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. Megan

    The question here is whether church attendance is an accurate measurement of faith, or simply of membership in what, particularly in the white church, increasingly resembles a country club.

    August 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  2. mmp

    I think the conclusion of the study may not necessarily reflect the correct cause/effect relationship. It implies that religiosity is affected by education level. It could just as easily indicate that a person's education level is affected by their level of religiosity. Those who are religious tend to have more traditional values such as family, hard work, and service to others. That very aspect could influence their desire to gain an education.

    August 26, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  3. Mizz E

    This article is very misleading. I found out that people who have sought some kind of truth through religion (whatever religion that may be for them) have in some ways found hope and done better for themselves. That is definately a personal testimony of mines.

    August 26, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  4. John


    August 26, 2011 at 6:38 am |
    • Stephanie Palmer

      I don't know who to thank for this phenomenon. Now people will stop looking to a fantasy to help them overcome their daily problems. They will finally open their minds to where their real problems are coming from. This makes me very happy.

      August 26, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • .....

      This is SPAM, not worth watching this junk, click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL.

      August 27, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  5. JPno

    Hi, I am a college educated white person who firmly believes in God. If you need proof, you need to look no further than yourself. How do you suppose human beings, who are formed from millions of tiny cells working perfectly together, came into being? It takes more faith for me to believe that human beings or matter came into being magically. I have taken enough secular science courses to know that scientists can not explain the sudden existance of matter in the universe. Furthurmore, it is also just as unlikely that the unverse, which is engineered perfectly, all started working together on it's on. That is why I believe that it truly takes more faith to be an atheist than someone who believes in God, just saying...

    August 26, 2011 at 6:16 am |
    • thelivingdead

      really appreciate your honesty, and you represent a huge population of people who have had significant exposure to science and yet remain religious. your logical mind pushes you toward religion because science can't explain many thing perfectly. but has it occurred to you that in the life of the universe, a million years is a blink of an eye. and in the mere 400 years of science, you expect it to be able to explain everything already? can you really fathom how miniscuely short the human civilization has been compared to even just the life of Earth? i don't mean to disrespect, but if you're already expecting science to explain all, then you don't really know science. science is a process of discovery based on facts and observation. right now our technology is too premitive to peer into the cosmic background radiation to observe the true early universe. but that doesn't mean in 10,000 years we still can't. if you've read anything on quantum mechanics, you'll see that our science is beginning to peel away the shroud that surrounds how the universe works. there IS a possibility that science may never be able to explain everything, but 400 years sure is a short time, especially if you consider the modern age of science is no more than 100 years (i'm counting from Einstein).

      you're right in that it's much EASIER to believe in an almighty being than to believe in the still-infant science. it's much easier to believe there's salvation than to believe that when you die, you'll go with every living thing that has come before you into non-existence. it's much easier to believe that we, humans, are somehow special in the heart of a god, than to believe that the universe treats all of her creations equally, whether be it atoms, life, planets, stars, or galaxies – the new replaces the old and the universe goes on. yeah, it's much easier to be a believer of god than an atheist. but you know what, i've made peace with the thought that when i die, not a shred of conciousness will remain, and it doesn't matter. it may be a sad idea compared to your salvation and heaven, but at least i don't have to pay the price of admission with my conscience.

      August 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  6. Patrick

    I disagree. In my experience the more educated you are the LESS likely you are to believe in an invisible "super being" in the sky. I question the author's so called " facts " and his connection to religion. The dumber you are, the more you believe the BIG MYTH .

    August 26, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • 9000

      Did you read the article, Patrick? See, right there in the black and white text, the author broke down the study - which was conducted by academics (that means professors) from the University of VA. They looked at regular church attendance and at levels of education in the white American population.

      I suppose they didn't teach statistics or research design at whatever university you attended. It's fine - Jesus still loves you.

      August 26, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  7. jimtanker

    There is no educated atheist and there is no atheist in the foxholes, both were true.

    August 26, 2011 at 3:41 am |
    • Kris

      So Scientists who claim to be atheist are uneducated?

      August 26, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • Atheist

      I've been in a foxhole, well, a slit trench in both Iraq and 'ghanistan and I'm an atheist. How about you?

      August 26, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  8. Ron

    Church/religion is a business like any other. It exists because there is a demand for what it's selling - the music, the preaching, the building, the books, the CDs, the comfort of having your beliefs affirmed, friendships, connections, etc., etc. Like anything else, it's just one facet of God's marvelous, multifaceted and often strange creation.

    August 26, 2011 at 2:24 am |
  9. IntravenousDemilo

    For some reason, CNN isn't letting me post a reply to you. Unless it lets this one through...

    August 26, 2011 at 1:55 am |
  10. Rob

    I have always felt and experienced some connection to a higher energy. Before making decisions or choices I would consider the impact it would have on others and my environment. Beliefs are something that are inherent not something that is pounded into our heads by some self serving people whos ideas has no more merit than your own. Common sense and kindness will get you through this life and beyond.

