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. ron

    when churches provide hope, they prosper. when they are dedicated to the poor, they prosper. when they spew theology, they don't. people need hope.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • MarkinFL

      If they dispensed beer they would have even higher attendance.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • HappyMeal

      Sound theology is the lifeline of the Christian Church. Liberal theology destroys churches and make the society immoral and produces massive number of victims, and both the society and the church get punished after awhile.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • HappyMeal

      America has Christianity complex though they received everything wonderful from Christianity and they are better-off than any other nations because of it. Americans should be thankful to God and honor Him for all the blessings. The present American at-ti-tude problem is already warned in Deuteronomy. America is repeating the ancient Israel's follies.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  2. alsmeer1

    YAY. I agree we should 'lose our religion!' instead – get a relationship w/Jesus Christ.

    this 'study' is so off. I, among many, are not college graduates. yet many of us walk closer to the Lord because we
    don't look to degrees and our financial success as more important.
    I didnt even finish high school. and as for pastors needing degrees b4 they can preach ... HA. did Jesus have a seminary degree? did He request His disciples to go to college 1st ? NO.
    a religion requires earning the right to follow the Lord or attend church. not so a relationship with Him. all you need to do is give your heart to Him.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Gus


      Why would you want to have a relationship with a long-dead corpse?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Love Them Christians!

      alsmeer1 actually said "I . . . are not college graduates"

      Thanks for the wonderful laugh!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • dk

      Uhm, Gus – miss the point much?

      All religions have a life-after-death element. They all believe their founder is alive. That is the case be it Buddha, Muhammad, or Jesus Christ.

      Even if the faithful prove to be mistaken, they do not worship a "long-dead corpse" and your are wrong to make that assumption.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  3. Rev. Rick

    It appears this study looked merely at trends as they relate to education, but not the motives behind the trends. As Mark Twain said, there are "lies, d-amn lies and statistics." Many churches today are so wrapped up in the socio-political aspects of the middle and upper-middle classes that it's difficult to separate what people believe (with all their heart) versus what they appear to believe because they belong to a particular church (or a particular political party). I would suspect that in many if not most cases, a person belongs to a particular church because it fits with their life-style and social status. When pressed as to their true spiritual beliefs, their story may be quite different!

    August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • sardukar

      ...there may be few but now we have medicines that curb delusions pretty well..

      August 25, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Cat Daddy

      Rev Rick,

      I couldn't agree more! And I actually don't know your beliefs, but the church has been a way to control the masses in this country for a long time. The Karl Rove political manipulation of churches and churchgoers started our country on this downward spiral. What the poor are starting to see is that their interests aren't truly being considered. The large churches where I live are all about the educated, moneyed minorities that can pay their ridiculous salaries and loan payments on their ridiculous worship buildings. All the while espousing the beauty of the republican ideology of hating and marginalizing the poor, the oppressed and the immigrants. Maybe it would help if they preached from the old testament a bit more... or maybe even read almost any book of the old testament (and Jesus' teachings) about how we should treat immigrants and the poor and oppressed.

      The poor and oppressed are actually starting to get smart!!!

      I love God, I love my saviour Jesus Christ and, like Jesus, I hate the modern day church and their teachings!!!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  4. Pharsalus

    "Mainline Protestants" A term that has come back in fashion to suggest that liberal protestants are, in fact, "mainline". On the contrary, there are many more "Evangelical Protestants" in the U.S. Thank you, Liane Membis, for your adherence to Newspeak.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  5. Atheist

    So why do most Christians come off like complete and total idiots? Why would you go to college and study subjects like Science, just to turn around and deny evolution in favor of the fantasy or creationism? These findings make no sense and certainly don't reflect the reality I see around me everyday. ie People with an education, and an open mind, tend to simply dismiss religion as a panacea for the addle brained. The pro religion responses here seem to back me up.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • dk

      Hmm, and what if there is a god who designed the universe and planned evolution? What if god set the Big Bang in motion.

      I find it entertaining that just because science can explain how some natural mechanisms work, they assume there is nothing beyond that mechanism. You don't know much about the scientific method if you don't think that every theory we have is one discovery away from a sea change.

