Less-educated Americans are losing religion, study finds
The decline in church attendance among whites without college degrees is twice as high as for those with college degrees.
August 24th, 2011
03:17 PM ET

Less-educated Americans are losing religion, study finds

By Liane Membis, CNN

(CNN) - If you don't have a college degree, you’re less likely to be up early on Sunday morning, singing church hymns.

That's the upshot of a new study that finds the decline in church attendance since the 1970s among white Americans without college degrees is twice as high as for those with college degrees.

Study: More educated tend to be more religious

“Our study suggests that the less-educated are dropping out of the American religious sector, similarly to the way in which they have dropped out of the American labor market,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who was lead researcher on the project.

The research, presented this week at American Sociological Association's annual meeting, found that 37% of moderately educated whites - those with high school degrees but lacking degrees from four-year colleges - attend religious services at least monthly, down from 50% in the 1970s.

Among college-educated whites, the dropoff was less steep, with 46% regularly attending religious services in the 2000s, compared with 51% in the '70s.

The study focuses on white Americans because church attendance among blacks and Latinos is less divided by education and income.

Most religiously affiliated whites identify as Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews.

Lower church attendance among the less-educated may stem from a disconnect between them and modern church values, the study theorizes.

Religious institutions tend to promote traditional middle-class family values like education, marriage and parenthood, but less-educated whites are less likely to get or stay married and may feel ostracized by their religious peers, the researchers said.

The researchers expressed concern about the falloff in church attendance among the less-educated.

“This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work,” said Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

Wilcox said that those who do not attend church are missing out on potential benefits.

“Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did,” Wilcox said. “Religious congregations may be one of the few institutional sectors less-educated Americans can turn to for social, economic and emotional support in the face of today’s tough times, yet it appears that increasingly few of them are choosing to do so.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Church • Polls

soundoff (1,621 Responses)
  1. Free Thinker Seeking Reason

    This seems on the surface to be an extremely twisted story in terms of the cherry-picked statistics being reported to give the awkward ti_tle. No matter how you slice it, the more educated you become, the LESS religious you become, certainly at least in terms of literalism, which this article hardly addresses. 93% of the top scientific minds in the world are atheist or agnostic.

    Perhaps the study authors didn't pay enough attention to the other end of the educated spectrum, that is that those with advanced degrees are less likely to be religious than those with associate or bachelor's degrees.

    Another point not well covered is that in this time of economic crisis, those without college degrees on average have lower wages and thus may be less inclined to attend church knowing that they will be pestered for donations.

    This may be a rather ghastly assembled summary of a deeply flawed study.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
  2. Barnez

    That should have been Luke 14:23, not 13:23 Okay, Barnez On the above post

    August 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Harry Hippobottomus

      You mean the above post that's below?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  3. Barnez

    For the educated folks, just read the Bible if you believe in God, read Luke 13:23 and you will not worry anymore about North Dakota, It says to COMPEL them to come in. And Compel means to use force to get people in. Also that piece of wood they found from the ARK, had finger nails in it where folks tried to get in but it was too late my friend, I am uneducated but I believe God Almighty and his word. Barnez

    August 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • Free

      A piece of wood from the ark? You believe that? Why?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
    • That's the dumbest thing I have read all night!

      Well, I googled "piece of Noah's Ark with fingernails in it" and I guess the religious people are keeping it very very very secret. Very secret.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
    • Jum

      I believe this user is my first poll candidate.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  4. Brandon

    Unfortunately, stupid people can get a college degree in this day and age, so I will take any study that refers to people with 4-year degrees as "educated" with a grain of salt.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  5. Reality

    Just more credance for the following:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  6. Shauna

    Many congregations become highly judgmental of those who may be down on their luck. This is the major reason why I left my former church. If someone got divorced or had a child out of wedlock, they were gossiped about and at times even openly lectured. Who in their right mind would want to come back after that? With so many churches now teaching the "prosperity gospel" those who may be in financial straits struggle to find their place.

    Church is supposed to be a place where all are accepted with the common purpose of worship. I am blessed to have my education and a good job now, but it hasn't always been this way. Too many people in the church forget where they came from...

    August 24, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
    • Free

      That's unfortunate! It's almost like these folks you describe were trying to make church into some kind of elitist social club based upon piety. I've often wondered why some Christians need to have an 'enemy' to battle and can't just be content being within the faith? Lucky for other Christians that we atheists and the Muslims are here to take the brunt of that because if we ever disappeared then it will be back to the good old days of witch hunts and heretic excommunications, not that that still doesn't go on occasionally in many congregations, eh?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
    • Beth

      We moved here from the UK, and by this area's standards, I guess we would be "poor." Anywhere else, I guess we would be middle class. We have really come across that feeling of being pushed away the most in larger churches. They weren't directly rude, they just pretended not to see us. The people who did acted like they were doing it out of obligation. You really have to be a certain type of person to be a part of a "church family" in those places. Thankfully, we found a smaller church that doesn't have this problem.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  7. Mike Scott

    The more educated people are, the more sucessful they are, so the more status symbols they need. Church is just another status symbol for these people, who are otherwise hypocrites.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • rrim

      Exactly. Americans also tend to get very "faithful" when their cash is flowing.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • g


