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. mabel floyd

    belonging to a church is different today than when i was a child. no longer does one follow the church's thinking or the bible without critical thinking. most people just cheery pick and design their own belief system. ie–the catholic church forbids birth control. since the average female is capable of producing 14 or 15 children one can park outside a catholic church and count the number of parishioners who come to church with their flock of 14 or 15 children. what you will see is a family with 2 or 3 children on the average–just like the other churches or the overall population of families. so either God is protecting the female from being children after 1 or 2 or birth control is being used.
    people today do as they find satisfies their own life style.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  2. JS

    I say tax them all...

    August 24, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • mabel floyd

      i agree. churches got the tax deduction by giving an agreement not to discuss or be involved in politics. they all lied and since they broke their word the tax paper should keep their word and TAX THEM ALL.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Rationalist

      I think that if 50% of church profits went to the government, we might have a chance at getting out of this chasm of debt.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:57 am |
      • Hamsa

        How bout you give 50% of YOUR yearly profits, since you are so insistent people just randomly pay the debt of others – and idiots at that.

        January 1, 2014 at 5:00 pm |
    • Don Camp

      @ Mabel Churches may live under that rule, but people don't. Individuals, whether Christian, Muslim, atheist, or none of the above, have the right in this country of freedom of speech. Now, I personally approve of the rule that churches should not engage in politics, and I wince at Christians who mix their faith and politics to the degree that they act more like politicians than Christians. But they still have the right to their political views. And they have the right advance those views. That's America.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  3. Nonsense

    This is nonsense. In the 70's fewer businesses operated Sunday shifts. Today, the McJob generation that is not educated, more than likely will have to work on the weekend and that includes Sunday. A better study would have been to compare it from say the year 2000. The 70's were an entire different time. Sunday work for the non-college educated is probably at least 25% higher than in the 70's. No college education = working mall jobs at hours. This article is whack.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Hamsa

      If you were truly faithful,nothing would stop you from going to church. Your post is ridiculous. If a person really believes there is an all powerful God,keys to fate, heaven, and hell...again, you would just pick a job to suit your needs. As I do, and everyone else I know. If you are too stupid to figure it out, then you don't believe anyway, because your (lack of) intellect is prohibitive to any comprehension of religion or belief.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:06 pm |
  4. Fred

    My meth habit has really cut in to my churchgoing......

    August 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • GodPot

      Meth...odist? I wonder if you could call John Wesley a Meth-head...

      August 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • crocodile bobbies auto

      One thing most of you miss, is that women tend to like to worship God on sunday. Most churches I have been too, have wonderful, beautiful looking women, even many older women are quite striking and good looking. While that does not make attending services worthwhile in itself, God does say, it helps.

      August 25, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • Hamsa


      January 1, 2014 at 5:10 pm |
  5. Billy

    it's less educated people that attend church anyway. No one in Europe attends Christian churches today – they are empty on Sundays. That's why the current freaky Pope is always uttering these silly pronouncements about Church attendance. There's a reason why the period of the Church's greatest influence and power is called the "Dark Ages" or the Middle Ages. For the Pope to travel around Africa and tell people that using birth control is a sin is a crime against humanity, in my opinion. The Christian Church lost its relevance a long time ago. You hear that the previous Pope apologized for their treatment of Galileo in 1992? (400 years after they jailed him – 400 years too late). If we followed what the Church said the Earth would still be considered flat and science and progress is evil.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • GodPot

      Well said.

      Science is the flashlight used to shine light into the darkness where imaginary deities and all other creations within mankinds collective consciousness reside, and Religion is one of the biggest sellers of such supposed supernatural soul saving. They were in their prime in the dark ages, with a perfect environment to wreak havoc, take what they wanted all while claiming divine origins but today the spotlight of truth shines at their very core and is threatening combustion if not removed.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Don Camp

      Billy, you have your head in the sand. Christians are not on a decline.Take a look at Resurrection Day Dance on youtube. Christianity is not irrelevant. google any of the groups like Gospel for Asia, World Vision, etc. It is true that there is a change going on: The traditional churches sometimes called mainline churches are declining, but charismatic and evangelical churches are growing. Faith is important to billions of people.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • crocodile bobbies auto

      Jesus lives, I lie not. The greatest scientist is still Albert Eistein, who always started his physics lectures with the confession that he only revealed the laws by which God created the universe. And therefore, today, whenever someone says, "you are an Einstein" this means you have high intelligence. Those with the highest intelligence love all mankind, and do not carry guns.

