Why Are Educated People More Likely to Be Atheists?

Religion works more through the emotions than through reason.

By Nigel Barber | 19 February 2014
Psychology Today

The more education a person receives, the more likely they are to become atheists (1). Non belief also increases with intelligence and income. Residents of more educated countries see religion as less important in their daily lives (2).

Why are highly educated people more likely to be atheists? There are two categories of explanation. Either religious people lack a capacity for skepticism, or they choose to make a blind leap of faith and subscribe to the belief system adopted by their religious community.

The Santa Claus Analogy

According to a deficient skepticism view, educated people are more capable of critical thought. They subject the claims of religious teachers to more intense skeptical inquiry. This is rather like older children asking themselves how a fat man can navigate a 9-inch chimney flue, magically reemerging next to the Christmas tree with packages measuring more than a foot in three dimensions. Older children connect these absurdities with a pattern of suspicious movements by parents and draw the inevitable conclusion that Santa Clause is a charade perpetrated by parents on children. Younger children are more trusting and less skeptical.

Logical though the rational-capacity explanation for atheism is, it is not entirely satisfactory for different reasons. Rational capacity does not always translate into religious skepticism, as noted for the distinguished scientists of past eras who were rabidly religious for the most part. Similarly, in religious countries, people may well stop believing in Santa Clause when they grow up but still hang on to their religious belief system. So it takes more than skepticism to separate people from their religious faith.

Why do religious people trash some implausible beliefs but keep others? Perhaps they get something out of the beliefs they keep. Once a person grows up, their parents no longer shower them with gifts during the holiday season so that they have no particular reason to sustain their credulity concerning Santa Claus, although they do pass on the belief to children.

If religious beliefs do not yield tangible benefits for adults, they may yield emotional rewards. The emotive aspects of religious belief can persist despite development of improved reasoning ability. Religious beliefs and rituals may continue to help adults to feel good. Belief and disbelief are more a matter of feelings than of reason.

Why elevate the emotional aspects of religious belief over the cognitive, or intellectual ones? One possibility is that religion functions as a form of emotion focused coping. It provides a defense against life’s difficulties and disappointments.

The Emotional Hook

If religion is essentially a mechanism for dealing with unpleasant emotions, it is most useful when life is most difficult, as in disease-ravaged poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa and least useful when the quality of life is good, as is true of godless Europe.

In less educated countries, the general standard of living is poor. There is a lot of chronic illness and early death. Infant and child mortality are high. The population is highly vulnerable to droughts, famines and natural disasters. Most people find it miserably difficult to make a living. Governments are weak and corrupt and ordinary people get pushed around by gangsters and warlords. Of course, there may also be little religious freedom so that if there are any agnostics they are forced to keep a low profile.

Lacking any objective solution for their many problems, residents of less developed countries turn to religion for answers. The clearest evidence for this is the fact that in poor countries where the standard of living is low virtually everyone sees religion as important in their lives.

As the standard of living improves, there are fewer unpleasant situations over which people have no control and therefore less of a market for religion. With improving quality of life in developed countries, the importance of religion declines. Looking into the future, this predicts a gradual shrinking of religious belief as the standards of living around the globe continues to improve fueled by rapid economic development.


1. Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37, 11-15.

2. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/ (link is external)

Hailing from Ireland, Nigel Barber received his Ph.D. in Biopsychology from Hunter College, CUNY, and taught psychology at Bemidji State University and Birmingham Southern College. A prolific cross-national researcher, Barber accounts for societal differences in sexual and reproductive behaviour using an evolutionary approach. Books include Why Parents Matter, The Science of Romance, Kindness in a Cruel World, and The Myth of Culture: Why We Need a Genuine Natural Science of Societies. Interests include finance, organic gardening, and hiking.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Glenn!
    So, 10,000-17,000 pastors willing to die?!! That's fine with me!! The sooner religion is eradicated from this world the better.
    Reminds me of the old joke; "What is 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean…….a good start.

  2. Many indoctrinated people having trouble adjusting to a secular society might see their religion decrease in popularity and, being powerless to prevent it, will resort to violence to “prove the power of their God”

  3. On my first day of Sunday school, I was given the homework assignment to read Genesis, but since that book has nothing to do with Jesus, she reassigned Matthew. On my second day of Sunday school, I had all sorts of questions about the church's hypocrisy which she refused to answer. When the other children rallied to my side, I was removed from the group, drugged, and she used more intensive brainwashing techniques including sexual blackmail to try and make me conform. When that didn't work, they kicked me out of church. Thank God!

    As I grew older, I certainly didn't think we were created in some one man's image, but I knew something put our universe into play, basically identifying as agnostic. In college when my professor asked me to delete my unplayed Simcity games from the lab Macs I objected on moral grounds stating how someday someone is going to create a game where the Sims run around pondering God and the meaning of life while measuring their universe with as much accuracy as we measure our own, and I certainly didn't want to be the one to destroy them.

