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)

    This study, to my mind, is not a general statement. The more educated question the existence of God, and never finds the time to attend congregational services. They believe more in the Darwin philosophy and priciple, and their learning comes in conflict with the Creator and creation. It is the same with the rich. They are mostly miserly, and instead of helping the poor, they want more and more. Remember what Jesus said: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom og God.' The world has so many very rich people, and there is starvation. Somalia?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  2. leciat

    this just proves that all these "studies" are bs. they ask 1000 people what they think and then declare this is how 30 million people think. they will ask a different 1000 next year and then declare that peoples thinking have changed in a year...believing these "studies" is as insane as believing in religion.

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

    B.S. The more educated someone is, the LESS Likely they will buy-in to believing religious allegorical stories as being true facts - especially when several religions have remarkably similar stories and dates.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  4. bu

    ALL Religion is a disease of the Mind! Be part of the cure, not the problem!

    Help cure the religion disease!

    August 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • SK

      Or how about just letting people believe what they want to and not belittle them. Freedom of religion – you don't have to like it, but you do have to accept it.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  5. us1776

    People who make it past the 6th grade become less and less religious.

    No adult with half-a-brain can possibly believe there is some invisible all-powerful being up in the sky.


    August 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Answer

      Can you prove to me their isn't?

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

      Can't prove the non-existence of something.

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

      No, it takes someone with a full brain to think at a level deeper than themselves.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  6. A Roman Catholic

    Steven Hawking is extremely intelligent and he has said recently he doesn't beliefve in Heaven. No Heaven, then no God! Oh, by the way folks....to me if you believe in God, than you also must acknowledge Satan (kind of like polar opposites, yin and yang, left and right, up and down, got it?) Satan is a higher power so I would not say I believe in a higher power, I believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit...

    August 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @A Roman Catholic

      You Said: " Steven Hawking is extremely intelligent and he has said recently he doesn't beliefve in Heaven. No Heaven, then no God! "

      While Professor Hawking may 'not' believe in the 'christian version' i.e... 'heaven' and while also, a lot of his work has stated that 'no god' or 'no creator' is needed for the universe to be, it doesn't meant that there may be some kind of 'creative process' going on that we don't fully realize yet, just that the 'probability' that the 'christian narrative' is 'reality' is highly unlikely.

      Can't say for sure... but it is highly unlikely, given our continued understanding of the universe.

      The idea that there is some kind of God/Satan... 'believe in Jesus as your savior or burn forever' scenario, is just very, very unlikely.

      Not to mention that it just doesn't make any sense nor hold up to any rational or reasonable thinking process.



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

      None of what you say is true. Belief in God or a higher being or power does NOT have to equal a belief in heaven, or in Hell. While that is the CHRISTIAN idea of God/afterlife, what people such as you do not understand is that there are UNTOLD other possibilities for what an afterlife could look like, and what a God could be and what His/Her intent is.

      To state that if you believe in God you "must" believe in heaven, hell, and satan is the narrow minded thinking of somebody who cannot see past their own concept of God, and their lifelong exposure to ONE religion- christianity or in your case, Catholicism.

      Look up "possibilianism".

      August 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Sally: Looks to me that "possibilianism" is just atheism for someone who doesn't know the meaning of atheism well enough to understand that they're an atheist.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Sally: Or, as I said before..."wishy-washy."

      August 11, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  7. Dale

    Of course. Religion is a lucrative business. Educated people know this.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm |


    August 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • A Roman Catholic

      Funneee! LOL

      August 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • David

      Definitely. This clown prayed for a state to be a better place to live and he's the Gov. He passes the buck onto whomever can't refute it even it is a fairy in his own little mind

      August 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  9. Bob

    Reality checker...since you are requiring everyone else to show proof of their claims, show me physical evidence that god exists. What? Can't do it? Then I would say that it is you who are delusional.

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

      Can you show me scientific proof that god does not extist? What, can't do it? Sounds like you have what we would call...faith.