      August 25, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Hamsa

      People in Europe are statistically less educated than Americans...but your point is incorrect in any case. Wm Lne Craig actually did a bit on this topic, when he was debating in the UK. His fellow debaters mentioned that the upper classes were still as religious as ever, but it was the uneducated, blue collar set that we atheist/agnostic. As this study finds is also true in America. The uneducated/fundamentalist/Mormon/David Koresh type folks haven't the intellect to understand philosophy and relgion so they drop out. You can google all of the other studies. Religion is just 'beyond' most undeducated folks.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:17 pm |
  6. jjtuck

    I have seen some dumb articles but this one takes the cake. Maybe religion was forced on some people when we were younger and just do not believe that going to church signifies being religious. We can carry religion in our own way. The writer of this and the people doing the study are a bunch of holy rollers who are holding on to something that is becoming less important to go to...church, temple, etc. Keep you studies and opinions to yourself...please.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Hamsa

      So you are the only one allowed freedom of speech, and scientific data? There are many other studies that have the same result. In the UK the upper classes are still religious, and the lower/blue collar classes that are atheists. The data is the same here. Google it. Religion is too complicated for the uneducated...except the wacky cults, fundamentalists, snake handlers, david Koresh BS. Thats not religion, but simply a Kool-Aid cult, for illiterates.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
  7. GodPot

    New study finds that people who are poor tend to be fatter than their rich neighbors. Does this mean poor people eat better than the wealthy? You might think that but you would be wrong, they just eat greasier lower quality food which increases their chance of obesity. What does this have to do with the uneducated not going to Church? The same thing a college education has to do with religion, absolutely nothing.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  8. Carol

    The uneducated have always found their way out of bed and to church. I think this study is flawed.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Jim


      August 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  9. Science

    The word educated has lost its meaning. A B.S. degree in business or finance or any of the (lol) arts and humanities does not equip you for critical thought. Get a masters in a core science and then tell me you believe in Noah's flood.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Jim

      I have a PHD. Obviously you are ignorant as to the whole matter ... lol

      August 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Thou doest lyeth

      If you had a Ph.D., you would have spelled Ph.D. correctly.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Greg Bryan

      Honestly, thank you for writing this comment. At least I now know that there is one other person in this world with an education; the authors of this paper clearly lack this insight.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Jack

      Science: Do you believe in other fairy tales like "free will" and an essentialist "self"? Don't know? Do some more thinking. Human existence is full of metaphysical leaps of faith. Your mocking tone is not an artifact of pure empirico-positivism. It is an artifact of an arrogant pseudo-sophistication.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Seth

      Yeah, it's true. Nobody I know with a core science degree, myself included, believes in any of this Christian mumbo-jumbo. Anyway, I think this study has more to say about poor people not going to church than uneducated people. If you checked the stats on the types of collage degrees church goers have, I'll bet you wont find many that require much critical thinking skills. The uneducated are much more likely to be poor, and although they are probably still believers (most dumb people are) they aren't going to waste their money on going to church. If they wan't false hope, they can buy lottery tickets.

      There isn't any such thing as magic boys and girls. Time to grow up.

      August 25, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • crocodile bobbies auto

      God can do more with you, than you can ever do by yourself. Those who reject God's word are really stopped from fullfilling their dreams and hopes. As, Cain was told all those years ago, "If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door."

      I have used many times, Jesus' admonition to "do all things in my name". I have gotten so much money back, using these words has opened so many doors, so many problems were fixed. Most people respond positively to these words, they become clay in your hands, so to speak.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Robert

      I grew up in a church with top scientists, doctors, and professors. You display your obvious ignorance.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • AB

      Yes, you hit the nail on the head.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Hamsa

      A college degree doesn't procure critical thinking? Writing 25 pg research papers doesn't require logic? My deductive logic class, which counted as a math, isn't logical? 2+2=5? Since when? Going on a 6 week dig in Jerusalem for my archeology credit isn't an education? You must have gotten your degree from University of Phoenix...hahaha. Just kidding, I can tell your are one of the blue collar folks this article is referring to, with no education at all.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:27 pm |
  10. Luke Skywalker

    I'd say the "less educated" (read poor) go to church, donate what little they have, realize their return in investment is zero, and say to hell with it, why give away what little I have for nothing. The "educated" (read not poor) probably figure it's good for business connections and they can afford it just in case God is real.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Jim

      Indirectly, you have hit the point!
      It is good for civilization and what IF G-d exists!!!

      August 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • RUSerious


      And what if you are hit by a bus tomorrow, or you fall off the ladder while cleaning your gutters and land on your neck, or a tiger gets loose at the zoo and mauls your face off...

