Is there a polarizing effect of education on social/political attitudes?

This last spring there was a research note published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by Joseph O. Baker. The author described the results of a quantitative analysis of factors related to whether or not individual Americans 1) agree with evolutionary accounts of human origins and 2) oppose the teaching of Creationism in public schools.

The conventional wisdom is that higher levels of education are associated with an increased likelihood to believe in evolution and oppose Creationism in public schools. This analysis, however, showed that the relationship is contingent on one’s level of Biblical literalism. While, in general, more education is associated with greater acceptance of evolution, those who agree that “the Bible means exactly what it says … literally, word-for-word, on all subjects” and have a college education are about 20% less likely than Biblical literalists with less than a high school education to indicate agreement with human evolution. There is a similar effect to supporting the teaching of Creationism in public schools.

This suggests that higher levels of education produce a “polarizing” effect in some circumstances. Those with higher levels of education sometimes tend to be more firm and extreme in their religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are literal or non-literal.

I thought this was interesting given that there is anecdotal evidence that the same effect seems to occur with political opinions in recent years. While higher levels of education tend to be associated with more liberal political preferences in many instances, education also sometimes serves to polarize those with ideological preferences. Highly-educated liberals and highly-educated conservatives tend to be further apart in their political preferences than less-educated liberals and conservatives.

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