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. Terry

    Sorry, I am not buying the hype within this article. The bible was written, and re-written, several times, by several different men, each interpreting the stories passed along over the centuries. The stories were written based on the needs of the people at the time of each rewrite. Using religion for the purpose of getting elected, or re-elected, is nothing more than a re-write, or in the case of social media, the 140 Rule will apply. Sadly, the researchers missed me, and all of my friends. Being raised in religion, and then educated at top universities, we all arrived at the same conclusion, religion is a veiled attempt at controlling those within any society.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • William Demuth


      If you are as cute as you are smart, then the Jesus freaks are doomed.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • James

      Agreed. God or no, Christianity was not created by any god except the god of greed and power – aka man.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      It is interesting that at Qumran Israel , hidden in caves,were the entire texts of the Old Testament, except for one book.These finds have been dated to the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE.and are amazingly accurate to the Old Testament we have today.Where are the changes and rewrites you speak of finding?

      August 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  2. Sy2502

    The above should give you an idea of the state of disrepair of the American education system...
    Now let's look at the really smart people, meaning people who have actually made significant contributions to science, like Nobel laureates. More than 90% of all Nobel laureates don't believe in god. And these are the people who have the greatest familiarity with nature, the so-called "god's creation". And yet it seems the more you know about nature, the less you believe in god. Food for thought...

    August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • J.W

      There are intelligent people who are not scientists. A greater percentage of scientists may not believe because a higher power cannot be observed or tested using scientific experimentation.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  3. Will

    "by some measures"

    CNN is nothing more than a dirtrag

    August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  4. James

    What I got from this article: Stupidity is non-denominational.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  5. Qularkono

    all people are religious. all people know that God is the Creator. some people suppress that knowledge because they want to be autonomous and not accountable to anyone or anything outside of themselves. the universe itself attests to the existence of God and therefor nobody is without guilt for not submitting to His authority ... and because they are created to be creatures that worship God, and yet refuse, they find something else to worship ... but they turn to other created things and thus their worship is futile and fruitless. read Romans and then decide for yourselves.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • William Demuth

      The universe talks to you?

      How can you be sure it's not ELVIS?

      Then again, maybe the voices in your head are just plain old mental illness!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Whats wrong with being accountable to yourself if you believe in being a better person everyday and contributing to society? You make independance seem like a disease.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • saopaco

      Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.
      – The Dude

      August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • William Demuth


      It is the logic of history. Tolerate independence and the empire is doomed.

      Christianity requires sheep.

      But be cautious, if they expect you are a wolf they will either kill you, or make you a bishop.

      I vote for independenc for myself, but apparently the fringe benifit of child buggery DOES attract many to the church.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • James

      But which bible do we follow? The Old Testament, which made sense in that people were rewarded or punished solely on being good or bad and even had 10 handy rules to follow? Or the New Testament, where God admitted his 1st try at religion was a complete failure and rebooted it with the new and arbitrary "Just Believe in Jesus" rule so that bad people could go to Heaven and good people could go to hell? Personally, I preferred the original Christianity. It made sense, even if God grossly overestimated mankind's potential for good.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • DianeD

      Nicely put, and I agree with you! Hope you don't get knocked here in this blog for it!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  6. kendc

    1. Religion is for stupid people.

    2. Its okay to kill religious people because they'll spend eternity in heaven.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  7. roter

    This just shows what the education system is coming down to. Obviously if schools teach creationism, this trend is hardly unexpected. Also, other surveys point to falling math and science numbers. I guess this survey just confirms it.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • EmptySkull

      But the creationism debate is mostly happening at the lower grade level in the recent years, whereas in the survey, I think the "more educated" crowd refers to people with college degrees.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Oh boy, here it comes. The "if you don't believe in evolution, you're anti-science" mantra from the left. I guess if you don't believe in a purposeless universe, that automatically disqualifies you intellectually. Once you fail with your indoctrination of your evolutionary world view, you start insulting their intelligence.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  8. Teslor

    The alternative to belief in God is belief that you can make something from nothing without any form of guidance. And in our case something very elaborate was made; the universe, life, the proper conditions to support it, and all that life has in-turn created. Without some guide I'd have to believe it is possible to comine matter and explosives and eventually produce a working 747.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Colin

      So Telsor, where did your god come from. Let me guess, it was "always there" right? so we're back to something from nothing.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • roter

      If you study advanced quantum physics, you will find that not only can it happen, it WILL happen. It is the same atheist physics which has given technology to cure cancer, gave rise to the semiconductor industry and generally made the modern world we live in.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Then who created your creator?

      Then who created your creators creator?

      Then who created your creators creators creator?