      Life your life scared of the "what ifs" and I wouldn't call that much of living. Pascal's wager is such a lame go-to for religeous folk. If your god's only requirement is to accept Jesus as the savior to get into happy land for eternity, and not living a good and honest life, then fvck your god...

      August 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • RUSerious

      @grammar nazis, in before the "you started a sentance with 'and'" or "live not life" comments. it's a blog, not technical writing....

      August 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  11. alumette

    Higher education does not always mean you are smarter. On the contrary, it may mean that you are following expectations and the family trend suggested in organized religions. It is a social media, more having to do with "belonging" than being spiritual. Most spiritual people do not belong to organized religions. They do their own thing. They get the big picture on their own without hearing the demands and suggestions of the churches, synagogues or what ever people belong to...and yes, churches are needy and controlling. People with advanced degrees seem to want to get ahead by controlling others as churches are a great help in that . ..looking "good" on the resumes.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  12. us1776

    The smart ones left a long long time ago.

    The rest of the class is just catching up with them.


    August 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo Has Left The Building


      August 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Jim

      You are obviously of an ignorant and empty perspective.

      Religion is good for civilization and what IF G-d exists!!!

      August 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • RUSerious


      More BS from the zealot. Proof or it isn't true. I can claim all day that Jello Pudding was the best thing for civilization, but without stating reasons why, it means nothing.

      Religeon is a thorn in civilization's side. It makes a divide between diffferent factions, causes hate, and makes people do things in the name of Santa Claus (or any other fairy tale character of your choice). Look at all the religeon and fighting in the middle east...wow those people are the most civilized people on this big rock.../end sarcasm

      August 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  13. Greg

    I am not a Mormon, but I studied religion at U.C. Berkeley several years ago. I do rememebr a study that showed the more highly educated a Mormon was, the more likely he/she was to be an active participant. In other words, a person with a master's degree was more likely to be active than one with just a bachelor's degree. I suspect the Mormon religion pulled these numbers up in a big way. If you took out the Mormons, I bet this study would be a little more normal.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Greg

      Harvard and Stanford are full of Mormons. We didn't have as many at Berkeley, but there were tons at Stanford and Harvard. I think it's the one religion that bucks the trend in terms of religious observance being correclated with higher education. I have interviewed tons of Mormons over the years, and the most intelligent of them were more active in their church. I certainly didn't find that to be the case with the evangelicals or baptists.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Cason Snow

      The LDS church is incredibly good at fostering networks and connections.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • crocodile bobbies auto

      Some churches you have named tend to foster religious and racial bigotry. I have been a member of one church mentioned, for 24 years. Religious bigotry is a huge hinderence to prosperity for members of that church. They tend to be afraid of anyone who does not believe as they do. they cut themselves off from say, 95% of the population, since only they have the true knowledge of God.

      August 25, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  14. Nare

    I'd propose that the more educated simply clip away those parts they find to be ridiculous but still participate for the purpose of community – the "club". The less educated know what manipulation feels like and probably have decided they aren't going to try to live up to standards that can't be met by the leadership.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  15. Andrea

    I've always heard quite the opposite, too.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  16. Bibletruth

    Higher criticism is a sham.....it requires a made up assumption at its foundation, and anyone following its history of pronouncements and subsequent silence re that pronouncement (because they eventually are proven false) knows this.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Jim

      Blah Blah Blah

      August 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  17. sagewy

    I say BULL! The more educated one becomes; the more unquestioned religious beliefs become questioned. I firmly believe its the opposite of this study.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • dwerbil


      August 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Billy

      The sample population is flawed, because it's less educated people that attend church anyway. No one in Europe attends Christian churches today – they are empty on Sundays. That's why the current freaky Pope is always uttering these silly pronouncements about Church attendance. There's a reason why the period of the Church's greatest influence and power is called the "Dark Ages" or the Middle Ages. For the Pope to travel around Africa and tell people that using birth control is a sin is a crime against humanity, in my opinion. The Christian Church lost its relevance a long time ago. You hear that the previous Pope apologized for their treatment of Galileo in 1992? (400 years after they jailed him – 400 years too late). If we followed what the Church said the Earth would still be considered flat and science and progress is evil.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • ksmary

      From what I have observed at my church, I suspect many of the educated church attendees are using their attendance more for a networking opportunity than a time to check in with God.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • DS

      Fine. Then you should complete a study that substantiates your belief and shows why this study is wrong. Or do you just believe it on faith?

