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. Iceman

    Ancient Egyptians use to put 'poop' on their face too, but of course, by his reasoning- that would be a bad example too, wouldn't it?

    August 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics

      2 girls and a cup.... we haven't changed much since ancient times.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • bro

      There is a better chance that the girls from "2 girls one cup" (great video, strongly recommend it) lead normal lives than the Bible being even remotely true.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Anti Christian Taliban Schizophrenics


      There is a better chance that the girls from "2 girls one cup" (great video, strongly recommend it) lead normal lives than the Bible being even remotely true.

      Strongly recommended???????? It was disgusting! It was sent to me as a joke and I didn't make it far before I turned it off. There are some twisted people out there is all I have to say.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Atheist

      I bet those girls were religious.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Mike

      I bet god told them to make the video.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  2. Numbercrunching

    Funny how they didn't mention age as a factor......the older you get the more religious you tend to become also. If they pulled that piece out... there would be nothing to report. It's a BS statistic run up the flagpole by the religious zealots swearing they're way of life is justified.....sadly using bad logic and vocal PR, nothing new for that rapidly dwindling group.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  3. WOBH

    As an athiest, if I truly wanted to hold a public office, I would not be free to publicly discuss my non-belief. Voters will not elect an athiest. I wonder, outside of the academic world, if belonging to a church increases one's chance of job advancement.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Bruce

      There are a lot of privately-held beliefs that simply cannot be honestly and frankly expressed by a politician who actually wants to get elected. Many of these beliefs have nothing to do with religion.

      If you want to go around honestly and frankly expressing all of your personally-held beliefs, politics is probably not in the cards for you.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Bruce

    It's odd how many atheists have bought in fully to the evangelical view of religion as a set of personal beliefs, a set of privately-held opinions the individual may or may not have in some strong or weak sense regarding a narrow range of ideas. That is, it is odd how heterodox atheists are concerning religion.

    Religion, if we allow the orthodox to more-accurately define the term, is a community–an organization–of people who go out and DO things together. Some of these things that they do together may be public proclamations of belief, however the atheist who thinks that someone who privately/secretly has doubts about these ideas but nonetheless publicly proclaims them, that someone like that is not actually religious but merely "faking it," ignores the more orthodox definitions of "religion" and "religious."

    It never ceases to amaze me how much importance is placed in the mere opinions of the individual, and how little importance is attached to the more-pragmatic understanding of what it is these individuals do as a part of a collective group known as, for example, a "Church."

    Moreover, it is a heterodox lie that this "personal relationship with Jesus" is what makes for faith. Indeed that is the opposite of the orthodox understanding of death-to-self, and the rising-again-in-glory into the Body of Christ (the Body of Christ is also understood as the Church, for those paying attention). That is, the individual is decidedly not saved in this transition–the individual actually dies. Salvation is best understood, for the orthodox, in terms of the collective rather than in terms of the individual.

    Of course, there seems to be little hope of saving "religion" from people like evangelicals who have turned the whole idea upside-down. While I understand the draw for the evangelical, what I don't understand is why the atheist has accepted this notion basically without question. It seems they, much like the evangelical, prefer to be intellectually lazy rather than think these things through.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • SHRIKE


      August 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bruce

      @Shrike: Was that question posted with any desire for a response? Or was it perhaps some undeniable urge of yours to demonstrate your complete lack of intelligence in some semi-public manner?

      August 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      Actually, I have no need for any response from you as I can't bring myself to care about what you have to say. However, I'll answer you anyway: I barely got through your first lame@ss sentence, before deciding it wasn't worth reading the rest. My "What" was in response to your pompous over-wrought prattle. If your going to say something, just say it. BLUF.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Bruce

      Undeniable urges are undeniable...

      August 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • All people named Bruce are poor singers


      Your definition of religion is the fifth and last listed "the practice of religious beliefs". The other four are all concerning religion being the ideas/beliefs themselves. Your idiotic strawman generalization not-withstanding, that makes your hypothetical atheists right and you an idiot.

      Maybe it's you who needs to think things through a little bit more thoroughly. But you won't.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Bruce

      Um.... no. A plurality/majority of definitions found in the lexicon does nothing to refute my argument.

