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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. Tony

    The religion/faith argument is futile in it's reproach. I just chalk it up to i don't know what's going to happen when i die.
    because really what do any of us actually "know"

    August 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  2. thegadfly

    As for me, I am an atheist with a masters degree. I find this study to be weak and flawed at best. What the study measures is the level of social and cultural immersion. Years of schooling and rate of church attendance would of course correlate, as both are things society says we are "supposed to do". What the study does NOT measure is level of education. That has nothing to do with the number of years of schooling one has undertaken, especially when advanced education is so focused on (high-level, but still) vocational training - most doctors are not philosophers - and when cheating and grade inflation are rampant in even Ivy League universities. Notice that, while this article discusses how to define "religious" it just presumes it has a valid definition for "educated". Let's see a study that compares actual beliefs versus actual knowledge and experience.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • LoisT

      Uhhh, his results began with, "Schwadel found that with each additional year of education..." Seems to be a reasonable and straightforward way to define "more education."

      August 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  3. Woody

    Just one more ! China is not that religious and they have managed to wipe out our economy !

    August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Banem

      I think we did this to ourselves. China had little, if anything, to do with it.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  4. BL

    I became more spiritual and less "religious." Religion is about process, dogma, ritual, hierarchy, rigid belief systems and "to do" lists. Spirituality to me, is the immediate connection to life exactly as it is in the present. No middlemen, no mythology, no organization.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  5. wgage

    So, does this mean snake handlers and shakers are more educated than my atheist physics instructor?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  6. Woody

    I hate to say it but not the ones I know and the ones that are smart are the ones that take your money as you leave the church ! If people of religion are so smart than why do most around the world live in poverty ?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • kthxnore

      What I find odd about this is that i've seen countless articles in the past say the opposite of what this one says. Do they take their poll sampling from Salt Lake City?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Paul

    Just a few months ago, CNN reported that Athiests are more familiar with The Bible than Christians.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Chris

      That something I find to be true. I know more about it then most people around me. Why? Because I like to argue and if your going to hold your own you need to know the material.

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

      Not only has this been demonstrated with structured surveys, it is the individual experience of most atheists who spend any time arguing with religious people. They are always shocked to find out that their own religious book, for example, instructs slaves to submit to their masters just as they would submit to Jesus (Ephesians 6:5, if you care).

      August 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  8. RobL

    Yes – The educated may be more " religious" – But the poor are more "spiritual"

    August 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  9. David

    I would like to see the actual study for this. First I am not saying this study is accurate or not but there are many flaws in this article.

    The first is that the General Social Survey doesn't gather actual years of educational attainment only general education level. As a result you can't really conduct a test of correlation that is accurate. You would have to assume that all people without a high school degree have X years of education. That isn't accurate as some may have dropped out at age 15 and others at age 19.

    The second flaw the article does address to a point. What does it mean to 'be religious'? What the article really addresses is what does it mean 'to say one is religious'. That may or may not be the same thing as being religious.

    The third flaw is there is an implication that there is a causal relationship. Correlation doesn't show causation only association.

    The fourth flaw is that the article doesn't look at the full spectrum of the association of religious beliefs and educational attainment. It only focuses on the top portion. It could also be there is an association with extremely low levels of education and religious belief that is the same as high levels of education and religious belief.

    I am not commenting on the results as much as the methods discussed in the article. Most of the comments on the article don't seem to acknowledge these flaws. Based on the article you really can't make a reasonable assumption about the education levels of religious people as compared to non-religious people as a whole, one way or another.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • William Demuth

      David

      If one removes RELIGIOUS education, the whole ball of wax melts.

      A 12 year degree studying something that dosen't exist is NOT an education.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  10. NickWPB

    Seriously?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  11. martinipaul

    If atheists are so intelligent why don't they prove the God does NOT exist. Why don't they prove that their morals are not based on religious morals. Why don't they prove that science will solve all human problems and satisfy all human desires and needs. Why don't they honestly face their bigotry and bias, not toward people of faith, but against those of 'lesser' intelligence? Why don't they just come out and admit they think they are superior to everyone else?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • wgage

      If you were better educated you would know that your request is a logical fallacy.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @martinipaul: "Why don't they just come out and admit they think they are superior to everyone else?"