    Now this new "No Man's Sky" game that uses algorithms to create billions of unique worlds intrigues me. I'm also reminded of a show I saw in the 1990s featuring wooden blocks from the 1800s that when spun in a tumbler grapple together to form a sphere that then rolls around freely.

    More recently I've read of the Simulation Argument which basically says that if we don't go extinct first we're probably already living inside an ancestor simulation. As for the holographic hypothesis due to us being 99.99999999+% empty space even though from our perspective we appear solid, I haven't done much research into that.

    When I started college I wanted to study cyborgs, a technology I'd first learned as a child, but the university guidance counselor had never heard of it, so I rephrased it as remote-controlled people. Since they didn't offer any courses in that, I majored in Music Technology creating cutting edge software while taking psychology for most every elective. It's one thing to build a cyborg; it's another to create one that won't become a criminal.

    In April 1996 I started naming names of the powerful pedophiles I'd met when I was kid, and all hell broke loose including the assassination of former CIA Director William Colby a few weeks later and its subsequent cover-up. Meanwhile, my childhood memories were flooding back which included peeks into the underbelly of organized crime.

    Later that year I had a dream of being in class where the homework assignment was to write a paper about either cloning or brain implants, so I chose both, and then spent a lot of time at the library doing research. In February 1997 I mailed a copy to local activists to suddenly find myself sitting down with a Department of Defense representative intimating that my package had been intercepted. They were worried that people might panic if cloning became newsworthy, but I convinced them the need to pass laws restricting human cloning, so they lifted the news blackout covering Dolly the sheep, and she was finally on all the front pages the next day with legislation to follow.

    Unfortunately, I was ordered to stand down when I tried to discuss cyborgs, but eventually in 2005 my paper was credited as the basis for the Wikipedia article on the subject of brain implants. More recently I created a tribute Facebook page for the first U.S. military cyborg, Acoustic Kitty, a spy cat fielded against the Soviets in 1966. Declassified in 2001 Acoustic Kitty is still cloaked in secrecy with the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) website barely giving it a single mention, and most accounts of the feline say it didn't work and to never speak of it again. It makes me disheartened that the human cyborg projects may never come to light through proper channels.

    One of the things I was shown as a child was a diamond quantum computer, a technology civilians are only beginning to learn about. That Q-carbon diamond creation process looks promising as does nanofactory manufacturing techniques.

    At the Spy exhibit that toured Seattle in 2014 they mentioned that spy technology is typically 10 to 20 years ahead of what civilians have available to them. In the case of cyborg technology it's more like half a century with no chance of civilians ever catching up. That being said, when I was first shown this technology as a child, our goal was to be able to upload our minds into external devices and live forever, something transhumanists talk about, but they're using a civilian timeline under the assumption it will be something people can purchase, rather than the afterlife as we've implemented it.

    When Jesus was asked about the afterlife, he said we'd need to build it ourselves. As the householders of this technology, we are by de facto the gods over who is saved inside of it. So I strongly recommend being kind. Evil people are going to hate our creation.

    As for something like a God of our universe, they're absolutely disgusted that humans would let their planet be infested with pedophiles.

  4. As we become more educated, and thus more financially independent, we do not have the same reliance on our parents as when we were short on resources. In poor communities, families will continue living together even when they can't get along with each other, because families are the final safety net.
    Giving up religion requires, for many people, a rejection of mother-love. Mother-love is tightly linked to religion — a mother looks down at the newborn cradled in her arms and starts right in with the religious indoctrination, "Look what god brought me." My maternal grandmother "disowned" my mother because my mother let us grow up without religious instruction. My paternal grandmother often bragged about her prenatal prayer that her children be struck dead at birth if they were destined to turn away from god. She lost 5 kids in infancy that she attributed to this prayer.
    I am so grateful to my parents that they did not make their love of their children conditional upon a belief in god, but I see all around me families that have this nasty dynamic.
    I have often heard atheists comment that the hardest thing was telling their mother. And if you are poor, your parents' love translates to a financial fallback postition — living in their basement, maybe.

  5. Although I’m an atheist, Wikipedia says that increasing education leads to an increase in religiosity at least in the US. not sure what’s going on

  6. I find most of those, not all, are liberal in their values, because they have been educated to think outside the box, instead of taking life's issues and placing them neatly in to racist/bigoted/partisan/fear mongering/smearing compartments.

  7. "Why Are Educated People More Likely to Be Atheists?"

    Smart people, which links also to the ability to be educated, stay atheists after being born.

  8. I think it’s more a question of why a person seeks an education. Enlightenment is ultimate goal of educational endeavors and the more enlightened a person is, the little need he or she has for an invisible god.

  9. I think it’s a question of why a person seeks an education in the first place. Enlightenment is the ultimate goal of education and the more enlightened a person, the little need he or she has of a god.

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