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. HappyMeal

    The Christian religious discipline is good to emotions and brains.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Bruce

      Sure it is, as long as you ignore the apocalyptic anti-marriage, anti-family, and anti-productive-work-ethic messages from the New Testament where the apocalypse is right around the corner.

      Thankfully, most people who go to church nowadays do exactly that: ignore the pessimistic views of the future and instead embrace the social insti.tutions (such as marriage and economically-productive-work and politics) that assume a more-optimistic view of what's going to happen over the next several decades.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Adelina really is a moron

      I can't believe you were actually stupid enough to take the name HappyMeal.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  2. Jesus H. Christ

    Imagine that! A study that shows that those without college degrees are actually MORE INTELLIGENT than those WITH college degrees!

    August 25, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Al

      Imagine that, less educated people have a much simpler understanding of the universe and like to make huge generalizations!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • GreenieInPA

      Seriously. I was thinking the same thing. Apparently there IS an upside to not getting a degree. 🙂

      August 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Agree

      That's an interesting way of looking at it. I would have thought the more educated people would be less likely to cling to fantasy.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  3. SnazzyO

    An interesting article. The gap between college-educated and non-college educated is a little disturbing. I agree, this is less about faith and more about feeling disenfranchised by society.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  4. Jo

    People who do not have degrees generally work a minimum wage job, maybe even 2 or 3 to make ends meet. They have no choice but to work while others go to church. I don't think it means they are less religious. The study is just another way for organized religion and media to drive a wedge between the have and have-nots. If you are poor, not only are you stupid, you must be a sinner too.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Bazoing

      A good answer.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  5. CommonSense

    I think this study is misleading.
    Lots of other studies and statistics show that the number of people who identify themselves as "not religious" is growing in the U.S. It's not due to education or lack of it, just that more people feel comfortable finally admitting that they are not religious. They don't fear the criticism for their non-belief any longer.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Stevie7

      I think the only thing that was misleading was CNN's headline. The study concluded nothing close to this. The study was about attendance, not losing religion.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Bruce

      Stevie7: I think you are mistaken about what "religion" is. It has more to do with attendance than it does with personal belief/opinions on religious ideas.

      Belief is barely incidental nowadays...

      August 25, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Stevie7

      @Bruce – good point.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  6. Pete

    Because the people without degrees have less for the offering plate and the pastors don't friendship them as vigorously.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • GreenieInPA

      Why don't they put "like" buttons on this page!?! Well said, my friend.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • MarkinFL

      "friendship them as vigorously".
      Is friendship a verb now? And does it involve Vaseline?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  7. Al Stefanelli

    While this is good news, I believe the drop in church attendance among those not college educated is due to their statistically lower paying jobs having to be augmented by a second or even third income, which usually comes on nights and weekends.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  8. Rationalist

    Devoting your life to science will earn you a good education and a stable living. Devoting your life to religion will get you nothing but strange looks from rational people.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Bruce

      Actually, the popular image of the "mad scientist" who has devoted his/her life to science is profoundly anti-social. They are not married, they have no children, and they have little or no social interaction outside of their work.

      That is, science is no guarantee against anti-social behavior, and not-necessarily amenable to social insti.tutions such as marriage, family, work, politics, etc.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Of course there are the other 99.99% of scientists with normal careers, family and other social interactions.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Bruce

      Right, MarkinFL–there are also the 99.99% of people who go to church who really don't believe half the stuff these "devote your life to science" folks say they believe.

      If they really believed it, they wouldn't get married and raise a family because the apocalypse is right around the corner. Even when they say they believe it, their actions (i.e. getting married) betray their actual optimism in the future.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Quite right. The vast majority of churchgoers cherry pick the bits they use to guide their own lives. This was one( of many) of the hypocrisies I recognized first. Many/Most seem to go out of habit or "just in case".

      August 25, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Bruce

      MarkinFL, it's not hypocrisy or even intellectual dishonesty. It's simply that they don't engage theology in that way, and they don't view the church the way you view religious ideas.