      August 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Diane

      I haven't been to church in years. Both my parents were quite active in the church leadership while I was growing up, yet when they needed help (dad threatening suicide), our pastor was nowhere to be found, even refused to come council dad. Fortunately, it did not end in distaster, and they are happily involved with a new church. Still, it left a lot of bad feelings with me and started me really questioning things. The more I look into it (here and there, when I have time), the more I wonder. I do think a person can believe what they wish, and that they do not necessarily HAVE to go to church/temple/mosque in order to believe in a higher power.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • DS

      @ Billy, Europe has a very different history with religion than the U.S. This may explain the difference between church attendance in Europe and the U.S. I attend church fairly regularly, and I have definitely noticed this trend (the one described in the article). I would hope that less educated people are not leaving their churches because they feel they cannot live up to certain social expectations, although this very well may be a reasonable explanation of what is occurring.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Bugmenot

      You go right ahead and pray for the bull to sit on you then.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Hamsa

      Sorry, you are just brainwashed by the dogma of your cult...hook, line, and sinker.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
  18. Bibletruth

    The word of God is the word of God....Genesis is...Revelation is. The old testament or Hebrew scriptures are all about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the center of the old testament, as well as the new testament. The new testament absolutely cannot be understood without the old testament and the old testament is totally misunderstood without the new. Daniel and Revelation go together like a hand and a glove. Salvation, re the "everlasting covenant" has always been by grace through faith. Thse who attempt to have a different system of atonement/salvation in the old testament than the new are without understanding.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • Luke Skywalker

      I know what you mean. The Prequel Trilogy from Star Wars isn't really understood all that well unless you've seen the Original Star Wars trilogy, and vise versa. The word of Vader IS the word of Vader. The Original Trilogy WAS about Vader, and you can't really see that without seeing The Prequel trilogy.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • towerthree

      what? the less of the molecules of bible will be more of the educations, therefore the of other is not or understood.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • GoMaster

      And this relates to the article in what way, exactly?

      August 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      My bullshit detector just pegged!

      If you were an honest believer, you would start your declaratons with "Despite there not being one shred of independent, objective or factual evidence to support my beliefs, I believe that..."

      August 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • God

      Jesus, I am your father...

      August 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
      • Hamsa

        There is only one God in Christianity (MONOtheism)...Jesus IS God retard. You prove the point of this article...religion is too complicated for the lower classes, so they are either Fundies or atheists...both of which require no thought.More importantly, I AM GOD, I will be coming for you 2015. Shalom.

        January 1, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
    • John Q. Public

      God is Darth Vader? Boy, that sure explains a lot about why the world is so messed up! God actually makes sense now.

      Okay, maybe not, but it makes more sense than that Jesus fool.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  19. Free

    Of course, there may be a decline in church attendance amongst the lesser educated and a rise in attendance amongst the more highly educated simply because of levels of earned income, where those with less education tend to earn less income and thus cannot afford the high ti.the demand of some congregations, while more highly educated and more affluent people can, actual belief in God notwithstanding.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Or

      Church is a status symbol and way to show people you are supposedly good, rub elbows and make contacts in your community. There's nothing like getting free press when you are giving to something that sells like Christianity. It's why it's a hot potato on the political field.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • yeah

      I agree Or I have friends who don't even own a bible but go to church so they can fit into the neighborhood. It's funny to hear them swear J.C or G.D.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • towerthree

      if you read the article more educated people are leaving the church too, just at a lesser percentage. eventually, the church and structured religion will disappear.

      August 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Free

      I guess it comes down to the difference between attending church for whatever reason, and actually believing in what the pastor is saying there. I still attended church regular as clockwork for years after I stopped believing because it was expected of me, but I still occasionally go out of social obligation (baptisms, funerals and weddings) and for other reasons. When I go I make a donation anonymously where appropriate because it's the right thing to do, like laying some money on a busker who entertains you. If you get something out of a service like church then you deserve to pay, right? If you don't, then why are you going?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • Hamsa

      So people think that working at Wal-mart is worth going to hell? Idiotic... If you believe you go to church, if you don't believe you don't go. PERIOD.

      January 1, 2014 at 5:42 pm |
  20. Free

    I've always thought that you don't have to be of above average intelligence to become an atheist. The arguments against God's existence are so easy to understand and compelling that most people can understand them for themselves. What's different here is that the topic of God's being real is losing it's taboo status. People are actually discussing this openly, and they have far better access to information like higher criticism and Church history than ever before. The non-believing population is stepping out of their closet. If you get right down to it, this may be more a function of people feeling comfortable enough to admit that they don't actually believe than a significant rise in people actually losing their faith.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
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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.