Study: More educated tend to be more religious, by some measures
August 11th, 2011
11:06 AM ET

Study: More educated tend to be more religious, by some measures

By Jim Kavanagh, CNN

People tend to become less religious as they become more educated, right? Not necessarily, according to a new study.

After analyzing data from a large national survey, University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel found that people actually tend to become more religious - by some definitions, at least - as they further their education.

“It all falls down to what you consider to be religious,” said Schwadel, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If it’s simply attending religious services, then no. Highly educated people are not less religious; in fact, they’re more religious.”

“But if it’s saying the Bible is the literal word of God and saying that only one religion is the true religion, then they are less religious,” he continued.

Schwadel used data from the highly regarded General Social Survey, a cumulative and nationally representative survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago biannually since 1972.

Social scientists rely heavily on the “gold standard” General Social Survey, which provides cumulative data collected regularly between 1972 and 2010.

His study will be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Review of Religious Research.

Schwadel found that with each additional year of education:

- The likelihood of attending religious services increased 15%.

- The likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9%.

- The likelihood of switching to a mainline Protestant denomination - Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian USA or United Methodist - increased by 13%.

Respondents to the General Social Survey were asked whether they believe in God without any doubts; with various levels of doubt; whether they have a different concept of God or a higher power; or whether they didn’t believe in any such thing, Schwadel said.

“With more years of education, you aren’t relatively more likely to say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’” he said. “But you are relatively more likely to say, ‘I believe in a higher power.’”

The findings makes sense to D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College in Massachusetts and author of “Faith in the Halls of Power,” about the growing evangelical Christian elite.

“The more educated a person is in their faith, the more cosmopolitan they are in their religious outlook,” he said. “They’re worldly in the very best sense of the term. They rub shoulders with people of different kinds of faiths every day and as a result they have different visions of what it means to express your faith in the public square.”

“They’re more open-minded, but here’s the thing: They’re no less faithful.”

But a leading voice for atheists says the study’s finding about education increasing certain measures of religiosity may be less straightforward than it appears.

“There are plenty of people who go to church who are not believers,” said Ed Buckner, former president of the group American Atheists. “They go for all sorts of reasons. I don’t mean that they’re all frauds and deceptive, (but) they go for social reasons or (because) that’s what’s expected of them by their families or their peers. Sometimes they go so they can sell more insurance.”

“But there are a lot of atheists in the pews, or at least people who are not committed to and probably haven’t even thought about and examined carefully the religious views that are being expressed in that church.”

The finding that highly educated people gravitated toward mainline Christian denominations suggested class dynamics at work, Buckner argued.

As people become more educated, he said, they move into the middle and upper middle class. “And as they do so,” he said, ”they move into more establishment situations regarding the society, which means they join the churches that are the churches of the elite, or at least of the middle class.”

But Schwadel said respondents were discussing their actual beliefs, not just churchgoing habits.

“What it all says to me is that religion matters to people of all education levels in the United States,” he said. “It’s just that, depending on your level of education, you behave and believe differently.”

So why the widespread perception that intellectuals are less religious, even largely irreligious?

Academics are at least moderately less religious than the general public, Schwadel said.

“When we see these trends, we tend to exaggerate them,” he said. “Most people see a trend and they think everyone’s like that.”

Lindsay thinks there’s more to it than that.

“There has been a concentrated effort by a cohort of very smart people who treat religion as the panacea for the simple-minded,” he said.

Bucker disputes that.

“Do we think that anybody who doesn’t agree with us is an idiot or a fool? Well, some of us do think that,” he said of atheists. “But I don’t think it’s systematically true of everybody in the movement.

“… I mean, I do think they’re wrong. Anybody who believes that there is a sky god out there who is going to do anything good or evil for us, basically anyone who thinks the universe cares about us, is making a mistake,” he continued. “In the words of Richard Dawkins, they’ve been deluded.”

But some people’s religious beliefs are “deeply held and carefully considered,” Buckner said. “And I also realize that some atheists’ lack of religious beliefs are pretty superficial and they haven’t thought things through.