      There is no conflict between science and religion. The purpose of science is to answer the broad question of 'How?'. Religion strives to answer the question 'Why?'. Conflicts only arise when people cross the two up.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • RV1982

      I notice that you say "most" Christians, so I am guessing there must be at least one that you do not believe is a complete idiot. I consider myselt a Christian, and I do accept the evidence of organism changes in allele frequency over time. I don't equate evolution with creation (i.e., our existence). I do not know many Christians that accept a literal interpretation of the bible...although literalist seem to end up in the news quite frequently. My view is that most people that are religious have an open mind and our willing to accept that there are unperceived things that may exist. Granted, religion is an attempt to explain the unexplainable, hence why it is called belief...but while I understand agnostics that simply state they do not have evidence to support or refute a proposed explanation (i.e., they do not believe), I do not understand atheist that refute "belief" when they are essentially making a "belief" statement that "God" does not exist.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:23 am |

    when i was a kid i always went to church and participated in everything that i could. as i grew up to see the world for what it was i decided church wasn't for me.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  7. hippypoet

    C SMITH – insult me all you like i'm still smarter then you! i have done the research and found my answers, all you have is a book written some 2000 plus years ago, half is near 3000 years old and the second half is less then 1000 in some cases due to the translations and the amount of civil unrest during the time of luther and henry the 8th... and it was not written by one man it is a compiled work of a great many people with greatly differing backgrounds... study Chrestus, then study the translated mistakes from hebrew to greek, from greek to latin... there are a great number of mistakes, jesus is one of them... dudes name is not, was not, and will never be jesus! DO YOUR RESEARCH!

    August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Cat Daddy

      The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

      (Even though those preachers are working hard to overcome it – it still shines and the poor and oppressed are escaping them!)

      August 25, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  8. Dane

    How come most doctors and scientists are not religious? Religion stands in the way of couriosity and the desire to learn. It replaces all we don't know with "god did it" and rejects those on a quest to find out answers for that which we dont understand fully. Just ask any scientist studying the origin of the universe, physics, astronomy, biology, etc. Any scientist who is religious is automatically biased. When you want to determine what causes something and you already believe it was god's doing your results will indicate as such. If you study something and are truly open to any posibility of what may have caused it you are more likely to find the truth.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Gus

      great post.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • J

      Any scientist who is a believer is automatically biased towards their conclusions, you're right, because they are going to try and link their findings to the evidence of God.

      And any scientist who is not a believer is just as automatically biased, because they are going to try and link their findings to the lack of evidence for God.

      It's a two-way street, and everybody has biases.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • sardukar

      RETWT... (that word replaced ditto.)

      August 25, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • sardukar

      @J: the null hypothesis is that there is NO god..thus the observed effects are NOT due to direct influence of superior being..can you produce any evidence to the contrary. Keep in mind that evidence based on faith can be rejected ..on faith.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Scientists that do not believe in a god do not give a damn whether or not their findings have any impact on someones religious beliefs. Not believing in Santa Clause and little green men from Mars would cause an equal bias. There is no reason for a bias since there is no serious science involving the existence of gods or Santa Clause.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  9. JamaicanJewel

    This is hogwash. More educated people tend to reject the notion of an all powerful supreme being. Less educated people are more likely to follow, and donate to, a televised evangelical.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • J

      Awww, that's cute. You fell for that line of propaganda too. For all the talk of religious propaganda, let's be clear. The atheists have the absolute BEST selling line:

      "Only SMART people are atheists...you're not DUMB, are you?" Using that line on dumb people gets them to think they're smart by believing what you tell them. Cheers to whoever came up with it, jeers to people like you who fell for it.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • sardukar

      Not DUMB..but DELUSIONAL..many schizophrenics are actually very smart..and delusional at the same time not surprisingly most of the delusions are on religious basis.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • JamaicanJewel

      Judge not lest you be judged. Neither of my two sentences ascribed a notion of spirituality to myself. I am neither a college graduate nor a church goer though I am a spiritual person with 59 years of living, reading and listening to what the people with whom I come in contact have opined.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  10. right

    Gotta love all the commenters who say the people who studied it are wrong and instead, the commenter's knee jerk, biased opinion is right.

    What this study(or just the article) doesn't attempt to address is the change in the two groups of "educated" and "less educated". In the 1970s, you still had a lot of people with decent jobs who only had HS, or never even finished HS. Now, decent jobs for those without at least some college are few and even most of those require post-HS training.

    Short of it... in 1970s, a large percentage of the "uneducated" would fall into the "educated" category today. This shift could have as much to do with educational trends than anything else.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • Catch A Clue

      So you think that "educated" is defined by what job you have and not the level of education reached?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  11. sardukar

    Religion and Church are in compatible with knowledge , evolution and progress. Where are Zeus, Thor, Amon-Ra now...all forgotten..what did they do ? Where they upset that there is no more goat sacrifices ? Who cares..they are gone and we are here..same will happen with the currant religion.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • J

      Nothing funnier than a person who makes a post mocking religious people and their intelligence, and making 3rd grade spelling mistakes in that exact same post. You sure showed them! Now let's just hope that if God is real, he doesn't force you to take a spelling test to get into heaven, or you're screwed!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • sardukar

      ..so you think the creator of universe cares about my spelling..?? you off meds again..?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  12. ab_contador

    The real message here is that EVERYONE is going to church less ... because like me, they realize it is a sham

    August 25, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Gus

      You've got it right.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Allison

      I find it interesting how so many people who claim to be "educated" leave useless comments about how they are too smart to believe in God or attend church. If you don't believe, then why are you so convicted to fight against something that you claim to think doesn't exist?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Stevie7

      @Allison – because of the things done in the name of something I don't have a belief in. Like denying people civil rights or trying to teach something that isn't science in science classes.

