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. TampaMan

    Ed Buckner, former president of the group American Atheists, CNN's counter point 'expert' on this article NEVER mentions ANY statistical evidence for any of his assertions. He's apparently a man who's full of opinion, smoke and mirrors but no fact, no truth; nothing to back up his argumet. Like most atheists he's full of BS (Bigoted Snobbery).

    August 11, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  2. Turp Griswald

    A lot of hand waiving in the article / study although I think there is some truth in it. I think intelligence brings with it a desire to examine the concept of religions and spirituality which brings individuals to churches – often to the denominations they were introduced to as children. While some of the more traditional, dogmatic religions may see an increase in attendance, I suspect many newer members will leave the more dogmatic churches within a year or two. It is the more questioning, flexible, accepting, socially-active religions (e.g. Unitarian-Universalists) that will likely realize a longer-term increase in attendance.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  3. TAK

    So they're willing to define what it means to be "religious" to fit their hoped-for survey results. Well then let me define what it means to be "educated"... Nothing less than a PhD from MIT or Stanford. Now how many educated people are religious? I'd wager pretty close to zero.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Talgrath

    It isn't that more educated people are less religious as a group, it is that they don't push it or "live it" the way the more hard line followers do. If you have a college degree (unless you went to a very religious school) then you have met all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of life with a variety of beliefs; it is hard to say some of the crazy things evangelicals say about others when you've actually met them. That said, education does not mean intelligence necessarily; I've known some very educated people with lots of degrees that are complete morons and some very uneducated people that are quite intelligent.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  5. L. Maya

    From my experiences, educated people tend to be spiritual, not religious though. They are curious about our origins, and tend to do research into every possible venue explaining creation; Science, Philosophy, History and the interest in other religions.

    Educated people are more accepting because they don't follow dogmas blindy, they tend to be more inquisitive and open minded at the same time.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  6. Victor

    Yes, this is ALL true for Unitarian Universalists. I didn't notice any mention of that religion, though.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • oakydoke

      Good point. In fact, the study is predicated on the assumption that people who attend church are 'religious'. It ignores the social function of church as a builder of communities.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  7. Reynardine

    "Religious" is so amorphous a term you can redefine it to get any results you want. The more you learn, the less you believe that the Universe was created in seven days six thousand years ago by an Old Man puppeteer who dictated how he wanted his sacrifices cooked (roast lamb, not boiled mutton) and everything about what human beings were allowed to do with their genitals. On the other hand, you awaken to the possibility that the Universe itself is a living, conscious organism, and that what we do may have an effect, however minute, on the smallest planet of the farthest star, and vice versa. Mayakovsky said:
    The Universe lies,
    its head on its paws,
    with starry ticks in its colossal ear...

    August 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  8. Walter

    I agree with much of this study as a PhD candidate and a true follower of the FSM.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • William Demuth


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

      His noodly appendages touch us all... Try and disprove THAT!

      August 11, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  9. Obama Sucks

    I think this is flawed. Educated people are more logical thinkers and tend to doubt religion as a whole (not individual branches of it). Religion is over rated as it is in the US and pushing it on citizens will only cause them to boycott it even more.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  10. oakydoke

    Well, if you read the article, it takes back the headline. It says that educated people are more likely to attend a church service, but less likely to believe the Bible is the word of God.

    In other words, a lot of educated atheists attend church.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • BioAtheist


      August 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Tweety Lee

      Not true at all. What he was trying to say is that educated individuals do not necessarily read the Bible in a "literal" context, meaning that the Bible was written by man BUT inspired by God!

      August 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  11. Sam

    This article is a blantant lie, the uber rich are either spritual or atheists or angnostic, I know a lot of them, and most of them are sociopaths, just like the christan leaders they are all sociopaths, no conscience whatsoever, which tells me that maybe there is not a hell ?

    August 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  12. helicohunter

    To be truly educated, one must do more than memorize facts. One must learn to think about WHY things are true (or not) and be able to ask questions. One must also be exposed to a variety of subjects, such as history, art, math, social sciences, etc. One must also have some understanding of other religions and cultures. This can be done without college, but usually isn't. There are plenty of smart people who aren't educated, but most don't know how to fully use their minds. The less intelligent and/or educated generally want information fed to them and not have to think about it or ask questions. This information must come from a source they see as reliable- often the Bible. The educated may have faith, but they also look for hard evidence. This is why the uneducated believe the Bible rather than science. They don't even know how science works or how to evaluate the quality of evidence. What you don't know CAN hurt you- and society.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  13. j

    I agree – hogwash. I have several degrees and have dismissed religion as a method to control the masses with fear. It also lines the pockets of religious management such as the various levels of the Catholic religion. One can believe in a higher power but never have to enter a church or offer up money to support clergy.

