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. blovee8

    pffft, let the redneck south and the innercity blacks believe the Lord looks out for them. seems thats where the true believers are.

    August 12, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  2. Elizabeth

    I have a master's degree (and post-master's education as well) and would consider myself religious. I attend an Episcopal church and it is filled with doctors, lawyers, and other similarly educated professionals. No one is there to sell more insurance, we're there to learn and feel connected to something we feel is greater than ourselves. The nature of the sermons tend to be very different than at the churches that cater to the uneducated flocks – we're more concerned about existentialism and learning about religion from an academic perspective, rather than the dogmatic focus that seems to cause borderline obsessions with the evangelicals. Is Jesus actually in the bread? When specifically is Jesus coming back? My thoughts: Who cares, there are the poor to be healed and people to be loved. How can you apply Christ's teachings to make YOU a better person and the world a better place?

    August 12, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  3. someoneelse

    I call complete bullocks on this. Every study has shown the more educated a society or country is, the less religious they are. Every study.

    August 12, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  4. Truth

    This is the dumbest study ever. Let me break it down for you geniuses. Higher educated people believe in stuff with no evidence or logic?????? Ummmm, or maybe people who go to school and can regurgitate words out of a text book. I guess if that is what the definition of highly educated is. Here is a quick guess. I bet the person who did this study is highly educated and religious...................LOL. The subject of the study and story is an oxymoron.

    August 12, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  5. TruthPrevails

    here is the link to the report they are speaking of: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=sociologyfacpub

    note: the latest referenced date in this is 2005...it would appear with logical deduction that things change drastically in 6 years.

    August 12, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  6. a person of the Name

    @ Q it was out of judgment. God doesn't look kindly on those who mistreatment his ppl.

    August 12, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  7. Jim

    Social scientists have always observed a rough inverse relationship between educational attainment and religiosity. Now, atheism is fashionable. This shows just how easily manipulated the poorly educated can be. Poorly educated, conformist atheists! Kind of funny, actually.

    August 12, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • Truth

      Pfffff, That is the whole reason why religion was created. It is to manipulate the weak and desperate. Try thinking instead of believing.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  8. Carl Saga

    Pioneer atheist may don't believe in something w/o a shred of evidence backing it, but they never claim absolutes. That's (I think) what separate them from modern ones.

    And what really p!ss me off are those who make unsupported claims like Ed Buckner did and some of atheists here as well. They are no less than to a lil chi-nesse claiming the existence of a Creeping Spaghetti Monster and its noodly appendage.

    August 12, 2011 at 7:08 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      you make unsupported claims all the time...when science isn't sure they call it a theory and then proceed to test the theory...when religion isn't sure they plug the 'god factor' in to it...what a waste of time

      August 12, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Carl Saga

      “But there are a lot of atheists in the pews,"

      Why not help your buddy Ed to support such claim with physical evidence.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Carl Saga

      And one more thing, I just can't help but noticed that you always insert god in your posts more often then frequent. You must be a Christian.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I wouldn't know if there were more Atheist's in the pews because I have better things to do with my time and don't need to attend church to have the social aspect in my life.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Carl Saga

      At last I heard an educated answer from you. And for the record, that is the most honest answer that I ever heard.

      I hope that you could grasp it now, why I said that such a claim (“But there are a lot of atheists in the pews,")from an atheist sounds soo PATHETIC.

      August 12, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  9. Methusalem2000

    Most free-minded Physicians (educated) tend to become believers after they have witnessed the wonders of GOD in our biological body.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:29 am |
    • Huh?

      Do you have evidence of this, or do you just like bearing false witness?

      August 12, 2011 at 7:09 am |
    • HAH!

      No evidence is necessary. It takes an educated physician to grasp that, are you one? Or you were just a unemployed making use of your useless time punching the keyboard.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Huh?