      Ok...I'm fairly certain I'm superior to you, and to most people that believe in the supernatural.

      There. Better?

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

      Perhaps I can help, MartinPaul. You see, I believe in Leprechauns.

      I believe that the Leprechaun King created the entire Universe about 6,000 years ago. I know there is a substantial amount of evidence suggesting that the Universe is significantly older than this, but I think a lot of that evidence comes from bad science, or from a worldwide conspiracy of scientists who want to deny Leprechauns. I know this because it is written in the Leprechaun Chronicles, a book cobbled together from various authors, most unknown, by our church during the Dark Ages.

      The Leprechaun King lives in Leprechaun Heaven, where he where he busies himself answering prayers, running the Universe and recording the lives of humans for their final judgment before him. He is surrounded by an entire society of magical beings – his son Merlin, the Holy Leprechaun Spirit, the good fairy Mary, thousands of Leprechaun saints, fairies, pixies and the souls of many millions of dead people.

      Each Leprechaun saint and pixie has a special task. For example, Saint Christopher is the patron-pixie of travelers and it is his job to intercede with the Leprechaun king on behalf of travelers to keep them safe. Most countries and professions similarly have a special Leprechaun who pays them special attention – even lawyers. There are strict rules governing the roles, responsibilities of the various Leprechauns, elves, pixies and other heavenly beings.

      I believe that the Leprechaun King loves me and hears my prayers. He intervenes in my life periodically by saving me from various ills. All I have to do is think to myself and he reads my mind and answers my prayers. He loves me and when I die, provided I have lived a good life, I will go to Leprechaun Heaven, where I will live happily ever after with all other humans who have ever led good lives.

      I know there is not a lot of evidence to support my beliefs, but that is just the point. The Leprechaun King wants us to have “faith,” so he never reveals himself. To make an unambiguous appearance and settle once and for all the question of his existence would deprive us of free will and, even though he is all-knowing, he would not know who his true believers were.

      In fact, I believe that the Leprechaun King is “beyond understanding”. He is “outside the Universe” and any time I am faced with something about my Leprechaun belief that makes no sense, I don’t dare question it, I just close my mind and tell myself that my mind is too small to understand the greatness of the Leprechaun King. These answers are satisfying to me.

      Some people are called “atheists,” and they are skeptical of my belief in the Leprechaun King. They point out many inherent contradictions and unsupported assumptions that underwrite my belief in Leprechauns. But, they can’t prove he doesn’t exist, so he must exist. And so what! Even if I am wrong, and go my whole life believing in Leprechauns and it turns out I am wrong, I have lost nothing. However, if they are wrong, the Leprechaun King will send them to hell to burn forever in the presence of the Evil Ground Troll.

      Am I convincing you to believe in Leprechauns yet?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • bhoffman6

      Let me get this straight; The fact that I can't prove there ISN'T a big invisible man in the sky directing Earth's every moment makes me a bigot?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      A). It's up to YOU Martinipaul to PROVE the positive existence of "God" NOT us atheists to DISPROVE god. Good luck, so far religious people fail miserably.
      B).Morals are based on the reasonable expectation to treat others as well as you'd like to be treated. What is SO hard about that? What did we do BEFORE gods were invented? Did we exterminate ourselves? Looks like we didn't!
      C). Science has gone SO much further than religion EVER did to solve the ills of culture and society, you know, things like sanitation etc. BUT then again, Science never did promise society ANYTHING!
      D). "WE" don't claim to smarter than anybody else, that's called a "Straw Man" argument and it is lame.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Colin

      MartiniPaul – when you reflect on why you do not believe in Leprechauns, you will understand why I do not believe in god.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Colin

      You beat me to -martini's posting.

      And... you provided a great posting.

      Regards,

      Peace...

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

      Well since you are so intelligent I will remind you (instead of teaching you) that according to the scientific process IMPOSSIBLE to disprove anything. Period. You can only prove something, never disprove something because that would mean everything in the universe is known... .