      Your theory is comporable to an autistic kid trying to explain a SPYROGRAPH design to a goldfish.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Teslor

      Both of us must accept something always was and always will be, in my case God,in your case?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • James

      Colin beat me to it. Good work, Colin.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Nothing shall always be.

      You so fear your own death that you will suspend logic for some pathetic false promise of hope.

      You will live, you will die, you will rot, and you shall be forgotten.

      Your world, your galaxy and your universe all face the same fate.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • MrHanson

      rotor, that is the most idiot comment I think I have read. I guess you never heard of Raymond Vahan Damadian, the inventor of MRI, or Issac Newton, Charles Babbage, etc..... Even Werner Von Brahn repudiated his Nazi background and eventually embraced Western Christian ideals and became a Chrisitan himself. Isn't there room for redemption?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • David Johnson

      You said: "The alternative to belief in God is belief that you can make something from nothing without any form of guidance. And in our case something very elaborate was made; the universe, life, the proper conditions to support it, and all that life has in-turn created. Without some guide I'd have to believe it is possible to comine matter and explosives and eventually produce a working 747."

      Umm... Because the existence of the universe is improbable, does not justify the existence of a supernatural being, that is more unlikely and more complex than the universe whose creation you are trying to assign.

      You have only moved the problem up a level. Now instead of where did the universe come from, we are faced with the problem of where did god come from? If your answer is, that god always existed, then I claim the universe always existed. Certainly, an eternal universe is as likely as an eternal god.

      Not knowing the cause of something, does not automatically default to "God Did It". At one time god was thought to be the reason the sun raced across the sky. All the things that man once thought god was responsible for, science is explaining without including the supernatural in their explanations.

      The earth was not created for life. Life commenced, and then evolved to exist in this environment. If the environment were different, we simply would not exist...at least in this form.

      Note, that you are fantasizing about an all powerful god. He could have had us breath cyanide gas, drink sulfuric acid and thrived! He could have had all the Heavenly bodies stand perfectly still. Arguments such as the ones you offer, make no sense in light of an omnipotent god.


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

      "then I claim the universe always existed."

      Of course pretty much everything we know about the age and movement of the universe comes from science...and it says it had a beginning and theorizes it has an ending.
      What we know of God (Judaism/Christianity) comes from the Bible and says God is eternal.

      Result...Christianity's primary sources support the conclusion that God is eternal.
      Science does not support the notion of an eternal universe.


      August 15, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  9. Angus001

    How sad that so many people (obviously atheists) feel the need to strike out in hate in their posts. You don't put atheists in a good light. None the less as a Christian we understand that we are not perfect, we MUST lover everyone (no matter what they believe), and not judge because that is for God alone. If you see Christians doing that then they are having trouble as everyone does from time to time.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Krreagan

      Atheists are people too. The good and the bad...
      Christians not judging ???? Are you off in the weeds or what!!!! When was the last time you were in church. It's all about judging!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  10. pat

    Now redo the study where "level of education" is replaced with "level of education in science" and let's see what you get.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • J.W

      So only people who are scientists are intelligent? So there are no intelligent teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Oh boy, here it comes. The "if you don't believe in evolution, you're anti-science" mantra from the left. I guess if you don't believe in a purposeless universe, that automatically disqualifies you intellectually. Once you fail with your indoctrination of your evolutionary world view, you start insulting their intelligence.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Krreagan

      Actually, Science teaches critical thinking! this is something that most religions don't like because it means they will not take what you or anyone else says for granted! Science teaches reasoning, logic, cause and effect... Things left out in most other disciplines.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Yes science does and should teach critical thinking. But infortuntely most EVOLUTIONARY scientists already have a religious view. You can't allow a divine foot in the door. Most of them are quite dogmatic like Dawkins and Myers to name a fiew. They aren't very critical of their own view and accept evolution as faith. Cause and effect? You meen those things that are repeatable, testable and observable? Was the Cambrian explosion observed? No. Do they know what caused it? Not really. Most specualtions are based off of faith when it comes to OOL. If you believe in the mutation fairy and her mutation wand, anything is possible! Reason? It's more reasonable to believe life came from an intelligent source and was designed.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  11. geo

    The comments are as laughable as the article... 😛

    August 11, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  12. TheMiddleWay14

    This study is ridiculous. Sure, in absolute terms when considering the population as a whole, the majority of the educated are going to fall within the groups that represent the largest segments of the population. But when considering each group separately, the group which represents non-religious, secular, agnostics, and atheists has the largest number of and most educated members as a proportion of the group population.

    Context is important in real scientific considerations. I see this, being a religious study and blog, has no use for context, logic, or reason.

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

      You do await judgement, dude. Suggest you put on your disguise and sneak to church like all atheist hypocrites.