      I guess I need to spell this out for you. Claim, such a "most people tend to believe such and such" should be back up by evidence – otherwise they are worthless. I see that you're good an insults – but bad at adding anything even remotely resembling substance.

      August 12, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • HAH!

      So when I say that you're unemployed is an insult, while you accusing Methusalem of bearing false witness is a compliment?

      Oh boy! How a typical atheist you are.

      AND, Am I the one who was accusing somebody of bearing false witness?

      Remember the burden of proof mantra?

      August 12, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Huh?

      "So when I say that you're unemployed is an insult"
      -pretty much

      "while you accusing Methusalem of bearing false witness is a compliment?"
      What else would you consider unsubstantiated claims

      "Oh boy! How a typical atheist you are."
      -Because I raise questions and don't take things at face value? Then yeah, I think I'm a pretty typical atheist

      "Remember the burden of proof mantra?"
      That was the entire point of my original post. Guess that was totally lost on you.


      Again, another post totally devoid of any substance. Do you have any actual arguments or positions? Apparently not.

      August 12, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • HAH!

      "Again, another post totally devoid of any substance"

      Ironically, your lenghty reply is the most effective rebuttals of your own statement above.

      And don't you know that the word "unsubstantiated/unbacked/unsupported claims" can be compared to the word, more greater? It's a complete redundancy.

      Wanna know why? Sorry boy, I don't sp-o-on-fe-ed my students. Check your dictionary that you'll be properly guided back to your senses.

      August 14, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  10. Methusalem2000

    "I know that I know nothing" (Ancient Greek: ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα hèn oîda hóti oudèn oîda. Plato said that.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:27 am |
    • Jim

      "A wise person understands the depths of his or her own ignorance."

      Someone smart said that and it remains true. Just wish I could remember who it was that said it...

      August 12, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Sophia

      How about the world is your mirror . the good you find in others, is in you too. The faults you find in others, are your faults as well.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • Jim


      I wouldn't go that far because not everyone else has my faults and we need to be taught to act well (be good). I do not wish to insult others by linking them to mt faults and saying they have the same.

      But, understanding that you (or I) are quite ignorant about much of life is a good place to start – from a humble stance that should drive us to listen and look to discover the truth and not just ask questions to accuse or embarass others.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Sophia

      The possibilities you see in others, are possible for you as well.
      The beauty you see around you, is your beauty.

      The world around you is a reflection, a mirror showing you
      the person you are.

      To change your world, you must change yourself.
      To blame and complain will only make matters worse.

      Whatever you care about, is your responsibility.
      What you see in others, shows you yourself.
      See the best in others, and you will be your best.

      Give to others, and you give to yourself.
      Appreciate beauty, and you will be beautiful.
      Admire creativity, and you will be creative.

      Love, and you will be loved.
      Seek to understand, and you will be understood.
      Listen, and your voice will be heard.

      Teach, and you will learn.
      Show your best face to the mirror, and you'll be happy with
      the face looking back at you.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  11. Veritas

    Thank you CNN, for posting an article which indicates that religious people can also be educated.

    It's nice to see a balanced persepctive on here.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:25 am |
    • Jim

      Amazing how so many from all sides think that others can not be educated and see things differently. That doesn't mean that there is not truth and falsehood but that we wish to lower others so that we may appear taller.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  12. you repeat

    I've found that the more authistic I mean atheistic someone is, the more narcissistic he/she is.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • Huh?

      Really? I find that someone who thinks the universe was created just for them and who thinks that they can have a personal conversation with the creator of the universe who occasionally does their bidding is highly narcissistic. Especially when you contrast that to someone who thinks we're an average species on an average planet around an average star in a suburban part of an average galaxy.

      August 12, 2011 at 7:12 am |
    • HAH!

      See how defensive atheist are. Nobody reacted on Me again's comment but when it was rephrased against them. There goes Huh. How predictable.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Huh?

      I make a claim that Hah! can't debate, but instead resorts to ad hominem attacks. How predictable. *yawn*

      August 12, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • HAH!