      Seriously, now. Historically-speaking, the Church has actively discouraged the laity from engaging in theology. This is changing, but there is no requirement for people in the Church to engage these ideas head-on, and more-to-the-point, social insti.tutions such as marriage and work are encouraged by the Church, which means the Church views the future with the same optimism as those getting married.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  9. Mark

    If it is the less educated that are leaving the church, then it stands to reason that the more educated are attending church. So, why are churchgoers often portrayed as uneducated?

    August 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Mike

      “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.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • hippypoet

      because its so clear and plain to see that all the religion does is tell you what your fears are in a way that makes you believe in something that can save your "soul" . then they take your money... and because the poor have little or no money the church cares not to keep them in but move them out to make room for the "PAYING CUSTOMERS"... its all nothing more then a biz with a fear as its keeper of control. andit shows you with the nailed dude what happens to those who don't follow the rules! you get royally screwed! get it, royal as in joshua (jesus) as king on earth, and screwed as in nailed!!!!! awesome!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • Jon

      Mark, you didn't read the article that carefully, did you? Did it suggest that attendance numbers remained same or grew or declined less as a percentage overall than the percentage drop of the less educated attendees? No. In fact, the attendance of the more educated persons also dropped, from 51 percent to 46 percent.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Jessica

      Because they say and do some wacky stuff which is logically wrong.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  10. Barry G.

    From the beginning the church realized the importance of teaching and study, but Christians and their leaders often had different views about the role of academics (both theological and secular) in the church.

    In the New Testament epistle of Second Timothy (attributed by many to be one of the Pauline epistles), the writer commands one Timothy to study or give diligence, in order to show himself approved by God. (This would suggest that Timothy was failing to engage in the kind of study, which was necessary for his ministry and for the spread of the Gospel. We also know that the church faced challenges by the non-believing intelligentsia, which demanded a response, if the church was to survive.)

    Ignatius (ca. 35 or 50-between 98 and 117), Polycarp (69 – 155), Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165), and Tertullian (born c. 155/160, Carthage — died after 220, Carthage), and Irenaeus (2nd century AD – c. 202) are just a few of the leaders of the early Christian church. Some of these leaders had great appreciation for Classic Greek philosophy and believed that philosophy held important keys to understanding and interpreting the Scripture, whereas others did not share this belief.
    The role of academics (both theological and secular) will no doubt continue to challenge the faithful, as it has since the beginning.

    See: The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (Story of Christianity) for a magnificent presentation of these issues.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Barry G.

      I failed to mention that Justo L. Gonzalez is the author of The Story of Christianity, for those interested in learning more about the role of academics and scholarship in the early Christian church.

      My apolgies for my oversight.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  11. Adam

    Ha! Love this article. I am an atheist myself. But I don't hate religion in any way. I do get a kick out of how this is enraging the already angry atheist people that always bash religion on these comment threads.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I fail to see how this article should enrage an atheist.... It merely notes that the less educated are dropping out of church attendance at a faster pace. It says little about belief. (Aside from the typical "miss the mark completely" CNN headline, which is not written by the author).

      August 25, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  12. hippypoet

    losing religion...??? now thats funny, you can't lose whats not real, hence never had it, hence the BELIEF or else we or at least someone could proove the existence of dog, oh i'm sorry i meant god!