      August 25, 2011 at 12:48 am |
  8. Tom

    This is contrary to surveys I have seen in the past. Even so, it could be the rise of the two wage earner family means less time and/or energy to attend Church. The less educated and less affluent are more likely to be affected. This study is possibly combining the incorrect cause and effect.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • Free

      The required t.ithe of many churches may just be way too high for some people as well, and there is still no guarantee with paying that kind of money that your pastor won't bring scandal down upon your congregation. It's a risky investment in social standing.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  9. Evan Olson

    This is a surprise because I always thought any well educated person would have a hard time believing in talking snakes, the earth is 6,000 years old and there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  10. MargaretG

    i and all of my friends simliarly situated in various professions with graduate degrees have almost all entirely fallen out of touch with any organized religions. the morons from my high school, unable or unwilling to complete college, are largely consumed by it. however, i don't think its necessarily related to education. i see enough well educated people who regularly practice. the authors are making a mountain out of a mole hill.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Andy

      When it comes to one individuals personal experiences YMMV.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  11. Bo

    ====Oops I ment that N Dakoda wants to pass a law ....

    August 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • AB

      Dakota you mean?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  12. Steve

    Educated people know unsubstantiated statistical nonsense when they see it. Those who believe in fairies don't.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • mslman71

      ... and there's always confirmation bias.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:24 pm |
  13. mentaldiva

    How is this possible? With the upswing in fundamentalist in the GOP presidential candidacy, one would think otherwise! Oh wait, perhaps I am mixing groups???

    August 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • mslman71

      Maybe you created the groups to satisfy your own prejudices.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
  14. Bo

    =======Has it been on this blog yet about the law that North Dakoda wants go pass. The law wants all business be closed on Sunday so that people can have a day of rest. The Pope hopes more people will go to church. (Give him time and he will demand that all Catholics attend church on Sunday or face excommuication.)

    August 24, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Bo, has it been on this blog that a christian foster parent beat a foster child to death, possibly in accordance with a book written by christians about how to properly punish a child using a "switch" and that the punishment must cause pain?

      August 25, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  15. Jum

    Read the study details. This "study" was conducted on less then 5000 people and most were from a small area. This, as most of these articles, is simply a waste of time. My personal experience would be the opposite of what this article tries to pass as fact. Most of the college educated people I know or have met move away from religion. I find religion to be more prevalent among the poorer / less educated population in general.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • mslman71

      Almost all of the people in my office hold doctorates in EE and Physics and I believe aside from two, they are all regular or semi-regular participants in a church. It never appealed to me, but broad generalizations are just that, and usually made for the sake of personal convenience and stereotyping.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • Name

      Very few statistical studies are done on a sample size of more than 1,000 because once you get past 1,000 or so your margin of error at a 95% confidence level doesn't get much lower than 2-3%. 5,000 is way more than enough to draw a pretty good conclusion. Unless, of course, you actually want to survey hundreds of millions of people...

      August 24, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • Jum

      What's interesting here is that I am an EE as well. CSU graduate. 18 graduated in my class (1998) and I still keep contact with 11. None of the 11 go to church. At least 3 of them believe in some god but not one attends a church regularly. My point is that no study is accurate unless it is conducted on a large portion of the population. 5000 people doesn't cut it. My personal experience is the higher the education, the less they attend church. Perhaps I should poll 5000 people.. CNN might even run a story!

      August 24, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
    • Free

      Depending on if that 'small area' is somewhere deep within the bible belt, or up in New York would significantly affect this study, right? A 1000 person sample is fine, but if you are making conclusions on the US population as a whole then you really do have to spread the sampling across the entire country.

      August 25, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  16. alicam

    I think a major reason poorer people have stopped going to church is because when you are struggling financially and otherwise it is sometimes hard to keep the faith. In this day of widespread panic and poverty, difficulty earning a decent living and a changing economy poor people are depressed and have lost their hope. So, they stay home.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. dem737

    Wow so real wierd comments from both sides. I personally stopped going because my church did not care about staying out of politics and expected me to vote republican even though the republicans had declared war on me and my family. Now only one person goes to church but will not contribute a dollar. We all believe in Jesus and God, just not American churches anymore

    August 24, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  18. gotrootdude

    Newsflash: The more educated you are, the more likely you accept a father who lets his kids burn for eternity if they disagree as a role model.
    Hmm.. Maybe it's better if I don't let them educate my kids.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  19. Bo

    =======Has it been on this blog yet about the law that North Dakoda wants go pass. The law wants all business be closed on Sunday so that people can have a day of rest. that

    August 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  20. heyhey

    lol I am educated and don't go to church. Many educated people go for cultural reasons and social connections, my work provides me with that and my education. I don't need a preacher down my neck nor a judgmental congregation.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • mslman71

      Stop trying to undermine my stereotype(s). They exist to make me feel better about myself.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • pringler

      I agree with you on a lot of thing you said. Iadd that I would think the more educated you are, the better chance you would see that Darwin was right and your local preacher is out of his/her mind.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
    • Free

      Science shows use to be aimed at the very highly educated, and were loaded with technical jargon, but PBS and other shows on evolution now have gotten better at explaining it simply. The science is more accessible now, and people are realizing that it's really quite easy to understand, mostly because it just makes sense.

      August 25, 2011 at 12:18 am |
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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.