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. Athiest

    The article says that education is correlated with religious commitment. However the author did not compare the IQ's of the persons involved, simply their education. Education does not magically grant intelligence. The author also fails to consider that perhaps it was because of their religious beliefs that the persons were ABLE to get the extra education. Strong religious families tend to be more wealthy and send more of their children to college, at least in my locate, so his finding are no surprise at all. I'd like him to poll the people in the top 1% of IQ's and see how many of them attend church regularly out of their beliefs, and not because going to church helps build a better community.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So very true.

      Not to mention religious education itself.

      A degree in theology is in my eyes more indoctrination than education.

      But MANY shrewd people use the church to create a persona for themselves, to be used in buisness or political aspirations.

      I know MANY who wear their religion on their sleeve, yet no more believe than I do.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Mike Donner

      Hey, Mr. High IQ Atheist- grab a dictionary (or actually read the above article) and figure out how to spell your religious self-identification.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Godfrey

      Actually, there have been a number of studies that show a correlation between a higher IQ and a lack of belief in gods. It's apparently a pretty good predictor.

      However, that doesn't mean that religious people are stupid. We humans are hard-wired to believe in things that aren't there. This propensity has helped us survive.

      And not every highly intelligent person is interested in sorting out the beliefs with which they've been inculcated.

      Belief is the default position.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • JIm

      Mike – I don’t think the 'Athiest' defined himself/herself as a High-IQ holder. Why the anger at the opinion of the poster? To be consistent you should have also pointed out the grammar errors too. Did 'Athiest' Hit a nerve there?

      August 11, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Ed

      I have seen a great mant atheist site similar polls the claim show proof that the higher the level of education the lower the likely hood of believing in God. Now we have a poll done by a sociologist at a quality university, by all standards some one among the highly educated and the same atheist say its not education its intelligence. Ed Buckner responded to this in the article. You are among the atheist that as he put it " we think that anybody who doesn’t agree with us is an idiot or a fool" Why can't you accept that a person can be intelligent and well educated and still believe in God.

      I have meet many atheist that come across as simple minded fools and idiots and many that seem very inteligent. I can say the same for religious people of every faith. Why do some atheist feel they need to call all of the beleivers stupid just because we disagree?

      Makes you wonder who the simple minded fools in the conversation really are

      August 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • me

      Well, I'll gladly represent the top 1%. Actually, I test in the top .1% and I'm Aspie with little patience so I try to avoid anyone who can't at least score in the top 2%. Unless I'm at a Mensa gathering, I can almost always assume I have the highest IQ and test scores in the room. I do not go to church regularly. Actually, other than work, I don't go anywhere regularly because I hate being tied down. However, I gladly say that I am a Christian–not the stereotype Bible thumper–but definitely Christian. Because I spend most of my social time with people I met through high IQ societies, I cannot stand the outside assumption that the intellectual elite are mostly atheists. There are atheists at every level; however the truly intelligent are far, far more likely to be open-minded and thus agnostic. I know very few high IQ individuals who are narrow-minded enough to completely close their minds to the possibility of God. Furthermore, I don't know many people who go to church regularly; however, those high IQ people who do tend to join Unitarian congregations.

      August 21, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  2. JIm

    RIck Perry wants to PRAY to fix the nations problems. Got a plan B smart guy?

    Nuff said.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  3. IceT

    It's also called "social networking". Church services are more of a social gathering & educated people know this. Reading the Bible has less to do with believing the bible than it is simply a resource for study. I personally do not believe the bible is the word of God but with such historic influence it is not something that should be ignored.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  4. God is Crap

    Of course, these people think Christian Universities count as having an education. Their History departments have one professor and it's a 1/2 semester class.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Godfrey

      They get all the history, geology and social studies they need in Bible class.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      I would agree with your statment if you didn't just paint all Christian Universities with the same broad stroke. Where I live St. Catherines is a womans college and it may be weak on some History but it is a very good school.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  5. doight