      Also, I find I learn a lot when hearing other people's viewpoints(even if most of my responses are snarky)

      August 25, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  13. CW

    I have to say that this study from the 1970's is flawed a bit. One person said that no one considered that in the 70" manufacturing was closed on Sunday and also the blue laws as well. I have to say that this should be considered. On another note though I hope that the non-believers will also see that those of us who say that we are Christians aren't so dumb as they like to poke fun and say that we're less educated.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • Gus

      CW, you're stupid, gullible, and poorly educated, whatever degrees you may have.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Stevie7

      Actually, CW, I'll agree (that's probably a first :). The characteristic that believers are dumb or uneducated doesn't line up with my experiences. I know many highly educated people that believe. And since I don't think that education implies intelligence at all, I also know many intelligent people that believe. That being said, from my experience, most people I do that do believe don't really question their beliefs as far as I can tell.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  14. PulTab

    The good news is that church attendance is dropping for both educated and uneducated people. It's not dropping as fast as I'd like to see, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • sardukar


      August 25, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  15. GreenieInPA

    A whole lot of generalizations going on in this study. University of Virginia should fire this guy for making such a laughing-stock of their school.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    Indeed, there are two divine mandates (insti-tutions): work and marriage. God requires man to produce children and goods.

    I praise everybody, who works and who is married. Fine! That is the basis of human life.

    However, I see a small danger.

    One could assume, working and being married would be all about Christianity. Such one is in danger to make an idol out of work and marriage. One, making an idol out of work and marriage, is a Philistine or square. Work and marriage are good in itself, but nobody likes Philistines, because of their idolatry.

    The problem of today is that the secular (profane, godless) authorities try to breed human robots (people with a certain secular behaviour pattern). The authorities want human beings, which are totally focused on work and to a less extent on marriage. Thus, they want to breed Philistines. Philistines are easy to handle and produce a big tax revenue.

    Well educated or not, at Church people want to meet Christian brothers and sisters, but they don’t want to meet nasty Philistines there. A Church, consisting of Philistines will lose their members in the course of time, because only a few people want to stay in a nasty wormhole.

    What makes a Christian?

    Of course, a Christian also works and marries, but he makes no idol out of these things. A Christian doesn’t adore an idol, but Jesus Christ.

    Churches were always inclined to adopt themselves to the world and worldly values like these: He has a good workplace, he has a beautiful wife, thus he is good (blessed). Blessed are the Philistines! Of course, such Churches are no real Churches, but temples of idolatry.

    In the real Church there should be the following people: People, having (or developing) a Jesus-like character. Everybody, adoring Jesus, will get changed into a human being, which is totally opposed to a Philistine.

    The character of a loveable man, adoring Jesus, we can find in the start of the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-12):

    And seeing the multi-tudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

    2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

    3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

    5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

    6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

    7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

    8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

    9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

    10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

    12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

    We need pastors and bishops, being model Christians. A pastor should keep connection to reality (outside the Church-world) by doing an ordinary job beside his ministry (carpenter, nurse, tailor, teacher, gardener or anything else). Pastors, living according to the Sermon of the Mount within the real world (of work), would be very credible. They could preach with authority.

    The big proplem of the Churches today is it that the Church leaders live in a kind of subculture (they meet solely people, having something to do with the Church), having lost touch to the real world. At Sunday they preach, how to behave in everyday life, but they live in a world, where they themselves are not challenged by any brutal workmates or bosses or customers or pupils or so.

    Pastors and bishops, depending too much on the donations of their church members, are in danger to preach a Philistine gospel. They may calculate like this: the richer my congregation, the richer I am.

    Hence, it is high time to establish a new system. Pastors should never fully retire from a worldly job. They may do an somewhat easier job with limited effort of time, in order to spare time for their divine ministry.

    Note: Pastors, preaching the Philistine gospel make a big mistake. They cause a contest between their church members: who has the best job, who has the most beautiful wife? This leads to selfishness and isolation of the single church member. This is the opposite of the real Church, which Jesus founded.

    Furthermore, true Christians in a true Church, having no idotic contest, could found cooperations (they could found small companies or schools, etc.). In this way they would become independent from the godless rulers of this world, which want to make them slaves or human robots.

    Now things have come full circle: When you preach the true gospel, you help your church members even materially.