      That's it, go to sleep my boy. I would suggest that you should and dream as much as you want rather than dreaming but not sleeping.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  13. me again

    I've found that the more religous someone is, the lower his/her self respect is.

    August 12, 2011 at 6:03 am |
  14. TruthPrevails

    Just because one is an accountant does not mean they have studied or read in depth about the wonders of the world. I think the more educated one is in science or at least the better versed one is, the less likely they are to attend church or believe in God. This article does not state what group of educated individual they speak of...theologians are educated and yet they hold firm to their belief in a deity.
    On a personal level, I have two college degree's and neither have anything to do with science or religion but yet I am not a believer. I have had the opportunity to be exposed to what science and researchers have discovered and find it by far outweighs what the bible claims.
    I can see why people turn towards the church, as it started out and as it will always be, we are human and humans need social connections. The church readily offers that. I have a great number of social connections without turning to a church but might have done (turned to the church) that had I been living on my own in the small town I live knowing no-one...those connections can be beneficial for most aspects of ones life (economic, personal well-being, etc).
    There is no question that churches can be beneficial to society, however the stories they tell do not meld with what we now know from valid scientific evidence.
    We will never (at least not in our lifetimes) have all the answers, nor will the believers. We just choose to be open-minded and admit we don't know, believers usually refuse to look past the book and the fulfilling answers they are given and plug a unknown in to it. Churches give the much needed moral support to some when they are seeking answers.
    This just my opinion of course.

    August 12, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • eyesopen


      August 12, 2011 at 7:33 am |
    • Jim


      And just because you have this belief (with no supporting evidence) doesn't make it a rational or aligned with reality my friend. From where I sit (atheistic background rooted in scientific naturalism and found God through science and nature), I can say the exact opposite of what you did and be just as valid in my opinion about "other people" and the reasons they are atheists.

      As Antony Flew used to say often, "that sword cuts both ways equally."

      Have a great day TP and God bless.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • JohnR

      @Jim What god did you find?

      August 12, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  15. Darshan

    What a load of BS... Sorry CNN but this article is ridiculous...

    August 12, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • haha88

      I know right.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  16. OvernOut

    This article was all about church-goers and reading Bibles. I had some brilliant professors in college, and a lot of them were Jewish. Doesn't that count for being religious, also?

    August 12, 2011 at 5:27 am |
    • Jim

      Yes, yes they do count.

      August 12, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  17. Carl Saga

    “But there are a lot of atheists in the pews,"

    Another proof that there's no big thing about atheists other than their egos.

    They have been claiming the entire irreligious populace which is 16% of the world's and is dominated by agnostics, when they only comprise 2.5% of which.

    And now they're claiming some of those who go to church as one of them? How pathetic!

    Atheist must go back to sleep and dream as much as they want and should never wake-up. Otherwise, they must deal with the fact that they are the poorest and miserablest minority.

    August 12, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails


      How very christian of you!!! NOT!!!

      Bigotry sometimes rides extremely high amongst Christians and you sir just proved what level it can go to. People like you are detrimental to society...to wish someone away because they don't conform to what you, a not so tolerant human, believes without evidence. So please Oh Superior One, tell me what god is the right one and how you can be so sure?? Until you answer that with evidence, you are the one who looks pathetic.

      Believe what you want but do not expect everyone to be as close minded. This world is as much mine to enjoy as it is yours...maybe trying to live in peace would be a good start here. Stop setting aside the bottom line and face a couple of facts that pertain to everyone. a) we are all human b) the fighting over the creation of this earth is pointless...we certainly can't go back to allow either side to win this argument, so why not work together to ensure the future of this planet is lengthy?
      We don't know and you don't know!

      August 12, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • Carl Saga

      And who gave you the idea that I'm a Christian?

      Your loud STEREO had just outvoiced your projecting drivels that they couldn't be heard. So you better shut the FUKK-UP you hippo!