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

      @Colin

      Your logic is impressive and you've convinced me to your way of thinking. Furthermore I think I'll run with it and form my own sect, because the Leprechaun King favors me above all others and came to me in a vision while I was on acid. He told me that I needed to do his will and that includes that if anyone now disagrees with me (including you Colin, you heathen) I have every right to kill you in my religious indignation.

      Prepare for war! For I am right and you are actually the Evil Ground Troll in dsiguise, The Leprechaun King told me so.

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

      Why don't you prove the loch ness monster does NOT exist.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Athla

      Because it's all they have – losing faith is hard and scary. They only have each other for comfort in this moment, because to them the moment is all that matters. They don't want to think about dying and being gone forever -they don't want to think about losing loved ones to death and having them be gone forever either. All we can do is be kind to them, and everyone else regardless of religion and try not to let their anger affect us.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • BL

      OK, we're busted. We admit we're superior to you. As to proof that God does not exist, easy: look in the mirror. No one would create anything in your image.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Colin

      Hey Peace, I din't know you were out of prison -:)

      Laughing – lol. I've created a monster....

      August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • fred

      Colin,
      For someone who thinks God is the color purple can you tell me what is the color of a Leprechaun ?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Colin

      LOL... "out of prison" W T F...?

      Peace...

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Banem

      The same could be said for your biased opinion. If you are so right with god why don't you prove he exists (and pointing to a book written by humans does nothing for your argument). Some of us don't do it because it's cool, or because we have an issue with someones intelligence. And like religion, we can debate the origin of morality with god till the end of time, but who cares. Know that we have the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong without religion. We don't need a high power telling us to do good, some of us do it without being guilt tripped into it with the promise of an "afterlife".

      As for you proof? YOU sir have the burden of proof. You are the one proposing the existence of something, and therefor should present it, Otherwise, there is nothing to talk about. As for the atheist, we just acknowledge the lack there of.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Colin

      Hey Fred, good one – lol.

      I would love to lock horns with you today, mate, but I have to leave. Enjoy the debate. Peace, Bobinator, Laughing, Doc Vestibule, Willima Deluth and the other godless heathens will no doubt keep you busy.

      cheers,

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Colin

      Hey Peace, sorry man, I mixxed you up with Warren Jeffs.

      Just kidding buddy......

      August 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Evil Ground Troll

      COLIN can you see me, hear me , touch me , feel me................oh sorry, that was Tommy.

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

      There is so much blather here about 'intelligence' yet there are no definitions of what this means. If education is not proof of 'intelligence' what is? If it is IQ where do you atheists draw the line. 120? 130? Is everyone under this number stupid?
      The problem of atheistism is that it has the stink of arrogant superiority. Atheists - the new master race? Where do the rest of us fit in the New Order?

      August 11, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Evil Ground Troll

      Colin will no longer be with us on this thread, he has ticked off one too many leprocons.......don't worry about the spelling none of us down here can spell worth a dam n. In his past life Colin was cool now he is HOT I mean sizzling whew hey babby I want you to meet some of Lots neighbors they have been waiting 6,000 years for a stranger.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @martinipaul

      Hey -Martini...

      You Said: " If education is not proof of 'intelligence' what is? "

      You may want to go and 'educate' yourself on the difference, as there 'are' differences.

      Let us know what you find.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 11, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • martinipaul

      As a former atheist of the existential stripe I have no need to prove anything to anybody. If there is one thing that Sartre taught me is that I decide all the rules to this game.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @martinipaul

      " I have no need to prove anything to anybody. I decide all the rules to this game. "

      Oh, o.k... I thought you were asking a sincere question, and I was responding sincerely to point you in a direction where you could 'educate' yourself, since you had thrown out such a ridiculous question. "

      We weren't asking you to prove anything to anybody, although... your answer that I quoted above is a great 'cop-out' and 'dodge' and...'non-answer' to having to back up any ridiculous assertions that you make. And you 'do' make a lot of them.

      So, note to self... Don't take anything that -martinipaul says seriously. Got it !