    August 26, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  11. HappyMeal

    America is less religious that's why less compotent and less intelligent now. Read Deuteronomy and Proverbs. Present USA is doing everything bad to brains and emotions.

    August 26, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • Kris

      The unfortunate thing is those in power are far more fanatically religious than ever.

      August 26, 2011 at 5:24 am |
  12. yonnie

    The assumption of this study is that less educated people are leaving religion. What? Is the author claiming the less educated are smarter? The more educated are easier to dupe? Are the less educated realizing religion is just organized mass-delusion?

    What may have been over-looked is that the less educated are quite likely working multiple jobs just to make ends meet and don't have time for church/religion.

    August 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  13. HappyMeal

    America needs Christianity to get a normal brain again.

    August 25, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
    • IntravenousDemilo

      Yes, that's right, America is taking Christianity aside and laying down the law: "Look, Christianity, we need you to get a normal brain again! Do you think you can do that?"

      August 26, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • Atheist

      I agree, lack of normality is one of the main failing in American Christianity. Way too much stupidity with their raptures and hatred of science. If it were up to the fundys, we'd be burning a witch every Sunday.

      August 26, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  14. MaryH

    If this is true, and I have my doubts, I think one reason people aren't going to church is they can't afford it. It's just one more bill to pay and believe me you are reminded again and again and again that you should be paying it. I stopped going to church for many reasons but the main reason I would not return is I can't afford it.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • Atheist

      Yeh, they take all your money and dole it out when you hit the skids. Screw that, I'd rather put it in an emergency savings account. It would be a lot more reliable than Jesus.

      August 26, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  15. SirOinksAlot

    This study stinks of BAD SCIENCE! Doesn't even address generational or geographic factors!! Did they get their subjects from Brigham Young & Wheaton?! My undergrad education taught me how to make a better social science study than this load of crock. Who funded this study anyway?! It smells like right-wing propaganda! Anyone with a college degree can tell you that you can skew any stats to give you the outcome you desire to publish. Jeesh, C'mon CNN. You are my most trusted news source & this article undermines your legitimacy. I'm the "religious one" of my college friends too! This study's findings go against common sense. Unless the subjects were drawn from bible college or a school of divinity, the more educated a person is the more likely they are to reject the social construct of religion. If a person thinks critically & analytically as is needed for higher education, when faced with reconciling science & religion it's an easy no-brainer. Science is empirical. Religion is biased, faulty, subject to interpretation & "the opiate of the masses" who don't have the intelligence or patience to process the world rationally for themselves. How can an adult with a truly well-rounded education refute evolution? I stopped going to church because I realized that I was thinking for myself & disagreed with the rhetoric & dogma!! I don't want or need a priest telling me how to vote, or who I should love, or how I should use my body, or why I should care about how other people do these things when their lives are none of my business. If I was poor & uneducated I wouldn't know what to do with my life. I'd probably put my faith in God & pray that he will provide what I can't for myself. THIS STUDY IS BALONEY. I'm starting my Master's of Social Work in the fall. If CNN funds it, I will do a counter-study to scientifically refute this BS.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Chief Walkum Slowly

      If you read the article, they do not say that educated people are more likely to attend a church, rather there has been less of a decline in attendance amongst degreed worshipers than non-degreed worshipers. I hope reading comprehension is covered in grad school.

      August 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Diane N.

      You are going to be great at whatever you do! Best response I have ever read!! Hears to you!

      August 26, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • jesus

      I agree with you. cnn is stupid

      August 26, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Max

      Chief Walkum Slowly has a point, but the way the article is written also tries to infer that educated people are more religious, see:
      "Study: More educated tend to be more religious"
      When it should have read "Smaller percentage of educated worshipers missing church service compared with uneducated worshipers. But then that isn't quite as controversial nor does it draw the reader in to find out more. After all, who besides those working in the religious entertainment industry really cares which group attends more frequently?

      August 26, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • HZD

      It's mildly hilarious to watch a bunch of angry militant atheists run around like chickens with their heads cut off proclaiming that science must be wrong in this instance because smart people could never be religious. I mean, did you even read the article? It has enough spin in it still to make Christianity look like it is ignoring the lower class and pushing them out. I'm surprised that no one seems interested in that. Oh well, leave it to the comments on belief.blog to show that religious people do not have a monopoly on silliness.

      August 26, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  16. Grey Witch

    This study is BS! People are not going to Church because they are getting smarter. They realize the Bible was written by man for man to control the masses. They aren't going to church to be brainwashed and preached to. They either believe they are living life to the best they can at that time and don't believe in going to hell. Because if a God is ALL LOVING he would never damn any of his children as long as they believe him and live life respecting themselves and others.

