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. Nonimus

    This is the second article on Belief Blog about this study. Has anyone seen the actual research?

    August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Stevie7

      It seems that CNN rarely links to the studies that their articles refer to. I find it maddening.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Nonimus

      Yeah, that does seem to be the case. Although, I can usually find the source with a little searching, but such is not the case with this one. ... very maddening, true.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  2. SurelyUjest

    This article try's to pin church going on education vs non-education. I think there are many other factors involved here, for instance economics. Since education generally helps our economic picture we have more money and perhaps more time to dedicate to a social group. We just read on this very site a few weeks back that more education did indeed bring ppl to church but it also raised the diversity in what people actually believed vs what their religion taught them to believe. It seems the more education you have the more money and time you have for religion but also it gives you the critical thinking to throw half the dogma and ancient writings straight out the door.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      Don't take the article THAT seriously. There are no credible statistical studies that prove what the article is suggesting. That is why this is in the "belief" section and not the "science" section.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  3. Don Camp

    After all the discussion, the research does beg the question why are the less educated leaving the church? Here a a couple of thoughts.

    1. They find it uncomfortable when most of those around them are better educated and economically better off. Church is no longer "their crowd."

    2. The better educated church has failed to be inclusive.

    3. The research is flawed. (I have been part of churches, mostly in rural areas, where there were few people with college degrees. Maybe the churches examined were in urban areas where more and more people are better educated.)

    4. Lesser educated does not necessarily mean less money. I know a lot of blue collar people who make more than I do. But most are preoccupied with spending their money on trucks, boats, and partying. Sometimes when people move up economically they lose their bearings in their new riches.

    5. The under educated are more likely to accept the TV version of the science vs. Bible controversy. They don't have the education to see the flaws in the opinions of the so called experts. They are becoming skeptical themselves.

    Maybe all these things together skewed the research and the conclusions drawn from it.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  4. Tim Day

    The cause and effect are wrong is this article: church goers are seekers of the truth and are thus more likely to seek higher education.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  5. Reality

    Some people say Genesis is the Perfect Word of God.

    I don't think Phil Collins is even a good drummer.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      Phil Collins is awesome. How dare you.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • SHRIKE

      Neil Pert is the greatest drummer of all time.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  6. Skegeeace

    Believing in God is smarter than believing in a theory with a billion holes in it. Maybe that's why the more educated people believe? LOL J\K

    Seriously though, less educated people tend to believe what anyone tells them. First they believe in religion because the pastor told them so. Then some guy with a PhD comes along and says there's no God, we all came from single-celled organisms to apes. They're tossed about by one opinion after another by people whom they perceive to be smarter than them. Now that atheism is the new black, it's no wonder the dumber people are starting to be more atheistic.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      Most Christians with a university degree would never claim that they are smarter than other people simply based on their religious beliefs. Only a moronic fundamentalist with a degree from a diploma mill would make such unfounded, ignorant, and rude claim. I've known plenty of brilliant Muslims, Jews, and Christians and none of them would be caught dead writing crap like this article.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Actually, the article was not about belief. It was about church attendance. The less educated still tend to be stronger believers, they just are not relating well to the churches.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  7. Dood

    It's so funny to see the false information the atheists are spewing here about science, facts, etc.

    As a matter of FACT, the Christian Middle Ages (read Catholic Church) started the science movement back during the Enlightenment, contrary to popular, false belief. Read "The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution" by John Hannam. Hannam is a physicist and science historian, btw.

    Seriously, do some research and quit spreading the lies.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Dood

      Edit: "Enlightenment" should be "Middle Ages", my mistake.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Reality

      Actaully, is more crecited to the Muslims and the tech brought back from the Middle East. They were more advanced than christians at that time.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • MarkinFL

      The Catholics(as well as Muslims) had a lot to do with scientific advancement, as long as it did not disagree with doctrine. That's why it is fine for churches to do research but it is not OK to leave it solely in their hands.
      In the middle ages, most education was tied up in the various religions.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      Christians did not bring us out of the dark ages. And here in lies your problem. You believe that collectives generate new ideas and not distinct men with innovative ideas. You are incapable of seeing people as individuals. You only see them as creed or race.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      The Catholic Church burned a priest to death because he believed that other stars in the galaxy probably had solar systems. Look up Giordano Bruno. They also imprisoned Galileo for life and banned practically every great work of literature written during the enlightenment.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  8. Mizz E

    I am an educated woman who has made great strides in my career; however, I found out that I was missing something in my life. I was missing God in all His infinite power and wisdom. I certainly attribute my success to the One True God and his name is Jesus Christ.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Rationalist