      Try again.

      August 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Jon

      Isn't the very idea of religion an opinion?

      August 11, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bruce

      @Jon: What "religion" and "religious" means is, yes, an opinion that varies from person to person. I've compared the orthodox opinion to the heterodox/evangelical opinion and have wondered why many atheists accept the latter and reject the former.

      The article describes the varying opinions of these terms as well, and says that–depending on the definition you accept–the more-educated tend to be more-religious, or they tend to be less-religious, than the less-educated. It just strikes me as odd that so many atheists reject the opinion that "religion" and "religious" are practical terms concerning a collective sense of a Church.

      Heck, even many evangelicals, when they say they are "not religious," or that they are "against organized religion," and they reject the Catholic Church in their heterodox way, are embracing the orthodox definition of "religion" and "religious." It's strange the reaction of many atheists to stuff like this...

      August 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  5. swingstar73

    wooh! 666 responses! Satttaaannnn!!!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  6. Shadowflash1522

    "Ritual is the husk of true faith" – Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching

    August 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  7. Sarah

    Jesus is a bigot.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  8. Iceman

    So says the mouse who fails to see and understand the trap beside the cheese

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

      @iceman – learn how to reply and you are dumb. I would say your "mouse and trap" saying is the most idiotic comment on this page today.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  9. The Guy

    So this guy stretched secondary research to come to a very hazy conclusion? Apparently you can publish a study about anything these days. Coming soon, "Study: Chimps like bananas because somebody saw them eat them once".

    August 11, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • GodPot

      "Study: Chimps like bananas because somebody saw them eat them once"

      That has far more validity than this article.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • The Guy

      Won't argue with you there...

      August 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      SHRIKE(S) like bananas too

      August 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  10. SwordofTruth

    Wish there was some way to deter every non-believer's mind. Do you think if there was some king of sign, some miracle, some spectacle, that confirmed God exists, that they would believe?

    Honestly, no. There have been signs, there have been warnings,... and time after time, we ignore them. The signs and miracles erode over time: become into stories passed on to children: which turn into myths told by others: which with time, erodes and turns entirely into disbelief.

    I'm really surprised by how quick everyone is to say, "God doesn't exist." OH,.. He does exist, and if you were to sit down and search for Him, I am confident that you would find what you are looking for. If you are looking to discredit, then you will probably go through the bible and misuse quotes to point at how stupid it is. But, if you are open, maybe attend churches, and seek other aethiests turned christian... i think you will be surprised.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Shadowflash1522

      Interesting, how the only two categories that exist in your world are Christian and Atheist.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • William Demuth

      If I see Christianity disbanded by Christ I might entertain buying him a beer, but thats the best he gets.

      And if he tries to bugger me, I shall crucify him again.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Brad

      Like many others, I'm an atheist in regard to the religions of man, but I'm an agnostic in regard to the existence of a god. Christianity is blatantly false and rather easily dismissed as a false religion. But it is impossible to discuss logic and facts with one who's head is intertwined in fantasy.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • swingstar73

      Interesting that the person's name invokes weapons. Oh how peaceful you Christians are. Oh, let me guess: it's metaphorical? *rolls eyes*

      August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Shadowflash1522

      "The Perils of Introspection" youarenotsosmart.com/2010/05/26/the-perils-of-introspection/

      In short, "Looking inside yourself" is a fallacious exercise because if you look hard enough you will always find what you seek. The human mind hates being wrong. If you look for God, you will find one. If you look for emptiness, you will find that too. And believe me, there's a psychopathic killer and a pink elephant running around in there too...