    How can we gain Christ-likeness?

    15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

    Believe in Christ and get born by water an Spirit and your life will improve.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • GreenieInPA

      I think you should make your post a little longer.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • sardukar

      The Flying Spaghetti Monster says eat pasta to be true pastafarian..at least monthly. Ramen.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein


      There is no commandment: You shall not write more than a half sentence!

      August 25, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • GreenieInPA

      Really!?! I could have sworn I saw that in your dissertation.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • ab_contador


      August 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • reACTIONary

      God boiled everything down to 10 short sentencies. Couldn't you be a bit more godly?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Stevie7

      "God boiled everything down to 10 short sentencies."

      Really? Why did he need such a long book if he only wanted to say 10 sentences?

      August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • JamaicanJewel

      . I cannot profess to be a theologian; but it seems to me that christians who believe in a personal, superhuman Satan have got themselves into a logical impasse with regard to their own religion. For either God cannot prevent the mischief of Satan, in which case He is not omnipotent; or else He could do so if He wished, but will not, in which case He is not benevolent.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  17. becool

    It's a real surprise! Maybe frustration of not being able to have a college degree? If this is true; churches need to find out a way to let those people overcome this problem.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  18. hot_in_arizona

    1). Equating church attendance with religiosity is what is misleading here. You can be religious without ever stepping foot in a church and you can go to church every day of the week and still end up headed for hell.
    2). The church has become nothing more than an arm of the right wing political establishment, which of course panders to the upper class. If the church would stay out of conservative politics it might find that those with less education (who tend to be less conservative) would feel more welcome.

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

      1) Actually equating church attendance with religiosity is spot-on and not at all misleading. What is misleading is to pretend that the personal opinion/belief of the individual with regards to theological ideas is anything but marginally-incidental to religion. If you look at the history of the Church, you will find that the laity very seldom engaged in anything resembling theology, and it was actively discouraged for most of the history of the Church. Even today it's not actively encouraged, though it is not discouraged either.

      2) That's not true of the entirety of Christianity. There are a lot of progressive churches out there. Traditionally the Roman Catholic Church has been majority-Democrat, and except for some social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the RCC has some profoundly progressive views on things such as anti-war and economics.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. TripleA

    Churches are part of the "establishment", and why go to an establishment church, when the establishment has rejected you? People who are not part of the establishment will find other, more interesting, ways of spending their time.

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

      That and churches always seem to expect donations when you attend. When the working class is feeling wage pressure, going to a place where you're constantly bombarded with opportunities to donate doesn't sound like a fun thing to do.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  20. Lourie

    Have these people considered that most jobs requiring employees to work on Sunday are for less educated people... along with the doing away with blue laws? When the survey was taken in the 70s many less educated people worked in manufacturing which was closed on Sunday. You also had people who worked in food service, retail, etc which was also closed on Sunday in the 70s. Now manufacturing jobs have shipped over seas and most businesses are open on Sundays.. making it more likely that less educated people will have to work. Prisons, nursing homes, drug and alcohol treatment centers, mental health facilities, and juvenile detention centers are also much larger and more numerous requiring more round-the-clock less educated workers. If you are a waitress, cook, bar tender, nurses aide, orderly, custodian, prison guard, cop, if you work in retail, etc you are far less likely to have a schedule with weekends off. Our society has changed so much that church is just not practical for many people.

    Add to that the fact that many more people can read and understand the bible themselves and so they no longer need a pastor to read it to them. In the 70s poorer, less educated people were FAR more likely to be illiterate than they are now. If they wanted to know what the "good book" said they had to go to church and take the pastors word for it/ Now even the poor can read so they can figure out that the bible is a load of crap all on their own.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • I'm The Best!

      I agree, this study literally tells us nothing.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • BRC

      I've never really understood why Christianity chose Sunday as the holy day anyway. Judaism using Saturday of course, they were ordered to, so they're just following their rules.

      But here's why Sunday doesn't make sense to me. If you actually by any of this, "God" spent the work week and the first half of his weekend pulling the universe together, then took Sunday off to rest. Great system right? THEN humans come along, and what day do they chose to gather in masses and simultaneously ask him for forgiveness and aid- his one day off! Running the universe has got to be busy, I would be peeved if my little creations were bothering me every time I try to sleep in. If I was "God", I'd be wishing I installed a snooze button on humans. Go with Wednesday, middle of the work week, he's already gotten through his urgent stuff, probably wouldn't mind hearing what you need.

      I can tell you this much, if my kid waits till the one day a week I can sleep in to ask me for anything other than a ride to the hospital, he's grounded.

      August 25, 2011 at 10:39 am |
    • Shadowflash1522

      I want to like your post a thousand times! 🙂

      August 25, 2011 at 11:56 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.