      You're an idiot.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I attribute my success to the fact that I found something I like to do, became good at it and someone is willing to pay for my services. I'd also like to thank my mother and father and my wife and our children. Thank you all. Good night.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  9. Rationalist

    Religion is the biggest and most successful brainwashing/propaganda scheme that us humans have ever created.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • john doe

      Some people, not all, think themselves as more powerful than God and they can do no wrong.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • MarkinFL

      That just makes them doubly delusional. They believe in a god and they think they are more powerful than that god.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  10. Frankie

    This is totally absurd, religion needs people on order to survive. People lost faith, not because they are uneducated but the fact that some, not all, think themselves as more powerful than God and they can do no wrong. Having just an associates, my faith in God has not diminished, however, my faith in man has.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  11. Justin

    This is because stupid, uneducated white people listen to all the pseudo-intellectual trash talk by stupid educated white people that religion is irrelevant. People who have real education about the rich intellectual history of religion (dating back thousands of years) realize that the all the sound bites out there are uninformed nonsense.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      @Justin: "stupid uneducated white people". That says it all right there. You are not only biased against those of differing faith, but also a flat-out racist.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      The dark ages was a distinctly religious time. We are quite familiar with the rich history of religion.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      You tell'im Brother Malcolm X. 🙂


      August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  12. Peter

    What about Americans of other religious denominations?
    What about American non-whites "church-goers"?
    What about non-whites of other religious denominations?
    What about American whites of other religious denominations?

    August 25, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • FatSean

      I'd like to see the methodology. This study is currently an outlier swimming upstream against a slew of studies that say the opposite.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      Personally, I have nothing against people who are religious until they do mean crap like this, attacking people who a different faith or no faith. The fact is that religious people are no more intelligent than anyone else, in any way. Atheists try to be polite about it, but the fact is that religious fundamentalists are usually dim-witted and mean.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Yeah Majestic, we have what one Naomi compared to how many Fundie Atheists? 🙂

      Intolerance is just as friend to some Atheist as it is to the Terry Jones types of Faithful.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • MarkinFL

      As noted in the article:

      "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."

      Clearly the study is based upon polls asking about church attendance, not belief. This article is a fluff piece that includes no real data to back its conclusions. Also, the conclusions are really just speculation. However, the if the polls are accurate than the attendance change is real, whatever the actual cause.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  13. Gaston

    Most people practice religion because their parents do. People like to have their parents' approval. There's a lot of sheep in the world.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • pt6071

      Also lemmings

      August 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Ed, Spring TX

      Such as yourself. Your're just following a different herd of sheep.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Jonathan Etherbridge

      Agree. In the same way kids believe on Santa Claus, tooth-fairy until they're told they don't exist. Would be nice if parents could also tell them they were joking and all this religion stuff is pure bs...

      August 25, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      I agree with Ed, ...just a different group of sheep and I am sure he will have his offspring to be a good follower as well. Wait ...gotta use Atheist terms....he will brainwash his kids 🙂

      August 25, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Most atheists are anything but sheep or lemmings. Most people are raised by believers , yet many come to realize on their own that it is all BS. My daughters are free to believe whatever they like and frequently attend church functions with friends. I do not care if they are exposed to proselytizing in various forms. Each individual will come to their own belief anyway. I do not care what anyone else believes as long as they do not insist that I live by their religion's rules.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  14. pt6071

    "Opiate of the masses"–maybe the drug war is starting to work?

    August 25, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  15. Haime52

    The real problem, as I see it, is the people are all too... well, human. The reasons for the drop off in church attendence is so manifold and complex that it is difficult so delineate it all. Churches can fail people and people often fail their own ideals and give up trying. Social and peer pressures, the media and so many more factors interact to create this effect.

    Often a person will "feel" condemned or ostracized merely because they feel guilty about something they don't see others doing. Or if they quit doing a thing they believe may be wrong, their peers try to get them back to doing it or shun them out of their own guilt feelings and to soothe themselves by trying to get this person back to doing it with them. Ask nearly any smoker, who is trying to quit. Other smokers often try to get them to start back to smoking. They may not acknowledge it but they feel condemned by the quitter, because they are still smoking.
    Other people may not feel that the churches are meeting their needs or is out of touch because they do not wish to conform their lives to anything but their own will. If you say my charished proclivity is a sin, you are out of touch or outdated, or no longer relevant in the modern world. They don't want to be transformed, they want someone to tell them they are all right. They want a feel good religion.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • FatSean

      In this country where Christians get favorable treatment, it's just good business practice to make people think you give a darn about the silly stories in that Bible book.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Free