    August 25, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • gary baker

      Lol you answered your own rational about god. First if you can live life truly respecting yourself and others. You would find yourself living about as godly a life as you can get. Therefore you would not be in hell. Second god doesnt create hell its just a place he confines those who disrespect themselves and others. Hell is what they make of it. lol. Maybe you can grasp that one. Its kinda like jail keeping those who would hurt others or society but a little different than the human warehousing for money system mans jails have turned into.

      August 26, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • gary baker

      one more thing grey witch. NONE of GODS children will be in hell. There might be some who just thought they were GODS children but when there eyes are opened and their bs washed away they will see who they really followed.

      August 26, 2011 at 12:59 am |
    • IntravenousDemilo

      Hey, Gary, you know what? There's a special place in Hell for people who don't know how or when to use apostrophes properly and who confuse "their" and "there". There's a particularly hellish part reserved for people who use "LOL" in anything but a tweet or a chat message, or worse yet, render it in lower case as if it were an actual word.

      And Jesus won't be able to save you, either, because those sins were invented long after the Crucifixion.

      August 26, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  17. Muneef

    Think uneducated lot are attracted more by Fl-e-sh media that are addressing "singles" and greeds of those with uncontrolled desires that make life nothing to them but...fishing for fl-e-sh .. child,youth,adult...if not by own self..!

    Some times feel that the world nation expansion is caused more by the unhealthy relations than it is by healthy Relations as a direct result of such media and related drugs as a business and a trade...?

    These with Alcohol or drugs are the key works of the devil....only now when seeing and realizing  the evil it brought among humanity into losing the real meaning of the word "Human" it self among Humans...!!!

    August 25, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • IntravenousDemilo


      August 26, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • IntravenousDemilo

      OK, it took that reply, but not my original comment on your use of the word "fl-e-sh" - I have no idea why you can't just write "flesh".

      August 26, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Muneef

      Well thanks I didn't know which word was obstructing my comment so thought it might be this word is as easy as dealt with.. But for sure you can not post any words that has"t-i-t" with out being separated as shown...!

      August 26, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Muneef

      Well thanks I didn't know which word was obstructing my comment so thought it might be this word. Didn't expect it would be as easy as dealt with... But for sure you can not post any words that has"t-i-t" with out being separated as shown..since they seem to be more valuable than "Flesh".

      August 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Muneef

      Feel sorry for the Jews having established what now stands as a knife of their neck;
      “It is essential that the sufferings of Jews. . . become worse. . . this will assist in realization of our plans. . .
      I have an excellent idea. . . I shall induce anti-Semites to liquidate Jewish wealth. . .
      The anti-Semites will assist us thereby in that they will strengthen the persecution and oppression of Jews.
      The anti-Semites shall be our best friends” 
      — Theodor Herzl, Founder of Zionism in 1897

      August 26, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  18. sockpuppet

    I would like to also see the political affiliation of those people reflected in this study....as a long-time church attender, amongst many denominations, I have to wonder whether they aren't reading the entirely wrong ideas into these statistics. In the "old days", christians were largely democratic and working class. The a b ortion issue pushed many christians over to the republican party on a "life-or-death" issue. Now we know that demographically, lower income folks tend to be more democratic. Now these low income democrats are walking into a church filled with hard core religious-rights. THAT is where the discomfort lies. The republicans hijacked christianity, and now you are pretty much "supposed" to be a republican if you are a christian.

    August 25, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  19. Brenda

    I am a Christian.. non-denominational that is. I have attended the Church of Christ all my life & I will till the day I die. Guess what, we are all sinners, it's up to each individual to study God's word...searching the Scriptures, if you want a loving peaceful life, have love for others & have no fear of anything, even to die, read his word. { Adonai li v'Lo Ira. } God is with me, I fear not, Jesus is my Lord & Savior...Wisdom & Knowledge, from God...it is
    better than all the gold in the world!

    August 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • Free

      "Adonai li v'Lo Ira"
      Were you 'texting in tongues' there?

      August 25, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • Atheist

      Why on earth would anyone "study" a book written by Bronze Age cavemen that thought the earth was flat?

      August 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  20. Susan Bunn

    Is there really any doubt that this would naturally happen ?
    Given that religion is simply the most primetive form of government?
    Much like government of our country, It is designed to benefit the
    "Rich" aka "Republican Party". The church has become a meeting place
    for the special intrest groups to come together and plan their political actions
    to come. And often times the politics of it all alienates the poor and less educated
    as those special interests work against what they need most. Affordable nutritional
    food, healthcare, more pay, and education. And futher it often times is a source of
    judgement to those who are less fortunate.

    So, take the politics out of the chruch and the spirtuality will return.
    And so will the poor and "less educated" because faith is sometimes all they have
    and all they need to hold on to and better their lot.

    Think of this next time you are sitting in the pews.

    August 25, 2011 at 8:47 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.