    The tiltle of this article is BS, The author is obviously trying to prove his own ideology. "it depends on the definition of religion etc". There is a difference in religous dogma and spiritualism. I have two degress as well as an M.D. and i hope that after we die there is some sort of existence for our spirit. But to muddy the waters and imply that I am religious is BS. In fact, everyone I know becomes less inclined to beleive in "religion" as they evolve. The religion that I am talking about is the dogma and simplistic beleifs that belonging to a religion brings. In fact, different religions are just established cults. What a misleading article and crappy study.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  6. pat

    God is a myth, with our without education.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • J.W

      with our without education huh? You make such a convincing argument. I think I will become an atheist now.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Godfrey

      JW: you already are an atheist, with regard to 99% of the gods out there. So it's not that great a leap.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      @ J.W. you are an athiest, sorry! If you truley had enough faith in what you believe. You would not even respond to these opinions in such a manor. You would be posting various Biblical Quotes to make your point like half of the religious extremists do on this site. Then you would walk away from here feeling superior and empowered. You have failed the "true evangelical believer litmus test". So says I!!

      August 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  7. JiminTX

    You can always juke the numbers to fit your thesis. In reality, educated people are simply less likely to believe in the existence of an Invisible Sky Friend myth. I work with dozens of PhDs and none believe in the Christ Cult fairy tales,

    August 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  8. God is Crap

    I've got two master's degrees and a doctorate in progress. Religion is BS. I'm an atheist and proud of it!

    August 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • pimpson

      you're also a moron.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      People have been faking what they believe for thousands of years for socio economic reasons as well as out and out oppressive reasons. Think back to all the Christians that sacrificed lambs and other beasts in Rome just to "fit in" or not be osticized by their fellow Romans. Think of all the Jews that denied their faith to live in Germany in 1934-39. Think of all the folks that are LDS who dont talk about it when they are promoted within a very Catholic company or vice versa......their are many many reasons to go to church and it isn't always a belief in God.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  9. BCA

    I love how they throw their interpretation of the study out there without providing details of the studies statistics aside from the questions asked. I guess they expect us to accept it on blind faith. Oh wait....

    August 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  10. Mikial

    'Faith' response is very narrow-minded – what about the human civilizations that existed thousands of years prior to the beginning of the Christian myth? This planet has much meaning, despite Christianity. I feel that Christian/Catholism was designed by men partially to subjugate women and the natural order of things – for the purpose of artificially inflated male social leadership and to justify anti-Christian actions. I wager that your views represent a true example of 'blind Faith'.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • blah9999

      And how is atheism not narrow minded?

      August 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Godfrey

      blah9999 "And how is atheism not narrow minded?"

      Most of the religious people on this board have no idea what atheism even means: they're only parroting what they've heard on Rush Limbaugh's show, about how atheism is a "dogma" or how it's like socialism.

      Atheism is a statement of disbelief. That's it. Nothing more.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Ed

      First I have seen several ateist on these blogs disagree with your statement "Atheism is a statement of disbelief. That's it. Nothing more." so it would seem that even among atheist there are different beliefs in what atheism is.

      Second read some of the ateist blogs and you will see some of the atheist are very narrow minded and frankly very dogmatic about the atheist point of few in fact the the way worded your own statement was more than a little dogmatic.

      Prehaps atheist and religious are not as different as you would like to think

      August 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  11. Faith

    And Christians alone are good. Secular Americans have not much worth in thoughts, words and deeds.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Navy Vet

      Thomas Jefferson, Ben Frankin and Albert Einstein were not religious. Does your statement hold true for them as well?

      Simply closing your mind and shutting out all outside data and evidence does nothing to help you grow intellectually or spiritually. These great men knew that. Maybe you could try as well.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Amused

      "Faith" – Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking have increased the knowledge and understanding of human existence far more than two thousand years ignorant dogma! My life has been greatly enriched by the knowledge and understanding I have gained from their writings! I'm afraid that you are full of baloney!