    August 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • C. Smith

      Your logic (as much as I can read of it) appears to show your lack of education. Lack of evidence has NEVER been evidence of a lack in any area save atheists' attacks on religion. If you applied the same logic to science, the entire field of research would immediately stop, since there's no evidence of unproven things yet.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @C. Smith
      That's right!
      There is a complete lack of evidence for the Egyptian pantheon, but that doesn't mean Osiris is fictional.
      The same can be said of Angus, Belenos, Brigid, dana, Lugh, Dagda, Epona, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Atehna, Demeter, Dionysus, Eris, Eos, Gaia, Hades, Hekate, Helios, Hephaestus, Hera, hermes, Hestia, Pan, Poseidon, Selene, Uranus, Zeus, Mathilde, Elves, Eostre, Frigg, Hretha, Saxnot, Shef, Thuno, Tir, Weyland, Woden, Alfar, Balder, Beyla, Bil, Bragi, Byggvir, Dagr, Disir, Eir, Forseti, Freya, Freyr, Frigga, Heimdall, Hel, Hoenir, Idunn, Jord, Lofn, Loki, Mon, Njord, Norns, Nott, Odin, Ran, saga, Sif, Siofn, Skadi, Snotra, Sol, Syn, Ull, Thor, Tyr, Var, Vali, Vidar, Vor, Black Shuck, Herne, Jack in the Green, Holda, Nehalennia, Nerthus, endovelicus, Ataegina, Runesocesius, Apollo, Bacchus, Ceres, Cupid, Diana, Janus, Juno, Jupiter, Maia, Mars, Mercury, Minerva, Neptune, Pluto, Plutus, Proserpina, Venus, Vesta, Vulcan, Attis, Cybele, El-Gabal, Isis, Mithras, Sol Invictus, Endovelicus, Anubis, Aten, Atum, Bast, Bes, Geb, Hapi, Hathor, Heget, Horus, Imhotep, Isis, Khepry, Khnum, Maahes, Ma’at, Menhit, Mont, Naunet, Neith, Nephthys, Nut, Osiris, Ptah, ra, Sekhmnet, Sobek, Set, Tefnut, Thoth, An, Anshar, Anu, Apsu, Ashur, Damkina, Ea, Enki, Enlil, Ereshkigal, Nunurta, Hadad, Inanna, Ishtar, Kingu, Kishar, Marduk, Mummu, Nabu, Nammu, Nanna, Nergal, Ninhursag, Ninlil, Nintu, Shamash, Sin, Tiamat, Utu, Mitra, Amaterasu, Susanoo, Tsukiyomi, Inari, Tengu, Izanami, Izanagi, Daikoku, Ebisu, Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Fu.kurokuju, Jurojin, Hotei, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Inti, Kon, Mama Cocha, Mama Quilla, Manco Capac, Pachacamac, Viracoc.ha, or Zaramama.

      Therefore, all Gods are equally plausible.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Response

      Christianity has never been about absolute proof otherwise Christians wouldn't be called believers or have to exercise faith and belief. Why don't you ask the question to yourself as well? Prove definitively that there isn't a God, not just saying that you BELIEVE there isn't a God.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Stevie7

      Do you BELIEVE that Ra doesn't exist, or do you just have a lack of belief in Ra?

      The burden of proof is on the claimant. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as a great man once said.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • MarkinFL

      WHAT?!?! You mean no one has disproved ANY of the old Gods? Oh dear, which one should we believe in? Safest bet seems to believe in all of the gods that do not claim to be the one and only true god. Statistically better chance of getting it right. Since they all have an equal likelihood of existence it makes sense to go with the oldest and greatest number of gods.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  13. pt6071

    I hope the end of this article isn't suggesting "You should go to church because it can make you feel good, even if it's all a lie."

    August 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I sure can't think of any other reason to go.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  14. W K

    This study left off one very important population segment distinction. By including those with post-graduate degrees with those with only a bachelors degree, they skewed the study. When looking at each segment seperately, you find that the percentage of postgraduates (47%) and those with a high school education or less (43%) were essentially the same. It would appear that those without education and those with the most education feel almost identical.


    August 25, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • DKelley

      an excellent point. the relative similarity in attendance at religious services by post-graduate degree holders and those who did not attend college shows an interesting similarity in that both groups seem to feel outside of the "mainstream." clearly university serves, in part, to indoctrinate students in middle-class values and in-group participation.
      i, like many who are engaged in the academic study of religion no doubt, rolled my eyes in exasperation with CNN's presentation of this interesting study with it's "losing religion" angle. clearly not what the study concludes, and clouds the potential information it generated.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  15. John Doe

    What baffles me is why so many of those that don't believe in God persist in reading articles about religion and then posting negative comments? If you don't believe it why are you spending any time with it?

    Usually people shy away from things they want nothing to do with.