      See also Confirmation Bias, Hindsight Bias, and their love child the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      I looked for him, but he was busy buggering children that day

      August 11, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Mike

      All this article tells us is that people go to church as some sort of club when they are educated and have a family. It's part of the middle class value system. I lived it and hated every minute of it but looking back I was surrounded by good people and had the opportunity to participate in good programs that helped others. BUT we were definitely not religious. The bible never came out of the bookshelf, we didn't pray before dinner or bed, and I the whole time I was at church I was thinking about how much football I wasn't able to watch. If this article is trying to insinuate that religion and education go hand in hand I think we should shelf that idea right away. Church is more of a social club nowadays and the crazy religious aspect of it is still for the uneducated.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  11. Not All Docs Play Golf

    It really just shows the power of indoctrination of children at a young age when they are vulnerable to "imprinting." If we waited until someone was an educated adult, had been taught science, and THEN for the first time presented to them the Bible as history, they'd of course reject it. But we don't. We wrap it all in the emotions of childhood Christmases, the majic, the music, all during their childhood, so they cannot even rationally assess religion's validity as an adult. It's too late. it's too deeply indoctrinated during childhood.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  12. mouse

    never confuse education with intelligence

    August 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • The Guy

      extremely good point

      August 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • He's right

      100% dead on

      August 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • WOBH

      The article does not mention people's intelligence level at all... it refers only to education level. I see no confusion... at least not from the article.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • ross

      Couldn't agree more. I have a JD from a top 20 law school and I am really not that intelligent. I just studied my ass off and memorized a bunch of stuff I forgot a week later. But I am still smart enough to know that the church is a joke. The girls are easy if you say you believe n god, but that's about it.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  13. Jennifer Bond

    Yes William Demuth, or at least the people that I didn't smash their car, cheat them out of money, out and out stole from them, or slept with their husbands. Aside from those people, which covers about 99% of the people I knew, then yes I was the life of the party! LOL

    August 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Leys twist up a few blunts with the pages of Revelation and talk about the good old days.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  14. Iceman

    @William Demuth
    FYI- God is a non-national. However, you may wish to reserve that for his arch enemy; Or better yet, do that to him by your conduct and actions, =0)

    August 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  15. swingstar73

    I am one educated person who they didn't poll and I think religion is a blight on civilization. I wish they would have polled me. Frankly, I don't give too much credence to any survey that polls a small population and extrapolates the finding out to a much larger population. I understand the method, but I think it still leaves something to be desired. Also, receiving an education does not make one intelligent. I have my master's degree, and to be honest, I think some of the stupidest people I ever met are people that I met in college. Also, I know very intelligent people who didn't go to college. In this day and age, higher education is more indicative of wealth than it is of intellectual merit. Furthermore, I agree with the comments that other atheists have made regarding the questions that were asked in the survey. Terms like 'religion', 'spirituality', 'faith', 'higher power', etc are always misused and abused. For every atheist that considers themselves spiritual, I will show you another atheist that doesn't. For every religious person who considers themselves religious, I'll show you 15 evangelicals who don't consider themselves religious.

    When it comes to making truth claims, religions offer differing and exceedingly contradictory views to one another, despite how much they will say otherwise, trying to appear open-minded and inclusive. The fact is, SOMEBODY has got to be wrong. There is no way around it. If, for example, Zeus exists, then that means there are a lot of 'educated' Christians,, Muslims, Jews, etc that aren't as educated as the people who did this survey would want to say they are.

    I find it interesting that this article was tagged with 'atheism' and not tagged with any religion. It appears like this article was written as a jab at atheists like "Haha! you atheists think you are so smart with your science and philosophy and your critical analysis – Well WE got a survey that says you are all stupid!" If it wasn't intended that way, then why isn't it tagged otherwise? Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they just knew that atheists are the only people who really care about statistical analysis lol.

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

      It's a pointless gesture, but I agree with everything you just said

      August 11, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • ross

      I agree.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Dredd


    August 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  17. Jimbo

    I would say the smartest people are "agnostic". And I would also say this whole study was a waste of time, when the whole population of this country is 90% religious of course the majority of people who are more educated are going to be religious, same with homeless bums and the same with people who just went to highschool. Articles like these are meant to create arguments so CNN can get more money from advertising, what else has this study accomplised?

    August 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      > I would say the smartest people are "agnostic". And I would also say this whole study was a waste of time, when the whole population of this country is 90% religious of course the majority of people who are more educated are going to be religious, same with homeless bums and the same with people who just went to highschool. Articles like these are meant to create arguments so CNN can get more money from advertising, what else has this study accomplised?