      August 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  12. Mark from Canada

    “It all falls down to what you consider to be religious,”
    No it doesn't. It all falls down to what you consider to be education. I call BS on this study. Did they include biblical schools or conservative based education? This CNN article gives you no indication on this nature of the study. I went to the journal website and can only access the abstract. I'm going to order the article and have a read, because it seems to me as though a lot has been glossed over here. It will be interesting to see the response from this article, but annoying to see how the religious folk will use this as ammunition. I've been attending university since 1992 and it has been my experience amongst my educated peers that religious belief in an omnipotent power gets exposed for the fraud it is.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  13. SCDad

    Bull. I, and most of my colleagues at a certain Southern University, are athiests. Most of the professors I know, from other universities, are either athiest or agnostic. Even my good friend, a professor at BYU, is athiest, though that would certainly get him fired if the truth came out.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Its actually worse.

      I have a freind in the military who INSISTS that if it came out he was an Athiest he would be dead within a few weeks

      Apparently Jar Heads hate Athiests more than Gays.

      Rather than Don't Ask, Don't Tell, its more like "When they do ask, Lie, or Die"

      It seems Athiests STILL take point in the march of Christian soldiers.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Willie D.

      Said, but true.


      August 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  14. lalose

    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

    Just in case you missed it

    August 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  15. martinipaul

    An atheist admitting atheistists are hypocrities! Atheists kneeling and praying to God? How revealing is that? When it comes down to it, atheists have no guts, no honesty, and no integrity. If it wasn't for the internet they would all be home scribbling hate notes about God and religion. After attending church, of course. How funny!!!

    August 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Godfrey

      You sound so bitter and resentful. You must be an atheist...

      August 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Who said they knelt down and prayed? did i miss that bit in the article?

      August 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • martinipaul

      I used to be but as I became more educated I saw the error of my ways. And, as Christ said: I came not to bring peace but a sword.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      I think you missed the Jist of what the Atheist was saying and I hold his point as very telling. The more education the higher your income bracket. The higher your income bracket larger your social cirlce is. The larger your social circle the more varied your exposure to different religions and belief systems are. I am a spiritual person, I go to church almost every Sunday but I go for social reasons and to give my children some back ground knowledge of what some parts of society believes. I also attend a UU church one that does not push any one specific religion but accepts all religions and teaches each of us to embrace our spiritual path as a duty to ourselves. If that path ends in Athiesim that is fine but we all still belong to a greater community of humanity and the UU church embraces all humanity and all religions. So my point is I go to church I am college educated and lower middle income. I am not more religious or even a believer in monotheistic faith. Still my case proves what the Athiest is saying has merit.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Godfrey

      martinipaul: So your Christianity has infused you with bitterness and hate. Were you like this when you were an atheist too? Perhaps it's just a part of who you are.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Peace2All


      Hey -Martini...

      You Said: " When it comes down to it, atheists have no guts, no honesty, and no integrity. "

      If you are going to make any argument that has 'any' kind of merit, and to be taken and considered seriously, you may want to consider 'not' making such untrue sweeping generalizations about a class or group of people, yes...?

      For example, If I were to say "Anyone who believes in the Bible is an idiot, and should not be taken seriously" (which I don't believe, BTW– just to be clear) would be an untrue sweeping generalization.

      So, if you are going to make an argument, please try and use some kind of 'facts' with citations i.e... 'proof' of your claims, yes...?



      August 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • pat

      If you believed in God, you'd be afraid to get up off your knees.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ed

      @martinipaul, I have to agree with Peace2all here your statement is just as narrow minded as the numerous generalizations several of the atheist have used. Again proff we are not a different as some of us would like to think.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  16. Liz

    "This planet has meaning only because of Christianity" is the type statement that makes Christians seem closed-minded and ignorant. I'm glad all Christians don't think that way. I prefer Mr. Buckner's statement above about how it is better to be thoughtful and open minded regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  17. Godfrey


    Belief has very little to do with intelligence or education, I've found. The most intelligent people can believe the most inane things.

    For instance, if you believe the Bible, you must believe in giants and talking donkeys. You must be okay with a god who, at times, makes Hitler look like a giggling schoolgirl.

    Intelligence and education don't always illuminate: sometimes they merely give people a way to process that stuff, to classify it as "metaphorical" or "allegorical".

