, and Unaffiliated Religious (which will include lots of "born-agains") and another around Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians (which are more mainstream) you'll see that the two don't even overlap. Even if you include Catholics in the "born-again" circle, as the previous study apparently included some "born-again" Catholics, the two circles still don't overlap, they simply touch with Catholics as the transitional group.

Another factor that this reveals is different income levels, which follow education and particularly in the United States have a lot to do with the quality of medical care that individuals receive throughout their lives. This might also be related to later onset of dementia in ways that we have yet to work out, though the effects of education alone may be enough on its own to explain at least the portion of the previous study's findings related to "born-agains."

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