“I have a lot more respect for a religious person who has really considered this, thought it through, read some books that disagree with their point of view and still accepts that position than I do for somebody who just unthinkingly rejects any particular point of view.”

Lindsay said the study could help break down some of society’s religious barriers.

“It’s a problem of perceptions because it fuels the idea that there’s some kind of deeply entrenched culture war where smart people are opposed to religious people, when in fact it’s far more complicated than that,” he said. “And in fact, the old divisions between deeply religious and irreligious probably don’t apply.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Education • Polls

soundoff (1,651 Responses)
  1. Mike

    Maybe there's more social pressure to be part of a main stream religion as you reach higher up the ladder. I think there's more to this story.....

    August 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Kyle

      I believe that point was already IN the story...

      August 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  2. willie

    Masonic orders demand one to confess to a belief in god wether one does or not. Attending service is a requirement. Masons run the country, they probably had a hand in this article too. After all, they own the media...

    August 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Peace2All

      So does AA... (Higher Power), The Big Book, etc...


      August 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  3. Aerin

    This study is garbage. The more intelligent the person the less likely they are to be religious.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • david

      Please cite your sources and related studies. Otherwise you are simply expressing your opinion – which is irrelevant.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Not All Docs Play Golf

    I suspect that among the more educated, their being more 'religious" has more to do with participation in church as a social norm than any true belief that a guy named Jonah really spent 3 days in the belly of a whale or that a guy named Noah really loaded 2 by 2 every microbial organsim on earth onto his boat so many cubits by so many cubits, or that Satan really is a living being. I think they choose church participation for it's benefits as an expected-of-them social norm, and to give them a perceived moral resource for child-rearing because they don't know how to do that without a religious context. It's not that they truly believe the fundamental doctrines. It's a social phenomenon for them that feels good.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Plus its a great way to rip off sheep, and if your REALLY devout you might get to bugger little boys with your preacher while you defraud the flock of old ladies you surround yourself with.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • sbp

      Spot on. Especially if you undertand that even a man-made religion can have a societal benefit. There's nothing wrong with a sense of community, particularly where the genetic bonds within a cirumscribed environment become more tenuous.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      Yep, I have a friend who is no more christian than me. lol He got married and had kids....guess what he takes his kids to church. Interesting enough he does it simply because he is expected to. Neighborhood friends etc all do it. I pity him because he wastes his sundays. You don't need church to teach your kids good morals. His hell not mine. lol

      August 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Eye

      This was addressed in the article.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  5. martinipaul

    So much atheist blather about 'intelligence' and no definition. If it is not educational achievement, what is it? IQ? Where do atheists draw the line? 120? Don't give me all that 'if you believe in God you're stupid" argument. That's lame. Even stupid.
    Really, what is the atheist definition of 'intelligence'. Are there not 'stupid' atheists, too? If there are, how do I know that any of you are actually 'intelligent'. In other words - prove it.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Primarily a quantifiable ability to discern patterns of great complexity

      August 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Prove we're not.

      (this should be fun...)

      August 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • sbp

      Martinpaul: "how do I know that any of you are actually 'intelligent'. In other words – prove it."

      I'm smarter than you. You'll just have to take my word for it. Like you take the Bible's word for it. It's a matter of faith.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • martinipaul

      WD: more blather. I want specifics, jack, not generalities. I don't want 'quantifiable' , I want 'quantifiers'. What empirical data do atheists use to determine 'intelligence'. Do; you use any tests, or standards or do you just make up what ever suits you?

      August 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • William Demuth


      There are many standard tests that can be used. Traditional IQ tests are a good indicator. Mathmatic progression test are also usefull, as well as pattern recogntion.

      Hell you can even use the old ASVAB and get a passable indicator.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • martinipaul

      WD: so tell me the standards, man. How high do you have to be on the old IQ chart do you have to be before you call somebody intelligent? And is 'intelligence' only science or math? Go on, be specific, if you have the balls.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • William Demuth


      This is a temple for non exsistant Gods. Some balls seems in poor taste don't you think?

