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. trxsuspension

    Hello. everyone.
    would like to make new friends with you guys.

    November 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  2. Matt

    This poll is showing an inaccurate representation of the truth.

    August 26, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  3. Cythara

    Sure is a sorry statement about American Education! Apparently, it is all geared to propaganda. Real scholarship, particularly in REAL Archaeology (not the History Channel crap) show consistently that the Torah (the old testament) is a completely inaccurate fabrication first conceived and written no earlier than 536 BC. Its writers were totally clueless about the real ancient history of Palestine and the area around them. For someone 'educated' to then believe this stuff has any validity at all, shows that the American education system not only cannot filter out morons, but actively cultivates them. It is the very definition of a propaganda system.

    August 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  4. 500 Questions

    But look at IQ, and it's a different story.


    August 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Mike Dywat

      This CNN headline is a complete misrepresentation of what is really going on. Thanks for posting that research @500.

      It all comes down to what "religious" means. I'm "religious" about changing my oil at 3000 miles or brushing my teeth when I go to bed. When you get right down to it, the numbers don't lie: The higher your IQ, the greater your ability to reason. The greater reason you have, the less belief in a god. End of story.

      It's OK to come out all my fellow once-closeted Agnostics and Atheists! For those of you on the fence or having doubts, check out Humanism! It's basically doing 'the right thing' without some fictional character threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't. And we don't have gay pedophiles leading us around either.

      August 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  5. JamesW

    hmmm,,so where did all of today's comments go?

    August 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • someone


      There is another article that is similar to this one that is more active today - maybe you have them confused?


      August 25, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Justin

    The higher educated tend to be more "religious", until they read a few books and realize they've been led astray by a controlling/scheming/lying church

    August 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • gman

      perhaps some churches fit that mold ... but church and religion manifest our imperfection ... read the book of Romans

      August 28, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  7. Ben

    Going to church is not religious. Wealthy people have the leisure time to go to church.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  8. Real Deal

    Perhaps some of the more educated have a difficult time with accepting, "We don't know" to as-yet unanswered questions.

    August 25, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  9. Matthew

    here are the actual figures for the entire USA, not just a small portion of some small state. They paint a completely different picture. Biased poll, that is all.


    August 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Mavent

      Yes, I CERTAINLY believe "heavingdeadcats.com" over CNN. *eyes rolled*

      August 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • AndyB

      Mavent: That's just the site it was posted on not the source. You can check the sources provided at the bottom of the image in the link. Gallup.com and Census.gov seem like pretty reliable sources to me.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  10. Santiago

    According to this study, educated people tend to be more religious. However, remember that it doesn't necessarily mean that theism is on the rise. I know atheists and agnostics who still go to churches and synagogues; sometimes, to keep with tradition is the best one to keep the family together during harsh times. I'm an Atheist, but my parents are theists. My father is a non-practicing Protestant, and my mother grew up as a Catholic. I was baptize as a Seventh-Day Adventist when I was a child, but that didn't last long. I don't mind listening to a sermon once in a while, as long as the sermon has some substance. I'm not easily swayed by charismatic leaders, unlike the bulk of the people.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • Dexter

      Yes, you're a beautiful and unique human snowflake, completely unlike the rest of us, who are merely worthless cattle. Did you copy down the definition of "sociopath" before posting?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  11. h

    this article is unbelievably misleading and represents atrocious and irresponsible journalism. CNN is elevating pseudoscience and intentionally misleading "studies" to the level of actual science.

    The confounders here are so obvious it's silly this study is even going to be published in anything.

    First off, education level is associated with socioeconomic status. That is the major confounding factor. Those with more education have better jobs which often allow for more free time to do things like – go to church. this is a statistical fact. Those who are educated and remain in the religious camp will obviously have more time to go to church.

    That's it. study should have ended there – if you have more free time you're more likely to go to religious services. It has absolutely nothing to do with education since – we already have seen in DOZENS of studies done ANNUALLY that education level is NEGATIVELY correlated with religious attendance.

    The reason they're getting any association here is they're improperly classifying participants. This is just sloppy work that contains selection bias as well as uncontrolled major confounders. This is not science this is propaganda

    August 24, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • Nick

      Exactly! CNN is so easily duped.

      Misleading studies – 1
      CNN – 0

      August 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • Mavent

      Funny how you're not even smart enough to know the definition of "confirmation bias". The article didn't say what you wanted it to say, so therefore you claim that it's "wrong".

      August 24, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • AndyB

      Mavent: There is a difference between disagreeing with something because you don't like it and disagreeing with something because it was done poorly and doesn't control for enough variables making any interpretation a vain pursuit.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  12. Jim

    Stupid atheist trailer trash.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  13. yooperbubba

    I dont go to church, I don't consider myself religious at all. Yet I do think that there is a higher power and a "god". I think that if someone believes in God that is great. Yet the whole aspect of religion has been so polluted since the day man made it. Did it not say in the bible that god said dont worship me. Than why do people go to church once, twice, three or more times a week. Also, there is no reason or logical excuse for a priest, father, or whoever is in charge of your religion to be wearing a Mr. T start up kit and drive brand new cars and everything else. Religion is a "belief" that gives people a sense of belonging and somehow gives them a sense of well being and path to follow. If there was a true religion, why is there thousands of different religions and who is to say which one is right? Plus how many religious people you know are "good christians" on Sunday and azzholes the rest of the week!! My opinion is just be a good person in your life here on this planet. If there is a place after death, you will go there because you have been a good person, not because you went to church on Sunday.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • mike

      Nope Bible did not say that. Basing your trail of thought on wrong info.

      August 25, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  14. Dave

    You can interpret any "study" however you want most of the time. To say more educated people tend to be more religious is nonsense. Believing in the possibility of a higher power is not the same as being religious.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Dexter

      Uh, yeah, actually it is. It's the EXACT same thing.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  15. tekstep1

    “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.”

    Love this quote. Sums it up exactly.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  16. Lila

    By their conclusion with each additional year of school, there was a 15% increase with religious services. So PHds and Drs are the most religious? That's idiotic. They probably included 2 years degrees with the "higher degree" definition because that is a large group then used those stats.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  17. Jeff

    Just goes to show you that smart people can be dumb too. Religion is a cop out, crutch and a waste of time.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Hof

      Sort of like your existence.

      August 24, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • BEAR

      I couldn't agree more Jeff. People who believe in religion are afraid to face facts and rely on their own judgement. They want someone to tell them what to do.

      August 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • AndyB

      Everyone is a product of their experiences. Just because yours lead you to a more factual existence rather than a faith-based system doesn't make you better than anyone else. You have only seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants or something, something... don't be a jerk.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  18. cdubb8610

    There are too many things that needed to go "right" for everything to exist the way it is. As a result, I feel it is difficult to not to believe in "Intelligent Design". However, creationism is a doctrine I now find somewhat hard to believe. I feel like a lot of what went into the construct of the Bible was used to establish and maintain class structure and social dominance. Many religions have used religious doctrine as a means of creating and maintaining social divides and power structures.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  19. toomanyids

    Blind leading the blind.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  20. Dan-O

    Chuck Norris is religious!!

    August 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Sean

      ...Because he believes in himself.

      August 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
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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.