Religion Doesn’t Impact Education Much

The New York Times Missed the Point

The New York Times today ran an article with the headline “Christians in the US Are Less Educated Than Religious Minorities.” They were discussing this amazingly cool and well-researched report from Pew Research.

The problem is, they missed the point of the report. They did correctly notice that about 36 percent of Christians in the 2010 Census had higher education, the lowest of any religious group. From there, however, NYT’s coverage falls apart.

For example, having low higher ed isn’t the only barometer of educational attainment. You could also consider total years of schooling though, granted, Christians fall behind on that too. But the real trick here is that the religious minorities in the US are here via selection pressures: many Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists are immigrants. Immigrants from non-border countries generally arrive through fairly rigorous selection processes that screen fairly aggressively for skills and education. The result is that we only let in the best educated Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. Meanwhile, we have large mass migration of somewhat less-educated Christians from Latin America. We really have no idea what the educational levels of native-born Christians vs native-born Hindus would look like.

But, we can sneakily get an idea by finding some comparisons and by using a large sample. Pew helpfully makes their data available. With over 150 countries in the sample representing every major geographic area, we can see how every major religious group compares around the world!

Rather than bore you with the details, I’ll give you the highlights.

On average, which religion you belong to has virtually no effect on educational attainment.

Here’s the range of country-level average years of schooling:

Woah! Big Range! In Niger, the population averages just 1.1 years of formal schooling. But in New Zealand, they average 13.7! Woah!

And look! Niger is overwhelmingly Muslim, New Zealand mostly Christian! So Christians, globally, are better educated! Here’s educational attainment by religion around the world:

Christians, geez, such smartypants! That mean ‘ole New York Times got it totally wrong! Though, granted, the Jews have us all beat.

But hold on. There’s more differences than that. Niger and New Zealand aren’t just religiously different. One is rich, the other poor. Their geography and climate vary. Their histories are dissimilar. Their neighbors are different. Their genetic stock varies. Their exposure to disease and war is incomparable. These are very different countries. So how can we figure out the effect of just religion?

Well, one quick-and-dirty way to get a first approximation is to take every religious group for every country, and see how it compares to that country’s average level of education. So, for example, in New Zealand, Christians have 13.5 years of education versus 13.7 average, so they have a score of -0.2 years of education. Meanwhile, Jews have 14.8 years of education, so they have a score of 1.1 years of education. Got it? Great!

We can now average up all the country-level differences. Now, there are 2 ways we can do this. One way is to only include countries where we have data on that religion; so, for example, if we have no data on Jewish educational attainment in Afghanistan, we just leave Afghanistan entirely out of the calculation for Judaism’s effect on education. So we only compare Jews in places where we actually have Jews. This method makes sense, right?

But hold on: maybe religious groups migrate to places good for them! Maybe we exaggerate the role of religion if we only look at places with statistically discernible effects, because we incorporate the ability of individuals to select their country into the role of religion. That would make our effects look way too big. What if, instead, we did something different: what if we assigned a zero-value for every time we didn’t have data? In other words, for countries with no Jews, we assume Jews have average educational attainment.

Broadly speaking, these two methods won’t change the direction of our results, but they will change the size of the effect.

So let’s do it both ways. The “Empty Set Exclusive” method gives us probably an upper bound of the impact of religion, while the “Empty Set Average” method gives us probably a lower bound. As a sidenote, we could also make some arbitrary assumption that places with no Jews are places where life is bad for Jews, and assume that any Jews who did live there would have below-average education because they’d face some kind of unique hurdle. I won’t include that computation because it requires a whole lot of arbitrary decisions, but suffice to say I don’t think it would fundamentally alter these results.

So, here are the results:

As you can see, the two methods always agree on the direction of effect, but disagree on its size. For religions that show up in virtually all countries’ data, like Christianity, Islam, or the unaffiliated, differences are small. For religions where there are lots of empty data fields, the gap is very large. But across all three, Christianity performs reasonably well. Christianity seems to be more strongly associated with education that Islam or religious unaffiliation, and may or may not be more or less associated with education than Hinduism or Buddhism. Judaism crushes everyone by any method.

