What We Know about the Nones’ Education from the Latest Pew Study

Many humanists are likely already familiar with the Pew Research Center’s reports on religiously unaffiliated individuals and atheists in the United States. In June, Pew released “Ten Facts about Atheists” that confirmed many hunches that humanists and atheists already had about the secular community. Among other interesting insights, the fact sheet reported that atheists in the United States were more likely to align themselves with the Democratic Party (this is similar to the American Humanist Association’s findings from an online poll of its members and supporters about their choice in the presidential election). Pew also reported that atheists are more likely than Christians in the United States to say that they feel a sense of wonder and awe at the universe, and atheists are more likely to have a college degree compared to the general public.

Now a new global study from Pew Research Center reports on educational attainment from major world religions and from the religiously unaffiliated. When looking at data from around the world, the religious “nones” are one of the most highly educated groups, though they lag slightly behind Jews and Christians.

The study focused on 151 countries and six religious groups: Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and the religiously unaffiliated. The study averaged the number of years of formal schooling that those affiliated with each religious or nonreligious group had attained, then researchers tracked gains and losses in years of formal education among each group, while also examining other demographic data, such as gender, within each group.

The so-called “nones,” Pew reports, are “among the most educated of the world’s major religious groups.” On average, nones around the world attained 8.8 years of formal education, just behind the global average of Christians (9.3 years) and Jews (13.4 years). However, in North America the religiously unaffiliated have on average 13.2 years of formal education, a similar finding to Pew’s fact sheet on atheists in the United States. (Unfortunately the global Pew study does not break down the “religiously unaffiliated” category into nones, atheists, and agnostics.)

One unexpected finding from the global study is that among young religiously unaffiliated individuals, women have, on average, more years of formal educational attainment than men, with 56 percent of young, unaffiliated women attaining higher education compared to 38 percent of young, unaffiliated men. (The exception is the Sub-Saharan African region.) Even among the oldest generation of the religiously unaffiliated, Pew found that 48 percent of women have attained higher education compared to 45 percent of men.

Upon reviewing the study, some readers might wonder why atheists rank so highly in educational attainment in the United States while the religiously unaffiliated do not rank highest in global educational attainment. The results in global educational attainment seem to be related to how prevalent the religious or nonreligious group is around the world, as well as what regions each group is most concentrated in. Christians, the group with the second most years of formal education globally, make up the world’s largest religious group overall. The group with the highest number of years of formal education, Jews (13.4), is concentrated in the United States and Israel, both countries that report high levels of education in their overall populations. Similarly, the report found that the religiously unaffiliated were most concentrated in North America and Europe, suggesting that their high levels of educational attainment are at least partly related to the overall higher levels of education in those regions.

When examining educational gains for all of the religious groups around the world, the Pew findings are largely positive. Pew reports that “the number of years of schooling received by the average adult in all the religious groups studied has been rising in recent decades” and that the religious groups with the lowest educational attainment, Hindus and Muslims,  have also had the most dramatic increases in number of formal years of schooling. Globally, gender gaps in educational attainment are narrowing as women gain more access to education. The study also finds that each religious group has seen gains in educational attainment, though the gains in the most educated groups, Jews and Christians, have been more modest than the dramatic gains for Muslims and Hindus.

This increase in educational attainment globally, particularly for women, is a finding that humanists should celebrate. Increased educational attainment reduces poverty, increases an individual’s income, and boosts economic growth for countries overall, among many other positive benefits. Education also exposes individuals to critical thinking and logic and encourages them to consider new perspectives, which in turn fosters tolerance and understanding. Increased educational attainment is certainly good for the religiously unaffiliated, but it also improves our planet as a whole.