The relationship between prevalence of science education and religious affiliation across Ireland: An analysis based on census data
Hughes, Brian M.
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The present study sought to examine the association between self-identified religiosity and science education in Ireland. Specifically, by drawing on data from the most recently conducted national census for Ireland, and treating each of 3,409 contiguous districts (electoral divisions) that comprise the entire national territory as a separate data-point, the study sought to assess whether proportion of science graduates within each district predicts the prevalence of self-identified affiliation to a religion within each district (while controlling for relevant demographic variables). The rationale for the study arose from the widely discussed relationship between science and religion, regarding which commentators differ as to whether the two represent compatible or non-overlapping epistemologies, and whether there exists a necessary conflict or competition between them. The relevant discourse typically presumes science education to be at least mildly undermined by religious worldviews, and religious worldviews to be challenged by science education. However, to date, the evidence base for this depiction remains tenuous, in that the available research has produced varied statistical findings from samples of questionable representativeness. Overall, the findings of present study confirm that science education is a significant predictor of religious affiliation. Specifically, it was found that, across the 3,409 census electoral districts of Ireland, prevalence of graduates with college-level credentials in science areas statistically predicted the numbers of persons reporting no affiliation to a formal religion. While small (β = .17), the observed association was highly statistically significant ( p < .001). Furthermore, the association was found to be independent of a number of likely confounds, including the size and average age of the local population, the gender distribution within the local population, local socioeconomic well-being (as manifested by unemployment rate), and local generic college-level education levels. Follow-up analyses demonstrated that science education was a much stronger independent predictor of religious affiliation than either non-completion of formal education or numbers of persons holding doctorates in each district. A further follow-up analysis established within-district religious affiliation was unlikely to have been confounded by numbers of children in each district and, as such, that parental determination of children's religious affiliation in the census did not seriously threaten the validity of the present analyses. The direction of association observed was consistent with the view that conventional religious affiliation and conventional science education are not clearly compatible, insofar as the presence of science graduates in the population was associated with less religious affiliation. This trend might support the suggestion that science education enhances empirical reasoning and discourages the unquestioning acceptance of faith-based assertions. If it is true that science education serves to alter the population's cognitive styles and encourage a greater use of critical thinking, then this would serve to support claims made for the promotion of science education on philanthropic and humanitarian grounds.