Let’s be clear about the size of these effects though. Christianity is associated with between 0.19 and 0.24 more years of schooling. Let’s assume that we’re talking about a school year of 180 days of school, and that the normative assumption is 12 years of schooling. This means that over 12 years, Christians averaged 34–42 more days of schooling, or 2.9–3.5 more school days per year. That’s not a huge difference.

When we control for country-level differences, even the most extreme estimates suggest religion could add less than 3 years to education. Less than half a year is more typical.

Now let’s get crazy. There’s more to this story. Let’s look at where various groups do better/worse.

The above chart shows each religion for each region. And what it shows is interesting. Christians outperform in Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Of those regions, only in Sub-Saharan Africa are Christians a population majority. Christians underperform in Europe, Latin America, and North America.

Where do Muslims do best? Turns out, Muslim educational performance most exceeds local performance in North America and Latin America, where they are the tiniest minorities! They perform worst in places where they are mid-sized minorities: Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia-Pacific.

Or consider Hindus. In Asia, Hindus underperform other groups. Everywhere else, where they are one of the rarest religions, they do very well. We can see a fairly similar trend for Buddhists. The only group that seems to be fairly consistently improved by being a bigger share of the population is maybe unaffiliateds, but that trend falls apart when we look at country-specific data for high-unaffiliated countries in Eastern Europe or Asia.


We should exercise caution reading too much into this data. I’ve isolated the association between religion and education. I’ve done absolutely zippo to isolate the cause of that association. Much of it is probably driven by selective immigration, or persistence and resilience of hardy minorities, or other such factors. Take the case of Islam. Although in the vast majority of countries where we have data, Muslims underperform other groups, Muslims tend to be better educated than other groups in much of east Africa, the US, the UK, and much of Eastern Europe. So we can’t just say, “Well, Islam generally reduces education.” Certainly in the US it doesn’t!

Now, there’s a whole separate round of debates about how the religious composition of the population may alter demand for and supply of education. The canonical (and as-yet-unresolved!) examples revolve around missionary schools, Boko Haram, the Scopes Monkey Trial, etc. I won’t delve into that.

Instead, I’ll just say I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that the New York Times has a whole staff of writers and data analysts at their command and they chose to hit the least interesting result in the whole report. They furthermore chose to selectively read the report’s discussion of education and religiosity, noting only those sections that pointed towards the “secularization hypothesis,” while ignoring the substantial parts of the report that presented a differing view. The original report itself is pretty scrupulous about presenting an even-handed account of various theories about religion and education, pointing out that any educational benefit to being unaffiliated seems to attenuate quite sharply when the unaffiliated population is large, and indeed possibly turn negative. The New York Times does not report that finding, despite its obvious relevance in a country becoming more secular.

Likewise, NYT correctly noted that skilled immigrants drive up the schooling measures for Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc… but then didn’t mention that immigration of less-educated Hispanics almost certainly drags down the Christian total. This is especially interesting given that low Christian educational attainment in the US is almost completely isolated to young Christian men, who would also happen to be disproportionately labor migrants from Latin America.

NYT writers would have no journalistic obligation to report that fact, if they were just reporting the headline figures. But they venture into analysis, discussing causes and factors driving the results. To voyage into that territory and then fail to mention that, hey, maybe Christians aren’t all dumb hick snake-handlers, they just include a hefty helping of low-skilled immigrants, is a little bit much. C’mon guys, you can do better.

PS- Best educated religious country pair in the world? Hindus in the United States. Recall, Hindus have the lowest average years of schooling of any religion on a global basis. But they have the highest single attainment-group! Worst educated religious country pair in the world? Muslims in Tchad. I was in Tchad last spring and, here I’ve got a surprise for you, it is a very poor place with a lot of problems.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

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