      Sometimes people already know how to treat people and they do actually feel alright about themselves. Maybe they developed that way because of their church upbringing, or after they dropped religion. It doesn't matter, but they think to themselves, why go to church to be lectured about something they already have in check as much as the folks who go there? Churches tend to make really evil inclinations sound like an addiction that everyone suffers from and has to work hard in order to suppress, but that just isn't the case.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  16. Grumpy

    Religion as a provider of ethical and moral guidlines for living together is fine. It's when fundamentalism enters the picture that things get screwed up. Christianity, Islam, it doesn't matter.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Free

      Yes, when they provide moral guidelines that's a benefit, as long as those guidelines make sense. Religions, however, tend to base their guidelines on ancient precepts that were grounded in superst.ition and an unquestioning acceptance that the supernatural was real. That tends to produce moral guidelines that really don't make much sense in today's modern world, and that's where the problem with religion arises.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  17. Majestic Lizard

    The reality is that there have been real studies published in respected scientific journals which have found little or negative correlation between possessing religious beliefs and having a college education (meaning that as the first variable goes up, the second value either stays the same, or goes down). When it comes to IQ, the correlation is distinctly negative. The more dogmatically inclined a person professes to be, the lower the IQ is found to be.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Kiara

      Could you please provide links to these papers? A few friends and I are, "dogmatically inclined" as you say, and as college students at the top of our class and going through one of the toughest programs our school has to offer I'd like to see just how these studies were conducted. I doubt they or this article were performed well.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      @Kiara, watch out for what you ask for.





      August 25, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • pt6071

      Religions are for people who want easy answers, rather than think them out themselves

      August 25, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Harry

      One's level of education has more to do with socio-economic status and less to do with level of intelligence. Opportunity generally outweighs ability. Ivy League schools are loaded remarkably unintelligent children of privaledge (many of whom have no desire, whatsoever, to be there).

      August 25, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Bruce

      It's not about belief. It's about social insti.tutions.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Kiara

      Thanks, I'm not trying to attack anyone, articles about this subject on both sides tend to be poorly done, especially considering how biased IQ tests tend to be. The psychologists I've spoken to (I was doing a project around spatial IQ) made a point in saying they were not trustworthy. I very much doubt these things have much to do with IQ so much as they have to do with people's current mental situation. If christians are losing their jobs and have already struggled it is much easier for them to turn their backs and walk away. This article is more likely based on living status rather than education level.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  18. Daniel

    Read the bible my friends that is the truth that you will find, just read it before you criticize. Evolution is a manmade myth that corrupted peoples minds. Seek the Lord with all your heart and trust in him and you will see the truth.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • BioHzrd

      By that definition most scientific theories are mad-made myths. If you fail to see that evolution is a valid scientific theory (the same way gravity is a valid scientific theory), then please continue to take penicillin for all your ailments...and I do mean all.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Reality

      Some people think Genesis is the perfect word of god. I don't think Phil Collins is even a good drummer.

      Look, the bible says god created 2 great lights in teh sky, the sun and the moon. Turns out, not so much. And that is just on page one. The line of bullsh!t expends expontially from there.

      Drop teh crutch, and think on your own.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • pt6071

      If God is all-powerful and all-loving, there wouldn't be an argument on finding him in the first place

      August 25, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Frankie

      Have you reached this hypothosis on your own or based your opinion on other people's opinion.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Bruce

      If you read the bible and take it at all seriously, you would never get married. There is nothing more anti-marriage and anti-family than the apocalyptic views of the New Testament.

      It's probably a good thing that people who go to church regularly don't take the bible all that seriously and instead maintain the social insti.tutions of marriage, family, work, and church in such a way that looks forward to an optimistic future that does not have the imminent end-of-the-world hanging over it like the sword of Damocles.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • Free

      Do you have any idea of just how much modern medicine and science depends upon what evolution teaches us? Check this link for a short summary:


      You probably benefit from the use of evolution theory rather significantly even on a personal level.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • AndyB

      Many skeptics have read the bible and not found anything worth pursuing.
      Evolution is not man-made it is man-observed. Studying nature and genetics provided insight which led to the conclusion that species have evolved.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  19. hippypoet

    Majestic Lizard- your wrong, rome fell because it was weakened over centuries of war and being to weak at the end to defend itself... the religion is where people turned to after the LIGHT OF THE WORLD had gone out.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Majestic Lizard

      @hippypoet, actually Christianity is one of the key factors that lead to the destruction of Rome. This is a historically recognized fact. Christianity also heralded the dark ages of scholasticism (where they thought flied spontaneously generated from meat,etc).

      August 25, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  20. gary

    Jeebus is dead 2000 yrs, god is pretend myth ... poor are starting to realize all that praying only got them sore knees.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • John Do

      If you say so. Wouldn't you be surprised if you're wrong?

      August 25, 2011 at 9:23 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.