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

      show me the proof that there is no god. Wait...What!?! Can't do it?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jay

      It is a greater leap of faith to believe in something without evidence than to believe that something without evidence most likely doesn't exist. An atheist must acknowledge that a god can exist in defiance of human reason, but why should he (or anyone) choose to ignore reason in just this one case?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • SK

      No, but we can find many examples of things that science cannot explain, at least not yet.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
    • Judge Dredd

      I can prove that God exists, may he/she/it strike this site down and electrocute me so I will not be able to post anything 5 minutes later.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  10. Rich

    Education and intelligence are two different things.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • David A

      Just as intelligence and wisdom are not the same.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  11. Tony

    I have my BBA in Accounting... I doubt faith will come with my MBA... however I might need it for the CPA exam

    August 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  12. SeanNJ

    “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.’”

    Fence-sitters, reluctant to plant their feet firmly on the side of reason.

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

      So in your mind, it's Christianity or nothing, eh?

      Ever considered the idea that humans were not meant to understand the deeper matters of the universe, or what "God" is? Regardless of how some of y'all like to paint it, it is NOT an all or nothing concept.

      And Christians don't get to have a monopoly on God.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Sally: No, you're missing my point. I think supernaturalizm is all a load of bunk, regardless of the name you put on it, and those who believe in a "higher power" are just plain wishy-washy.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  13. James B

    I get sick of atheists being described as people who don't believe in god. The very fact that a person is an atheist means either A) The person has given a good amount of thought to the universe and there position in the universe, so at the very least has made up there own mind. or B) they are bandwagon atheists who haven't really thought about it at all. In case A these people have been forced or chosen to create a tested belief structure that does not rely on a prescribed method of beliefs and dogma that is found in an organized religious community. The absence of a belief in a supreme being does not equate to a lack of a belief structure, in most cases it actually shows a high degree of intelligence or at least common sense.

    Secondly who is more fit and why does true or false even come into the equation? Being right about a universe that is ultimately indifferent to our presence or, maybe even bent on destroying our race at some point in the future.... although probably correct it is not socially or personally enriching. Religious history is full of interesting myth and lore and while it may be fairy tale and include a darker history of persecuting science and non believers, it can apparently be very healthy to the person who immerses themselves into it.

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

      No. Atheist literally means someone with the lack of a belief in God.

      Whatever other philosophy you follow is your own personal thing. Atheism is simply the lack of theism... not a philosophy in itself.

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

      What is it exactly that bothers you about people identifying atheists as people who don't believe in God? Merriam-Webster defines an atheist as "one who believes that there is no deity." If the former statement troubles you so much given that it is fact, not opinion, then you have bigger issues.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Howie

    All I can do is apply my own observations. Obviously a much smaller sample, and not a rigorous scientific study. In my experience the gist of this article is completely incorrect. I know a great many people from all walks of life. I am a professional with a college degree, and work with others who are as (or more) educated as myself. I am also a musician, and work with many who did not even finish high school, or who went no further after school. Invariably, the more educated, or the more obviously intelligent individuals (some very smart people never go to college) are agnostic or atheist. The uneducated or generally not very bright (some total idiots manage to get degrees) tend to be religious, with the least apparently intelligent usually turning out to be Evangelical Christians or Jehova's Witnesses. I'm pretty sure most of the educated people attending church these days are doing so for professional or community networking reasons rather than any sort of actual religious belief.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Peace2All


      That is my experience as well, out in the 'real world.'

      Thank you for putting it so succinctly.



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

      Interesting points. I tend to feel that educated people that do hold real religious beliefs tend to not wear it on their sleeves. As mentioned in the article, those with education tend to hang out with a more diverse crowd and tend to be more accepting of differing beliefs. Religion is probably the most taboo topic to bring up in casual/professional conversation.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Godless

    Just because you have a peice of paper that says you went to school doesn't make you any more intelligent than someone who doesnt have that peice of paper. Believing in something imaginary is called being delusional, unless of course someone else believes in the same imaginary object you do. I work with plenty of PhD's who I find to be the most incompitent and unintellectual people I have met in my entire life, with that said, Religion does support their simple mindedness.