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

      There are articles here about atheism too and religious folks aren't shy about posting negative comments there either. It's a discussion board! What kind of productive discussion can anyone get when people don't speak their minds?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • pt6071

      Because religions are inherently dangerous, so the more that can be done to convince people of their fallaciousness the better

      August 25, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • TAK

      Why do those that don't believe in abortion persist is spending so much time protesting it? Now do you understand? Probably not.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • Jeff

      Because they don't want it to be true. Which means they believe in a round about way.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • cmc

      I don't believe in space aliens either, but I still like Star Trek and Star Wars.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • MoonBeeMe

      Christianity affects everyone in this country whether your a Christian or not. The comments are another issue.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • J.D. Word

      All of you have something to say, but say nothing. You say you don't believe, but accost those that do, those that believe try to bring those that don't back into the "flock". You want to discuss, with-out a true understanding of belief in "God". I suggest you read about the Druid's, Pharaoh Ahknatun, Hitler and possibly; Jimmy Jones. Man has fought wars over belief, now the Taliban and AL Quida are saying they know what is best for the World, and losing to the Arab Spring, Arab's who know and understand what freedom to believe is, and what they lost for too many years. Ask A Mennonite, or Buddhist what religion is, you might be surprised. I do not agree with the article either, it is flawed, biased and I would say blase. This Prof. W. Bradford Wilcox (why don't they ever use their real first name?) needs to get out in the real public, with real people and actually talk to them instead of glued in his ProF. chair. Those that are "leaving" the church are probably working on Sunday's, because of the non-believers in D.C. that have diminished the value of their almighty $$$$$$$$ . Just a thought!

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

      @John Doe – because regardless of what we believe in or do not believe in, to have a well rounded opinion, you must look at both sides of the equation.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  16. CallHim Jmmanuel

    what is this BS article? trying to draw in more church goers and follow an illogical religion? lets get things straight, less educated people attend church just as much as more educated people, whoever, there are generational differences that skew this study. One thing's for sure the focus of many teens is have a social life rather than church, and yes they could be considered less educated because they are still teens. Highly educated people pass on church because they know better, for those who think science has flaws, people already know that but nothing is set in stone in science. however, religious ones will think differently and feel as if a god is present in their lives consistently. Less education means more hard work for a person, which would mean less time to donate to the pyramid scheme you guys call church.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  17. palintwit

    We are very religious here in the Palin family. That's why we have all of our battery operated adult toys blessed by the pope prior to insertion.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  18. truth

    Surprising that the "dumb" ones have figured out religion is a scam before the ones with "an education" I suppose it doesnt take much more than common sense to figure out that religion is a bunch fear based lies

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


      August 25, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Bob
      August 25, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Bruce

      Religion isn't a scam if you don't really believe the fear-based lies to begin with.

      Most people who go to church don't really believe those fear-based lies. If they did, they would be less-supportive of things like marriage and work-ethic, and more-supportive of things like lifelong celibacy and economically "nonproductive" work such as the clergy and philosophy.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  19. Tim the Fish

    This is because the Jesus industry doesn't cater to poor people because they don't have the thing that churches want most of all – MONEY!

    August 25, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  20. Bruce

    People are completely missing the point. The article is not about religious belief. The article is about social insti.tutions* such as church, marriage, and work. Belief has very very little to do with any of this, it's barely incidental to what is going on.

    *I can't believe CNN makes me spell it this way to keep the "ti" away from the "t" just in case someone gets offended by a word within a word...

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

      In fact, if we were to look at the New Testament and try to find support for the social insti.tutions of marriage, family, and employment, what we find is the opposite.

      "It is better for a man not to marry at all."
      "I wish that all of you were [unmarried] as I am."
      "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple."

      That is, if you view the world as on-the-verge of imminent apocalypse, all of these social insti.tutions that promote an optimism about the near-term (next several years) and intermediate-term (next few decades) future are completely anathema to your outlook on life.

      It's a good thing that most people who go to church don't take the New Testament all that seriously when it comes to marriage and work...

      It's not about belief.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Nonimus

      I'm not a proponent of faith or the Bible, but even I can tell those quotes are out of context.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Bruce

      Nominus: It's not about "context" and scriptural her.men.eut.ics and theology–it's not about belief at all, really. It's about the difference between pessimism and optimism about the near-and-intermediate future in light of a supposed belief in the imminent apocalypse, and the practical application of that pessimism and optimism.

      That is, if people really really believed the apocalypse was around the corner, they wouldn't get married and they wouldn't bother developing a career and saving for retirement. When they do these things, they are showing that they really don't believe the apocalypse is around the corner.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:36 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.