      As far as IQ I believe above 120 was considered high.

      Why do you ask? Do you have self doubt? Is your savior failing you? Do you believe he built you from an inferior mold?

      August 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • martinipaul

      WD: 120 high? I thought you were looking for 'intelligence'! So you would agree that everyone under 120 is unintelligent. Right? Stones are not only in good taste when dealing with atheists but positively required. As far as my savior goes, he is doing a great job with me by providing this opportunity to witness my faith. Atheism is quite useful for belief, actually.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • heynow

      @ martinipaul

      Generally, showing open hostility to others for no good reason is a good indicator of low intelligence.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • martinipaul

      That's what I thought. Atheists have no empirical standards by which they measure intelligence. At least none they are willing to admit publicly. Like I said, blather, blather, blather.

      August 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  6. Test

    Why in the world is the word c o n s t i t u t e s censured here. Toke me a while to figure out what I was saying so wrong to be censured!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • heynow

      It's the t i t part. And your chances of posting go up when you're not hitting the toke.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Because it begins with the most common mis spelling of the cooloquial term ʇunɔ that refers to a female organ

      August 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • heynow


      I constantly find that improbable.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  7. C+

    I know a lot of wealthy people, bright people, curious people, and some who have all of these attributes. Many of them who do go to church are very social beings and network like crazy. Others seem to have a long history of extreme evangelism in their family background. However, none of them follow the teachings of their respective religions. Knowing all of them reasonably well and working with some I have observed that they are some of the most morally and ethically flawed people I have encountered. Almost none of them would speak candidly about why they attend church. Most of the time they offer a programmed response. When I ask them what church is like for them, they describe it like a club with a fully functioning gossip mill, which is exactly how I remember my church experiences having been dragged to several over a period of 15 years by my parents.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  8. equalOpportunityOffender

    So what this is saying is that the loud mouth my-way-or-the-highway zealots tend to be less educated and less capable of thinking things through for themselves. (Acutally, it's not what the data is saying, it's how I interpret it. At least I am sufficiently educated so as to allow me to recognize that subtle difference.) This may possibly also related to the lemming nature of Tea Party supporters.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  9. Melissa

    Btw, every other study done that wasn't religiously promoted, says that the more educated are LESS religious. Google it.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • DamianKnight

      I will. After you google "University of Chicago" and "University of Nebraska-Lincoln" and then tell me the study was done by a religious group.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Entil'za

      We did...you lied. Google it.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  10. Dogboy

    "If atheists are so intelligent why don't they prove the God does NOT exist."
    I can do nothing more than laugh and remind you christians that god is an atheist and so am I.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • meemee

      That's not how the rules of evidence works. When extraordinary claims are made, and this is what religion does, then the burden of proof is on that claim. However, the evidence that there is no intervention of any sort is overwhelming. The many departments of the scientific community, including philosophy was made it abundantly evident that religion is a matter of emotion and a grasp at a thing that has to be relied on against all evidences to the contrary. When Jews in WW2 were being herded into a gas chamber, a rabbi famously invoked God' "Here is the moment of delivery," he shouted! And after a long pause and the Nazis made the move to herd them in to be murdered, he said, "There is no God." Many Jews became agnostics after WW2. Atheists are either well educated and sure of themselves or generalized ones who might fold in times of stress because they lack full knowledge required to articulate the issue to themselves. I find most people who do join churches are doing it for the community connections, etc., not because they are being "born again," in the old sense.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • SpotOn

      Proving something true is often difficult but proving something false takes only a single counter example. In the case of a god, there are many counter examples that demonstrate non-existence: 1. The Holocaust (mass murder of the "chosen"), 2. Medieval crusades (religiously-based mass murder and torture), 3. Pol Pot (millions murdered), 4. extinction of species (did a god just get it wrong and want a do-over?), 5. civilian slaughter in Syria, 5. evolution, 6. culturally-based biblical mythologies (several gods/profits have claimed virgin births and supposedly crucified to death), 7. an obviously imperfect planet that shakes buildings to the ground and sends tsunamis to drown thousands, 8. pedophile priests who prey on children, to name a few.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  11. Susan

