Private religious schools often claim to be able to educate children more effectively than public, secular schools. A study just published in Social Science Quarterly, however, indicates that, at least in the area of science, non-religious Americans have a higher literacy rate than religious Americans do.
The study, entitled Religion and Scientific Literacy in the United States, was conducted by Darren E. Sherkat of Southern Illinois University. Sherkat conducted scientific literacy tests on a sample of people from different religious identities, categorized into the following groups: Non-religious Americans, Non-Christian religious Americans, Catholic Americans, Sectarian Protestants and other Protestants.
The scientific literacy tests did not include questions about evolution, the answers to which would have indicated religious belief as much as knowledge of scientific information. The questions were about things such as whether lasers consist of sound or light, and how long it takes the Earth to go around the Sun.
In his statistical analysis of the results, Sherkat controlled for the following variables: Amount of formal education, income, ethnicity, immigrant status, region, rural residence, and gender.
The results showed that religious identity is negatively correlated with scientific literacy. Non-religious Americans were the group with the highest scientific literacy. Non-Christian religious Americans scored higher than Christian Americans.
What couldn’t be determined was causation. It’s not known whether religious belief is causing Americans to become less scientifically literate, or whether religious belief is more attractive to the scientifically illiterate.
Some people may be tempted to look at this study and conclude that people may be predominantly interested in either science or religion, and just don’t have time to learn about both. That interpretation is contradicted by the results of an earlier study, however.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found in a study last year that non-religious Americans have greater religious literacy than religious Americans do. So, it appears that ignorance between religion and science is a one-way street.