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

      i think we could be friends.

      August 11, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  14. aurian

    This article fails to mention educated people who choose to go to church for the moral and "human" messages taught there. They may take the bible stories metaphorically rather than literally, but still believe they contain insight and spiritual knowledge that they can apply to their lives and make them a better human being. Some people at my church go so far as to call themselves agnostics, but they still attend services every week and want their children to learn bible lessons also. Being educated doesn't mean you lose your awe and wonder of the world, nor your sense of something greater than yourself, nor your concept of right and wrong, and that is the real basis of religion, not a particular mythology or creed.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Many go so they can use the church to make money.

      Some even go so they can bugger altar boys.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • aurian

      @William Demuth I do not go to church to make money, I make it just fine outside of church. I go for the reasons I listed above. I consider myself an agnostic/weak athiest.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  15. Kothel

    I gotta say, as a religious person, I really appreciate this Buckner dude's position of admitting that a lot of atheists have superficial atheists beliefs and that he can respect a person who has carefully thought out religious beliefs. That is rarely a position you hear from atheists. Maybe we can all get along. But not on the internet. That will never happen.

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

      To be accurate, it says a lot of church goers have superficial religious beliefs... particularly educated church goers. Church is just as much a social function as it is religious education. This is not surprising. It states that many people who do not believe the bible is the word of God attend church services. And these people tend to be educated.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • girl1

      ok, what would you classify as a "superficial" atheist belief? Atheists believe in nothing. No god, no afterlife, no spirits, no souls. Thats the definition of atheism. Religious people just dont get that someone can believe in nothing, so they require atheists to provide some kind of in depth classification. Atheism is a non belief. Its just accepting reality and the world around you for what it is and not living in some make believe sky world with invisible things.

      And I dont for a second believe that people with higher education are more religious. Another biased "study" trying to further the church's goal and get them more money.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Bob

      girl1: Because you don't believe in God, you say that those who do live in a make-believe world. But because you don't believe doesn't mean the world doesn't exist. Consider this: if God does, in fact, exist, then it is the world that doesn't include God that is make-believe.

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

      @girl1 read the article..superficial atheists are those whose atheism is not deeply held, not carefully considered, and
      they have not scrutinized their beliefs or educated themselves on opposing viewpoints.

      August 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  16. Jinxgt

    "This article is wrong because all of my friends who went to college aren't religious" or any form of that statement is not evidence or even a study. Your anecdotes have little credibility to substantiate an argument. However, an organized poll with random sampling as what may have been conducted with regards to this article is much more sound whether or not the correlation drawn is correct.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  17. Flawed Study

    The options "I don’t believe in God’” to "I believe in a higher power" leave a whole universe to maniputate in the middle. A think, seen, and experimented, that generally speaking, with more education you will study, and understand more about your surroundings. Sure is, you will read more, even the freaking flawed Bible, Koran, and other religous, and even philosophical books....

    August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  18. Bill D.

    Don't know who you polled for this article, but it is in stark contrast to every educated person I know. My experience is that the more educated you are, the more you are likely to debunk ALL organized religions for exactly what they are ... cash cows, and generational/systematic mind control and brain-washing for the masses. The more educated you are, the most you have the ability to question ideologies and dogmas being shoved down your throat and are able to draw your own conclusions AND be responsible and accountable for ALL of your own actions. Organized religion of any type is truly a cancer on the planet and continues to be the #1 source of divisiveness, prejudice, exclusion, wars, genocides, bloodshed, and man's inhumanity to man – as it has throughout the history of mankind.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  19. Flawed Study

    As Faith it is.

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

      Yoda, are you? Idiosyncratic, your grammar is.

      August 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  20. bhoffman6

    I call shenanigans. Read about Project Steve sometime... I feel this article is about as reliable as the one that said people who use Explorer for their browser are of less intelligence.

    August 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
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