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

      Don't you read the (rebooted) bible, dude? There is no judgement anymore. The 10 commandments and Old Testament were a complete failure. Now all you have to do is believe in Jesus and you're automatically in. So all of those boy molesting priests are getting a free ride to Heaven. And all of the good people who had doubts are going to Hell. What a stupid and arbitrary rebooted system. Even if there is a God, the one in the bible is too fallible to be it. But then we can forgive every contradiction and injustice in the bible by simply stating "God works in mysterious ways". Here's a hint; stupid is not all that mysterious.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  13. Mark from Canada

    From the abstract of the actual article:

    "Analysis of survey data shows that (1) education negatively affects exclusivist religious viewpoints and biblical literalism but not belief in God or the afterlife; (2) education positively affects religious participation, devotional activities, and emphasizing the importance of religion in daily life; (3) education positively affects switching religious affiliations, particularly to a mainline Protestant denomination, but not disaffiliation; (4) education is positively associated with questioning the role of religion in secular society but not with support for curbing the public opinions of religious leaders; and (5) the effects of education on religious beliefs and participation vary across religious traditions."

    I'm sceptical – I'd like to know what the author defines as 'education'. If you were to do this study in a Muslim nation, for example, you can appreciate how that could bias the outcome through religious indoctrination in the schools. There are many religious schools in America and I have no doubt that this would contribute to the results of the study. It seems like one broad stroke of the brush to reach these kinds of conclusions. I await judgement.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  14. ELH

    Education or the lack thereof is probably not a predictor of one's religiosity. Whether or not one is deemed 'religious' springs more from one's emotions that one's knowledge. For every brilliant person who professes a belief in a higher power you can find an equally brilliant one that denies the existence of such.

    I am blessed with an above average education (two technical degrees and an MA) and I find it utterly impossible to believe that some omniscient being simply snapped its fingers (or tentacles or whatever) thus creating this unending universe of which we and the planet upon which we live are but an infinitesimal part.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  15. Rene

    This study, or at least the article, seems very ambiguous. If religious belief increases 15% with every year of education then shouldn't 100% of doctors be religious? That simply doesn't make sense. Is this college educated or just in high school? Again, the parameters and statistics are very poorly defined (or the article is just poorly written).

    August 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  16. martinipaul

    Where do atheists get their morals? In church, of course. This is too great!

    August 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • saopaco

      Atheists get their morals from reason, I would bet.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • EmptySkull

      So people who do not go to Church has no morals?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  17. Kate

    I totally disagree with this article. Most of the highly educated people I know do not attend religious services regularly or belong to a religious denomination. They do not read the Bible regularly, and they don't accept it as the true word of God. They do tend to be more spiritual, however. They tend to be more accepting of people who have beliefs unlike their own.
    I don't know how this poll was conducted, but it appears to be highly flawed.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Johnny

      Well, that's the difference between a scientific study and an anecdote, isn't it?

      Your individual experiences may be different than the overall picture. It doesn't make you wrong about your friends, but it does mean your friends don't represent the trend.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  18. GodPot

    What you have here as they say "by some definitions, at least" is that it's obvious the "likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally increased by 9%" after an extra year of schooling, doesn't mean anything more than people who are better at reading/comprehension are more likely to actually read a book they have been told since childhood is the direct word of God. And why does the phrase "at least occasionally" belong in a supposed scientific study? I can factually say that Christians like to abuse children, get high on meth and murder their wives, "at least occasionally".

    August 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • MrHanson

      Oh boy, here it comes. The "if you don't believe in evolution, you're anti-science" mantra from the left. I guess if you don't believe in a purposeless universe, that automatically disqualifies you intellectually.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • GodPot

      MrHanson is a good man, hard worker and is kind to others, at least occasionally.

      Se my point? I was not making any "if you don't believe in evolutio" comment at all, I was pointing out that "at least occasionally" has no place in a scientific study. Thats like saying "We now have proven all male liberals are gay because they have been known to fall in love with other men, at least occasionally". Some sturdy science there, at least enough for most Christians to base their broad range of knowledge about the "outside" world.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  19. OldRightRep

    Could it be possibly that the reason more educated people attend church on Sunday is because they have M-F 8-5 jobs and are more easily able to attend? As opposed to say the lower working classes that are in retail/service sector jobs that work any of the 7 days of the week?

    This "Study" like all of these for either side are pushing an agenda.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  20. kendo23

    Yet most Universities in the US push the secular/Godless/anti-religion agenda....hmmm.....go figure.

    August 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Lori

      I would guess you have never attended a university.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • kendo23

      I have in fact. A catholic one.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Krreagan

      kendo23... That explains a lot!!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 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.