    PS. I have multiple degrees and the only time I'm in a church is for a funeral or AA. hah.

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

      For someone with multiple degrees, your spelling is terrible. Go back and take some English classes for one of your future degrees.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Randy M

      With all those degrees do you work? I don't personally have time to get multiple degrees as I work for a living. I think 1 or 2 degrees is enough for anyone. Get out of school and face real life then lets see how little you believe in God.

      Where did the universe come from. A physical world is fragile, physical life is fragile and is rare in the universe. How did all this happen. And please don't tell me its gravity. Gravity requires mass and the mass is material that come from somewhere. The original material could not have come from the present physical universe without some kind of external influence.. What do you think that influence is?

      That is why we Sky God worshipers believe there is a God. There is no natural or scientific explanation. Science doesn't start until the universe starts.

      Being a person who is good and memorizing books is not in and of itself intelligence. The perfect example of a great memory and not being intelligent is Rain man. I saw the real rain man and he is an idiot. So get of you multiple degree high horse. Your arrogance is proof that you don't believe what you say. You are just afraid of condemnation from other book smart colleagues. And they are afraid to admit they think their may be a God for the same reason.

      Believing in God requires us to admit we don't know and we don't control everything and that is humbling. Humility is why the proud achiever has a hard time with God and the regular person does not. An arrogant person cannot approach God and will never believe. If a person cannot accept who they are, then they put up false Gods to allow them to accept this different person. Your God is knowledge or science and it is a pitiful existence.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  16. keylargo

    So What?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  17. Science

    I'm sorry but degrees in liberal arts, business, humanities or any of the other useless drivel being pounded out by Universities makes you "educated". Get at least a masters in a hard science and then tell me you're still religious. You'd either be delusional or just willfully spiteful and ignorant to maintain supernatural beliefs at that point.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Sad...so sad...

      Hahaha, excellent...love the way that "education" and intelligence are assumed to be directly related (this isn't 1960)... 🙂

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

      Hmmm, you want to change and/or ignore the data to fit your beliefs? Doesn't sound very scientific to me. Are you sure you're not a climatologist?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Masters in Science

      I have a Master's and Bachelor's in Computer Science and took heavy classes in math and sciences. I firmly believe in God and Jesus Christ. Before stating something like that, why don't you do a survey to see how many hard science degrees are religious. You can't just claim your opinion like it is some fact.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • sharky

      Look up Gregor Mendel. Have fun.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • SK

      So are you saying that a degree in anything other then science is drivel? I believe the purpose of getting a degree from a university it to become a well rounded intellectual. If all you study is one field, that is called vocational education. My wife is a physician and has found that many of her colleagues that the best at patient care with the ability to have compassion and think outside of the scientific box were in fact liberal arts majors in undergrad (she has a degree in pottery). It is a common misconception that you must be a science major to be a doctor – only that you take appropriate pre-requisite coursework

      August 11, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  18. wgage

    Like the invisible guy in the sky, not believable.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  19. Rick

    Anyone else completely sick of stupid, idiotic scientifc studies?

    I mean... Just read this POS:

    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

    August 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  20. pat

    What are those people in the picture looking at?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Colin

      Sad to see the two little girls having their minds poisened.

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

      Its a nice church too, I wonder how many hundreds of thosands of dollars were spent building it, when that money could have helped the less fortunate.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Papa Smurf

      @ Godless if you are a true athiest and believe in natural selection (survival of the fittest) then why would you give a flying F$$$ helping the less fortunate? Taking care of the less fortunate is a Christian thought process....

      August 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Brian

      It looks like a stock photo, it is staged.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:35 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.