Social Science Cuts Religiosity

If reducing interest in religion is a sign of rationality, then social sciences rule!

A new NBER paper compares college majors for their effect on student religiosity.  Majoring in biological sciences, engineering, or vocational areas all increase religiosity about the same relative to not going to college.  Majoring in education encourages religion even more, while majoring in physical science has about the same effect as no college.  Majoring in humanities reduces religiosity relative to no college, and majoring in social science reduces it the most.

Here is a part of the paper’s main table:


Bold params are significant at 5%.  They control for year, region, gender, parent education, type of religion, and initial religiosity.

Added: Studying physics in college helped me become atheist because, taken as a complete account, physics seemed to leave no room for spirits to regularly intervene in human affairs.  Most students, however, do not take physics as such a complete account.  Social sciences and humanities do not usually suggest they offer complete accounts, but they do offer more direct stories of how human affairs become arranged, accounts that compete more directly with divine intervention stories.  I suspect that this competing explanation effect is the reason social sciences and humanities reduce religiosity, and that the social science effect is stronger because its accounts leave fewer holes for divine influence than do humanities’ accounts.

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  • Norman

    The abstract suggests they also control for endogeneity and self-selection. What instruments do they use? I would think finding credible excluded exogenous variables would be tough.

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  • someone

    Perhaps exposure to the scientific method or scientific methodology hardens someone to religion. Budding scientists may have been familiar with the scientific method for a long time (Doing experiments in their basement? Working hard on the science fair?) Meanwhile, social science majors may only begin to rigorously apply the scientific method while in college (Perhaps mainly learning about history or anthropology in a descriptive manner until then). Just a hypothesis to throw out there.

  • A physics professor gives his opinion on the finding here.

    If more irreligious people tend to select into certain fields, might that also result in students assimilating some of their irreligiosity? The author of the above link notes the importance of the social aspect of a phenomena, but then fails to consider they hypothesis that social interaction itself rather than the study of it is the causal factor. Both are certainly though. I’ve heard psychologists are the least likely to believe, perhaps because they study why we believe incorrect things (often religious things specifically).

  • Vladimir

    I’m a non-religious person who did not study social sciences. I prefer the opposite perspective: If reducing interest in social sciences is a sign of rationality, then religions rule! I realize the wording may not match the analysis, but it’s early, and I think my meaning comes through.

  • I just added to the post.

  • Must physics / math students I know are atheists, but I suppose there were before entering college.

  • Vladimir,
    Given recent history, and your posting name, your post has an apt “In Russia, the X blanks you!” feel to it.

  • Mike

    I think the cited blog of TGGP gets to the root. Religious views, like political views, are acquired from a very young age, which I think means their deepest roots are not rational, and are very intertwined with personal identity and social status. For these reasons I think many people do not apply the tools they acquire during “education” to these aspects of their lives.

    However, because the social sciences pertain to questions that more directly involve religion, it’s harder to keep these things separate.

    I would guess, therefore, that other sciences could make their students less religious, if they really wanted to, by applying their tools more directly to religion. For instance if (pre-) med students were reminded that Jesus was dead for two days before it’s claimed he become alive again, at the same time when they are studying what happens to a human body in the first two days since death.

    I would also guess, therefore, that a person’s chances of changing political affiliation is greater when one studies political science or economics or something else that pertains rather directly to politics.

    One thing that puzzles me is the fact that I know many physicists, and the vast majority are atheists. It’s hard for me to believe the self-selection is that strong. In my own case, I “lost my religion” in the first year of graduate school. Perhaps many other academic scientists (who I understand are predominantly atheist) also lost their religion at a point after when this poll would have identified it.

  • Mike

    I don’t know if a “complete account” comes into play, but I agree that the material work of physics is probably parcelled off from deeper questions about religion.

    I think social sciences encourage skepticism of social institutions. The mechanics of black holes are religion-neutral. Studying social organization invariably leads to the conclusion that they are flawed. The divine inspiration of religion is thus compared to the divine right of kings, or the divine right of “an eye for an eye” or whatever.

    Physics may make a comment on god, but not religion. Social sciences make a comment on religion, but not god.

    This explains why education increases support for religion – it reinforces the power of social institutions to do good.

    Perhaps the question makes a difference (mainly how to count agnostics, non-believers, or spiritualists who are turned off by religion but are still drawn to god).

  • MikeY

    two different mikes! I will be more identifying in future (Mike)


    The second mike

  • Kevin

    Robin, is it really compatible with your typical signalling approach to try to explained increased lack of faith in terms of what *arguments* best persuaded people? It seems to me that increased atheism is a good way to signal to one’s social betters that she is part of the in-group. In fact, in my experience in social science, that seems to be major motivational factor.

    • My description is in terms of conflicts between the views of groups one might affiliate with, not in terms of evidence or truth.

      • Kevin

        That’s cool. But do you have a signaling story for evidence/truth? If so, I’m eager to hear it!

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        But how is it that the “conflicts between the views” have any causal effect? The most natural answer is they have effects via arguments and evidence: Arguments grounded in one view decrease the believability of the other view. Is there a status-signaling account that does away with arguments altogether.

  • stanfo

    Being an agnostic/Bayesian/atheist myself, I have to say I hate when other atheists comment about religion.

    They probably do not *understand* religion, which I can sympathize with and is why I originally came to atheism.

    The most important aspect of religion is that it solves Hume’s problem of induction, as does Bayes’ theorem. This is so essential to the human psyche that to treat it lightly is irresponsible. “String Theory” is another attempt to solve Hume’s problem.

    On the paper, the self-selection of people going into social sciences versus physical sciences I think would be impossible to tease out. In my experience the majority of those in social science are simple minded and unable to grasp the nuance necessary to understand religion, with a few high performing outliers. Physics students must take diff. eq. and real analysis.

  • MattMc

    I almost went into philosophy to study theories of ethics and morality that were missing from my rejected religious background. I would guess that the religous avoid those humanities type subjects because they so often directly touch on religion in an analytical way. The sciences really only give you trouble if you are a fundamentalist.

  • John Maxwell IV

    Do students shift to the left politically in a similar pattern?

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  • Evidence that “education” is bad for your brain 😉

  • Phil Goetz

    I think the best evidence against religion isn’t evidence against its claims, such as a physical scientist would make; but explaining-away its evidence.

    If you investigate religion seriously, you’ll find many, many accounts of very strong empirical evidence of miracles. You can only dismiss them when you understand how unreliable humans are.

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  • Taimyoboi

    Perhaps the explanation is a little more basic. Religious belief generally invovles believing in absolute truths and morals. Physical sciences tend to also be non-relativistic at their core.

    Humanities are not.

  • fburnaby

    It’s ambiguous in the post, but I’m reading this to say that the change in religiosity after starting college is being reported. But this is very sensitive to initial conditions.

    In an absurd extreme case, say major 1 starts out at 0% religiosity, and major 2 at 100%, then they each only have one way to go. A “random-drift model would be biased, showing up. This sensitivity to initial conditions would still exist for intermediate values not equal to 50% (or maybe it’s whatever the equilibrium value is, which presumably is higher than 50%).