    Frank: you are just coming off as stupid.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  12. Test

    can deny any specific faith

    August 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  13. Tex71

    One thing is still clear and coherent among ALL studies: more education definitely decreases the likelihood of belonging to a fundamentalist group (aka literalist, creationist, bible-thumpin', snake-handlin', faith-healin', anti-intellectual, extreme right wing-leanin', science-denyin', Tea Party-votin', ignorant-and proud-of-it, darn-tootin' folks). Another great reason to support education as vigorously as possible.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Test

    but no really smart person, no even Richard Dawkins,

    August 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Failed Test

      August 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Zebula

      Bingo, Test. This study is crap.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  15. Iceman

    For those who think the bible is empty promises, it is and always will be. For those whom put trust in the Bible, isn't empty promises. Take for example the march of the world powers described in Daniel chapter 2. all have come to pass. the last world power to rule before God's Kingdom replaces it, is the Britian/American World power that we see today. This promise made nearly 3,500 years ago is trustworthy, reliable, and guaranteed.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      You wackos said the same puke in 800 AD

      I know Jesus is REALLY REALLY coming this time!

      Thats up their with the check is in the mail, and I will still respect you in the morning.

      Basically a lie told by someone who is looking to do you in one way or another.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • sbp

      The book you are reading from is trustworthy, reliable and guaranteed because it says so in the book you are reading from. See a problem with your logic? And if the promise is breached, who do yo go to to enforce the warranty?

      August 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics


      The book you are reading from is trustworthy, reliable and guaranteed because it says so in the book you are reading from. See a problem with your logic? And if the promise is breached, who do yo go to to enforce the warranty?

      Their faith is in man and man has made it to where his created god is not accountable requiring one must have faith in man.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Lycidas

      @sdp- He forgets to add at the beginning, "It is my opinion that" Their faith is in man and man has made it to where his created god is not accountable requiring one must have faith in man"

      He has no evidence of such a claim.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics


      @sdp- He forgets to add at the beginning, "It is my opinion that" Their faith is in man and man has made it to where his created god is not accountable requiring one must have faith in man"

      He has no evidence of such a claim.

      I forget to point out the obvious on an opinion blog being it is my opinion. Actually simple logic points to the source of faith. Faith in the bible is faith in the writers. It is known the writers of the bible are in fact humans (man). I have already proven my case.
      Now prove that the hand of man did not write the bible, rather a god did. You prove this then man's faith is truly in a god and not a human. Please leave out assumptions, stick to the evidence. If you cannot then it is you Lycidas that is being misleading.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  16. Jay

    Yes, the odds of the universe and life developing are low. But if you should find yourself alive in a complex and ordered body, then the odds of your universe being complex and ordered is very close to 100%. If you found yourself in a physical body and your world was not complex and ordered, your body would likely deteriorate before you could even think about the situation. People often point to the low probability of the universe developing as it did without realizing that you would of course find yourself in such a situation if you were alive.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  17. Test

    Richard Dawkins

    August 11, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • tallulah13

      ...is married to Romana. The second one.

      August 13, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  18. Steveo

    The truth is that it is impossible to prove either way if there is a god or not. The debate has been going on for thousands of years and its not going to be resolved anytime soon. There are morons on both sides of the argument and it upsets me that people can be so cruel to others based off of a simple belief. The point being that regardless of what you believe people should try their best to treat others with dignity and respect and if they did this world would be a better place for all of us. Life is short, don't waste your time putting others down to make yourself feel better.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • oakydoke

      I think you make a fair point, Steveo.

      As long as religion doesn't try to use psuedo-science, and faulty logic to posit claims with no merit. It is not possible to disprove the existence of God, because it's impossible to disprove the exisitence of anything. It is a logical fallacy to try.