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • JoeProfet

      The best part about the debates that are going on are the athiests that show up to respond...it is a laugh-riot!!!! You folks crack me up showing up on a "Belief Blog" of all places! You are far to comical than you set out to be with your obstinense to God! I don't surf aithiests blogs...why in God's name are you here??? You really make me laugh!!! Thanks! ROFLMAO

      August 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • fred

      JoeProfet,
      Interestingly enough the Atheist on this site have some valid points. I was just happy as could be with Jesus and Yahweh until I stumbled onto this site. I had to dig back into the Bible and the reasons I believe just to get centered again. It was well worth the effort as I discovered just how many of the attributes (clearly described in the Bible) those who come against truth were exhibited by Atheists.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @fred: Awesome. So you skipped over all the contradictions and nonsense that we've tried to bring to your attention as part of your dogged search for the whole "fools say there is no god" line.

      go-go-gadget-confirmation-bias!

      August 11, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • fred

      seanNJ,
      Fire away, give me one

      August 11, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  12. Brent Slensker

    Over 90% of the members of the NAS (National Academy of Science) are non-believers... This article is hogwash from top to bottom... As a scientist (Archaeologist) I find that the lack of christians amongst my educated peers is astounding....

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

      I have a BS in computer science and I literally have met no one in my field who was a devout follower of any religion.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Brent Slensker

      " As a scientist (Archaeologist) I find that the lack of christians amongst my educated peers is astounding...."

      Not sure that I am following. Are you astounded that you believe that there would be more christians amongst your 'educated peers'...? Or, what ...?

      Regards,

      Peace...

      August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • JoeProfet

      How can it be that the NAS holds a 90% ignorance rating? That is rediculous...what are the odds??? That means that only 10% of the NAS are carying the burden of science while the other 90% wollows around in their own wisdom and conceits! Yikes...scarey!

      August 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • JoeProfet

      Not true kthxnore, I have found probably almost all computer science geeks religiously follow WOW!!

      August 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  13. RandomOne

    To be fair, just because someone has a college degree doesn't make them more intelligent or intellectual. I graduated college with a lot of people who were total morons. If anything, college showed me that even people I considered to be intelligent would follow certain religious traditions (usually just church on Sunday) because they were raised to feel guilty if they didn't go (plus their parents would always call after church to ask them how the service went).

    August 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  14. RobL

    Yes – The educated may be more "religious" – But the poor are more "spiritual"

    August 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  15. Ed

    Then all that education went to waste.

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

      Totally agree with you, Ed. Education is, for the most part, a waste especially without the wisdom and knowledge of God behind it! Most educated people are academically inclined, perhaps, but few are intellectually wise in the way of God and His creation. Few understand His wisdom, and so I completely agree with you about education. It is, in fact, delimiting to a certain degree. By that I mean that most education is focused on small and miniscule facets of God's big picture. Scientists haven't even scratched the surface of what is out there to uncover of God's wisdom. They search emphatically for facts regarding the origin of the earth, for example regarding the evolutionist, but where the two diverse concepts are most alike is when neither fact nor religion can adequately explain the factual origin of earth and so scientist label it as unknown and religion labels it as God. You are correct; however that education has been a wasted for the most part, especially for athiest who are, in my humble opinion, wise in their own conceits!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  16. DianeD

    Let the verbal abuses against people who believe in a religion begin! Blogs everywhere have an inordinate amount of vitriole against everybody and everything. How sad....how frightening!

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

      What should be frightening is people lying to promote nonsense.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Welcome to our world

      We have found your faith TERRIFYING for thousands of years. We have watched your abominations, we understand the evil you represent, because we were your victims.

      The old ladies cheated with lies, the children buggered by your clergy, the innocents killed by your zealots.

      FINALLY we are holding you to task. Your God is a lie, and those who promote him are liars.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  17. wgage

    I suspect pious fraud.

    Would believers lie to promote nonsense?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  18. MR

    I don't buy this article at all...

    August 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  19. Moosemeat

    You mean there are people who don't believe in an invisible ghost floating around controlling everything who always needs money?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • JoeProfet

      Have you not heard of the Holy Ghost???

      August 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  20. wgage

    I suspect pious fraud.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
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