      I'm an atheist and an agnostic. They're not mutually exclusive.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Guest

      They are mutually exclusive actually. Agnostic means you are unsure if there is a god whereas atheist means you know or believe there is no god. There are agnostic atheists which means you don't believe in god, but aren't sure, which really means your just agnostic.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Bruce

      @Guest: Actually, you are incorrect. Your belief, and the relative certainty you may or may not have in that same belief, are two distinctly different things.

      Also, knowledge is not what belief turns into when doubt disappears and you are left with only certainty. Knowledge is justified belief in something that happens to be true as well, and can occur even if you are not 100% certain in your belief.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  18. TexasCentrist

    I question the results of this study. First, the survey was analyzed by someone who arguably seems to be biased in favor of religion. Check out his CV at http://soc.unl.edu/wwwfiles/facvita/schwadelP11.pdf. Furthermore, the fact that religion has absolutely no scientific basis puts education in direct opposition with religion. Sure, I have seen otherwise intelligent people hold to strong religious beliefs. That honestly has always been a mystery to me. Must be something in their brain that causes their intellect to switch off for religious matters. Brain chemistry notwithstanding, the idea that education would cause a person to become more religious simply does not make sense.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Barb

      In all honesty, I seen nothing in this article that really proved that people become more religious as they become more educated. The only things I seen are that some go to church more and things like that. That doesn't make them more religious, in my opinion. Depending on what they have went to school for would also have something to do with their opinions on religion. If they went into any kind of sciences, they may not believe in God or go to church, whereas a teacher may. This entire article doesn't really tell anyone anything they don't already know. For those that don't have a higher education, they may be very religious yet have to work odd hours and therefore can't make to church regularly.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Barb

      make IT to church*

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

      Thanks for sharing the CV, now I know the person conducting the study is more than well qualified compared to the inane opinions of CNN bloggers.

      As for your other remark, I can soundly say that my intellect doesn't turn off or diminish despite my strong religious beliefs. My decision to be Christian was not because of indoctrination but from a well thought and analytical perspective of the Bible and its teachings.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • The Guy

      I agree completely. "More educated" can technically mean they went to a seminary or one of those unaccredited "universities" with creationism as a path for biology. If this study was carried out by scoring IQs against religious beliefs I believe we'd be reading about vastly different results.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Bruce

      Actually, TexasCentrist, more education causes the believer to come into direct contact with theological ideas not even entertained by the uneducated.

      Think of the virtue of humility and apply it to your intellectual life. Now take the theological idea of Mystery and see how not being able to put God in your intellectual box such that you now understand all there is to understand about theology makes you very intellectually humbled, indeed.

      It is this intellectual tension that creates a very powerfully spiritual experience for the intellectual. All the nonsense of Darwin versus the narrative of Genesis, and things like that, melts away and you are left broken in a way that the non-intellectual cannot possibly appreciate.

      So I disagree. I think the more educated you become, the more-likely it is that you can have these spiritual experiences and thus the more-likely it is that you can become more-religious. The intellectual who gives themselves over to Mystery is like the rich man who passes through the eye of the needle.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • The Guy

      @Bruce was obviously part of this study.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Bruce

      @The Guy: Nope. I'm actually an atheist. I am unable to sacrifice my intellectual pride at the altar of Mystery. However, I do understand what is at stake, unlike most people responding to this article...

      August 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  19. Bill55

    Nothing less than a crock here.

    August 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • TexasCentrist

      I think you mean "more than". Everything here is crock or worse. 🙂

      August 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well if you don't have a crock, one might be usefull.

      I sort of see it more like a herpes sore.

      Very few would benifit from one, but they ARE easy to come by in church.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Mike

      suck my crock.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  20. Iceman

    Please show me where is said, "Corporation equals Science" you are ignorant aren't you? Are you incapable of understanding that I was using an example?

    August 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Atheist

      His point was that it was a bad example.

      Or at least that's what I got from it.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • sbp

      Are you kidding me? You said "Science fails", and the reason was, that the pharma industry has no business interest in curing disease. Ergo, you are equating business with "science." Even granting your flawed presumption (that polio and smallpox vaccines don't exist because they cure disease, which big Pharma won't do), the failure of the pharma industry to cure a disease for business reasons is not a failure of "Science." Simple as that.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
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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.