      However, as long as they stick with irrational faith, and I stick with provable logic, we have no qualms. Everyone is allowed to believe anything they want.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • equalOpportunityOffender

      Let's assume a Christian faith for a minute - Jesus was sent to earth and told people your message - be good to each other. So what did they do? They nailed him to a tree. For those of the atheist stripe, it's just another guy nailed to a tree. Regardless it's sad.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  19. oakydoke

    Hinduism, Bhudism, Islam, Christianity, Animism, Taoism...

    Tell me why you reject the others, and I'll tell you why I reject yours.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • >.

      you're not too young to be a cowboy

      August 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  20. Joe B.

    Colin my friend, I'll take the bait on your Leprechaun King...

    You are very true to say that if the "King" did not exist, then his followers were duped. As one of those followers said, if the son of the Leprechaun King - you called him Merlin - was not raised from the dead, then his followers are to be pitied above all other men, because they have put their hope in his resurrection and should go eat and drink and have a good time like everybody else because what is life about but good times and parties?

    I should point out that this follower, Paul the Lizard, was among the chief accusers that the so-called son of the King was a fraud and a liar, and Paul believed he was doing the will of the Leprechaun King, until for some reason this follower took a 180-degree turn and became a believer in the son Merlin and began preaching about his resurrection. This same Paul - one of those mostly unknown authors you mentioned - also wrote numerous letters to other little sects that cropped up about the Son of the King and, for some reason, have survived 2,000 years later and changed billions of people's lives through the ages according to the people who say so, presidents and governors, and cab drivers and generals, and CEOs and house wives, and doctors and scientists, and pastors in Cuba and deacons in China, and all of them - this is the crazy thing - all of them talk and speak like they have all experienced the same life-changing power of the Leprechaun King, even though of course that can't be true because Colin doesn't believe in can be true, and so that makes it true. Right?

    There was also another believer in Merlin named Luke, who was mentioned in Paul the Lizard's letter to one of those little sects in which Paul was imprisoned for his belief in Merlin and was set to go on trial before some guy named Caesar because Paul was a citizen of some place called Rome.

    Coincidentally Colin, Luke's letter about the history of this little sect, called the Acts of Merlin's Foolhardy Apostles, spent a considerable amount of space describing Paul's conversion, his missionary journeys to other little sects, the naming of deacons to oversee the sects, the story of some guy named Peter the Toad who claimed he knew Merlin. What I really enjoyed, more than anything, was the part where Paul the Lizard is invited to discuss these strange ideas to a very tough audience at some place called Mars Hill, where apparently the much smarter people, like Colin, had idols to many, many other gods other than the Leprauchan King. Most of these people - remember, they're much smarter than Paul - dismissed his ideas and went on believing in their little wooden idols. But Paul concerted a few of them, because they're mentioned by name, and it's funny because that same scenario has been repeated for twenty centuries and Colin, for some reason, thinks he's as smart, or smarter, than those who dismissed Paul the Lizard. Are you smarter, Colin?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • oakydoke

      So your point is that ALL religions are true in that they are symbolic of a Universal yearning for God, yet their actual forms are unimportant.

      In other words, The Leprecaun King is just as valid as your King.

      Interesting. I didn't peg you for a Universalist.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • The Lionly Lamb of The Gods Does Roar

      @ Joe B.

      You have written a well versed Parable Joe! Except for one thing. Merlin, the King's son was said to have told his followers to sell all they had gained and help the poorly ones most in need of sustanence to sustain them. People who do drink and party away their monies rather lavishly and with little to no regards for the very poor of the many masses of Life's peasantries should at least give something even if it is but their Time. 🙁

      August 11, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • fred

      Joe B,
      Paul was crucified upside down and the other apostles with the exception of John also died horrible deaths because they would not recant the truth they saw and heard. That is a strong argument for me that they did not make any of this up. But the A team (agnostic, atheist and anti Christian) will cite the truth of wiki off the internet and say the gospels are all false.
      Fortunately I have a low IQ which is a blessing as I believe simply because of the wonderful things Jesus has done.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Anglican

      Believe or not. Faith or not. Fred, St Paul died by the sword. St Peter was said to be crucified upside down. Peace.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.