new survey reporting that Jews and Christians worldwide have on average higher levels of educational attainment than the unaffiliated do. On some Right-leaning sites this is being touted as a rebuttal to the often heard claim that atheists are more educated than Christians, or religious people in general.
Well, there is a way to explain this but it's a little bit complicated. In the US, a larger percentage of the unaffiliated (and therefore atheists) have higher education than Christians, as the same survey reported. This is not always true for several developing countries. This means region must be factored in as much as religion. The latter claim that atheists are more educated than religious people in general is indeed true and this same study reports that when the affiliated and unaffiliated worldwide go head-to-head on the percentage of those with higher education, the unaffiliated always show more. (See below)
Additionally, there are two important factors to consider about the higher number of years of formal education by Jews.
First is that in the above graph what could be misleading is that many atheists report themselves as "Jewish" on surveys because they identify as Jewish culturally, even though they are secular and do not believe in a god. This could skew the graph somewhat in making it seem as if atheists are less educated when compared to the religious.
Second, most Jews live in advanced countries like Israel and the United States, and so it's expected that their educational levels be higher. And the fact that Jews are a relatively small group (~14 million worldwide) makes that much more dramatic.
Among younger people ages 25-34 the unaffiliated have on average a half a year more education than Christians, though they're still more than three full years less than Jews. The reason why the youngest generation of the unaffiliated surpass the same category of Christians is due to dramatic gains made by the younger unaffiliated when compared with the older generation. Interestingly, the most dramatic generational gains were made by Muslims and Hindus, and these groups might very well surpass Christians and the unaffiliated in the coming decades in educational achievement.
Furthermore, another reason why the global average shows the unaffiliated trailing behind Christians and Jews is because the majority of the world's unaffiliated population lives in the Asia/Pacific region (76%), and the largest percentage of them are in China — which is a developing country. According to the survey, China has approximately ~700 million unaffiliated, and there is significant generational difference between the older and younger generations on education level attainment. Among the youngest generation in China, 89% have secondary education, compared with 64% of all generations. This means that overtime, as we've seen above, the unaffiliated will likely surpass Christians in the global average in the number of years of education, and it means that the reason why they are slightly lower than Christians is because more unaffiliated live in developing countries like China where older generations have higher levels of those who did not any receive any secondary or higher education.
Once you factor all of this into the data, it explains why the unaffiliated currently trail slightly behind.
One final note from the survey is that:
- Atheists in the United States and France are significantly more likely than adults who say their religion is “nothing in particular” to have post-secondary degrees.