      August 12, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Carl Saga

      Pioneer atheist may don't believe in something w/o a shred of evidence backing it but they never claim absolutes. And that's what separate them from modern ones.

      And what really p!ss me off are those who make unsupported claims like Ed Buckner did and some of atheists here as well. They are no less than to a lil chi-nesse claiming the existence of a Creeping Spaghetti Monster and its noodly appendage.

      August 12, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      You are a moron! Nothing more needs said!

      August 12, 2011 at 7:16 am |
    • Carl Saga

      And so do you! That's what we have in common.

      August 12, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      here's the difference: I do not accept that the answer's can be gotten from a book. I accept that this is a vast world of wonderment that we can't possibly have all the answers for. I admit to not knowing. You on the other-hand claim to have all the answer's from something that has been refuted numerous times over. You make the claim, now back it with evidence otherwise do the world a favor and keep your delusions to yourself.
      I can guarantee my life is better b/c I live it for the here and now and don't give a rats behind what happens after I am gone. I remain open-minded to everything.
      You shut your mind b/c it is easier to ignore the facts than face them. World's a scarey place and I acknowledge that but the feel good factor of 'god' is not needed to make it better!
      Now this is my last post to you...you are far too ignorant and brainwashed to continue to waste my time on!

      August 12, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Carl Saga

      Let us discuss you latest reply by piece. Bear with me:

      "I do not accept that the answer's can be gotten from a book." Did I say that you should?

      "I accept that this is a vast world of wonderment that we can't possibly have all the answers for."

      You don't monopolize that thought.


      "I admit to not knowing"

      I have a news for you, WE'RE ON THE SAME PAGE.

      "You on the other-hand claim to have all the answer's from something that has been refuted numerous times over. You make the claim, now back it with evidence otherwise do the world a favor and keep your delusions to yourself."

      "You on the other-hand claim to have all the answer's from something that has been refuted numerous times over. You make the claim, now back it with evidence otherwise do the world a favor and keep your delusions to yourself."

      Can you quote a single statement from my post that I made such claim? Now prove it.

      I find your statement that I quoted a serious accusation, now PROVE it.

      But wait are you talking to me? Apparently you do since you are replying to my post. Hence to sum it all up....

      Your a DOLT!

      August 12, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Know What

      Carl Saga: "

      "Your a DOLT!"

      What a priceless blunder !

      August 12, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Carl Saga

      Indeed...but you can have it if you want, for free.

      August 14, 2011 at 4:56 am |
  18. Hit_me

    I agree to some extent only because if you see the education ratio in EU countries then this research doesnot apply on those countries. Suppose take Sweden for a second, I read somewhere in newspaper around six months ago that a new research says that every second person in Sweden has a University Degree and if you see the religion of Swedish peoples, they are either mostly atheist or don't care about their religion.

    August 12, 2011 at 4:04 am |
  19. Ganymede

    God is not a giant old man with a big white beard who lives on the clouds. Jesus was just human.

    August 12, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • Reality

      Actually, Jesus was not only human but was also a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

      Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

      Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

      So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

      August 12, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  20. GPC

    I think there is often (although not always) a big difference between educated believers and noneducated believers. I know plenty of well-educated people who are "religious" in a nontraditional sense. They will often talk about church but rarely God. Church is more of a social or networking thing. It's where their kids attend daycare or preschool. It's where stay-at-home mothers socialize. It's more like something they are supposed to do. It's part of being a middle class suburbanite, which probably explains why "religiosity" increases with education level. But religion or God has no real meaning in their lives. They tend to strongly dislike fundamentalists. It's not that these people don't believe in a god. It's just that it doesn't impact how they think or behave in any real way. It doesn't create a particular worldview like it usually does with less educated believers. It's hard to say if religiosity really increases or if it is just the need for and benefits of the social aspects of religion that increases.

    August 12, 2011 at 1:31 am |
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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.