The more education a person receives, the more likely they are to become atheists (1). Non belief also increases with intelligence and income. Residents of more educated countries see religion as less important in their daily lives (2).
Why are highly educated people more likely to be atheists? There are two categories of explanation. Either religious people lack a capacity for skepticism, or they choose to make a blind leap of faith and subscribe to the belief system adopted by their religious community.
The Santa Claus Analogy
According to a deficient skepticism view, educated people are more capable of critical thought. They subject the claims of religious teachers to more intense skeptical inquiry. This is rather like older children asking themselves how a fat man can navigate a 9-inch chimney flue, magically reemerging next to the Christmas tree with packages measuring more than a foot in three dimensions. Older children connect these absurdities with a pattern of suspicious movements by parents and draw the inevitable conclusion that Santa Clause is a charade perpetrated by parents on children. Younger children are more trusting and less skeptical.
Logical though the rational-capacity explanation for atheism is, it is not entirely satisfactory for different reasons. Rational capacity does not always translate into religious skepticism, as noted for the distinguished scientists of past eras who were rabidly religious for the most part. Similarly, in religious countries, people may well stop believing in Santa Clause when they grow up but still hang on to their religious belief system. So it takes more than skepticism to separate people from their religious faith.
Why do religious people trash some implausible beliefs but keep others. Perhaps they get something out of the beliefs they keep. Once a person grows up, their parents no longer shower them with gifts during the holiday season so that they have no particular reason to sustain their credulity concerning Santa Claus, although they do pass on the belief to children.
If religious beliefs do not yield tangible benefits for adults, they may yield emotional rewards. The emotive aspects of religious belief can persist despite development of improved reasoning ability. Religious beliefs and rituals may continue to help adults to feel good. Belief and disbelief are more a matter of feelings than of reason.
Why elevate the emotional aspects of religious belief over the cognitive, or intellectual ones? One possibility is that religion functions as a form of emotion focused coping. It provides a defense against life's difficulties and disappointments.
The Emotional Hook
If religion is essentially a mechanism for dealing with unpleasant emotions, it is most useful when life is most difficult, as in disease-ravaged poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa and least useful when the quality of life is good, as is true of godless Europe.
In less educated countries, the general standard of living is poor. There is a lot of chronic illness and early death. Infant and child mortality are high. The population is highly vulnerable to droughts, famines and natural disasters. Most people find it miserably difficult to make a living. Governments are weak and corrupt and ordinary people get pushed around by gangsters and warlords. Of course, there may also be little religious freedom so that if there are any agnostics they are forced to keep a low profile.
Lacking any objective solution for their many problems, residents of less developed countries turn to religion for answers. The clearest evidence for this Is the fact that in poor countries where the standard of living is low virtually everyone sees religion as important in their lives.
As the standard of living improves, there are fewer unpleasant situations over which people have no control and therefore less of a market for religion. With improving quality of life in developed countries, the importance of religion declines. Looking into the future, this predicts a gradual shrinking of religious belief as the standards of living around the globe continues to improve fueled by rapid economic development..
1. Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Intelligence, 37, 11-15.
2. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/