    Otherwise, who'd read that ridiculous, blood-soaked old book?

    August 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  18. RealityChecker

    The 3% of the population that are atheists are outraged that this article proves that other 97% are better educated. The article isn't news.... it's common sense. Which is a large part of why the lunatic fringe 3% are so outraged.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Thinking7

      So true!

      August 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Colin

      You don't know how to read statistics, do you?

      August 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Sal

      If you are so educated you will probably know what the term "Logical Fallacy" means.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Nathan

      It doesn't prove that. It only proves that the more highly educated are more likely to be religious. I would guess that the least educated are also overwhelmingly religious.

      The problem with the data used is that it doesn't accurately measure years of education. It measures education level which lumps several categories together. For example 'high school or less' and 'graduate degree'.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      I think it's closer to 6%, and I'm not outraged, nor am I a lunatic. I am not critical of others' beliefs unless and until they impinge upon my personal freedoms. I have no problem with believers until they try to enact laws for religious reasons, laws by which I must abide. That isn't outrage, it's just common sense.

      Not all atheists are the same, just as not all believers are the same. Try to keep an open mind.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Myself I like the part that says the study:
      'found, higher levels of education eroded Americans' viewpoints that their specific religion is the "one true faith" and that the Bible is the literal word of God.'
      or that
      'more highly educated Americans were somewhat less likely to definitely believe in God'
      'having a greater level of education was associated most often with converting to mainline, non-evangelical Protestant denominations'

      So the more educated believers are more likely to doubt an existence of a god over a 'higher power', turn away from evangelical to more mainstream beliefs, and weakens their idea that the bible is the literal word of god and theirs is the one true faith.

      August 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • You're an idiot...period.

      What's the source of this "3%" figure? Does this represent self-proclaimed "atheists," or all of those who privately believe that religion was created merely to maintain control of the masses (mostly through the use of fear tactics)? What about those that don't believe in the "god" that you believe in? Are they also "on the fringe?" If everyone next to you jumped off a bridge...yeah, you probably would too. 🙂

      August 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Tyler

    I'm sorry, but it's all BS. I'm not saying there's no god or afterlife. What I am saying is that mankind consistantly creates and markets that which will benefit his own needs and desires. This is historically consistant and cannot be disputed. Whether or not there is a god is purely academic because no one alive knows the truth one way or the other, and anyone who says they do is a liar. Every religion on this planet is nothing more than a given cultures attempt at explaining what can't be explained and creating a sense of security and certainty where there is none. Call it a bandaid cure for a fear of the dark. Personally, I hope there is a god, but I don't delude myself into believing for certain there is or isn't. It's just not something I'm qualified to know or understand and I'll find out for sure when I die, just like everyone else.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • RealityChecker

      Good luck with that strategy of "wait and see if I shouldn't have waited to see".

      August 11, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Very well stated!

      August 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Sad...so sad...

      Here's a thought...since when do education and *intelligence* necessarily have to be intertwined and directly related? 🙂 That may have been the case forty years ago...but an "educated" individual, common nowadays as dirt, can no longer be automatically assumed to be of above-average intelligence; therefore, this study is completely irrelevant. It is a proven fact that as IQ rises, belief in that which has never been proven to have existed drops markedly. I wonder why that is... 🙂

      August 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Sad...so sad...

      sorry...didn't mean for that comment to be a response to your comment...guess I've passed the "idiot exam" of the day... 🙂

      August 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Believer2

    Terminology needs to be defined a little better in this article. My experience concurs with the basis of this article in that the highly educated are more likely to be spiritual although not necessarily religious. The people that I deal with regularly are highly educated and most are spiritual and less likely to be Christian and not affiliated with a particular religion and therefore not religious. Much like the other divides in this country, the divide between highly educated and moderately educated is growing wider every year, and sadly the majority of Americans probably are not even in the moderately educated category. My other experience reveals the lower educated people that I know would blindly consider themselves Christian, but have almost no valid basis for their beliefs which are rarely really Christian but instead are old secular humanist dogma.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:25 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.