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. Copper's Donut Shoppe

    Even without a college degree they have figured out that jusus' p00p was not immaculate ~ it stank!

    August 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  2. Greg

    I do think that certain religions appeal to the highly educated and highly intellectual. That was my experience as a religion major at Berkeley. Science is contantly changing, and a lot of these intellectuals grow tired and frustrated that science has so few answers and is constantly changing and reinventing itself.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  3. Cason Snow

    Note several important factors. This has little to do with atheism, and only partly arguable for actual intelligence.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  4. TB

    Amazing. Put up the results of a so-called study that says that “liberals have higher IQ’s” and the libs cant bellow loud enough about how accurate it is. But…put up some stats that says college degrees are more likely to stay in church, and all the sudden it’s a bunch of nonsense. Now that sounds to me like people who only want to hear studies and stats as long as they agree with their views. Not very objective.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  5. J Richards

    The finding is the opposite of what I would think.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Jewels

      Agreed....I question it.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  6. Dan

    I've spent years working for a University, and a large majority of the instructors and faculty are self-professed atheists. Many of the brightest students, at least the ones I've known, also do not observe traditional religious practices. If someone thinks this study is saying "educated people are more religious" or the more biased "religious people are more educated", then they couldn't be more off.

    I'm not against religions or those that practice them in any way, but don't misinterpret what this is saying by trying to make it a positive thing for religions. They're losing more of EVERYONE every year, this is just pointing out that the traditional go-to believer group (rednecks, basically) are now moving away from religion in the same way the more educated ALREADY HAVE.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • scott

      Your statements are false. Education is positively related to religiousity, as shown by multiple large scale studies. Academics do swing more atheist, but this is due to a latent individual difference in personality. Your comment shows that my third variable explanation will be over your head.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Bud

      You are confusing educated with having graduate degrees. Many liberal arts faculty members are as you described. However, they are near the bottom of the scale in terms of native intelligence among university faculty. Most of them likely could not get a BS degree in a field requiring real analytical ability based on principles of science.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Jewels

      religiousity is not a word....

      August 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  7. M.O'Reilly

    Really smart people also know you don't need a Church or Temple to pray ,really just
    for a man or woman to go to theological school doe's not mean that they are more able
    to intercede on one's behalf with God,Jesus or Buddha.
    One can pray or not and be Holy. The game is up for organized religion.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  8. jerry

    Well, for the jobless, maybe it has to do with that those same religions cited pretty much demand donations every week or you suffer ridicule at their hands. In simpler terms--'if you can't afford to pay, don't come' is the message they hear and act on. Not saying it's true–just that jobless people may believe that they are unwelcome if they can't contribute. So they stop going because they can't contribute.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • waylaid88

      I think you are on to something.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  9. uFools

    I totally disagree with this article. With or without higher education, you should question religion and the bible.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • scott

      How can you disagree with data? LOL – more proof the article is right.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  10. Shemp Howard

    "Wilcox said that those who do not attend church are missing out on potential benefits."

    Such as pedophilia? Flying planes into buildings? Suicide bombings? Spreading division? Indulgences? Tax free status?

    How come Vatican City never gives away it's gold to feed the people of Africa and other downtrodden places? I think Jesus also would have kept the gold....and the frankincense

    August 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Sparkle

      Well said. Where is the "like" button?

      August 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  11. Kristin

    I'm white with no college degree reason I dont attend church... I work on sundays and am what is called a "recovering catholic" why go to churches to be molested

    August 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  12. scott

    Many of the comments here are unintentionally funny. Multiple research studies show that education correlates with religiousity: the more educated a person is, the more they are likely to attend church and read the Bible. This study is consistent with what we already know. Those who disagree just say they don't believe it because they know the conclusion is wrong. So – the supposed free thinking atheists are rejecting science in favor of their cherished beliefs. Bottom line – the science the atheists supposedly worship shows that being smart is associated with belief in God, and by extension, it's the relative dullards who are atheists. Precious irony IMO.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Cason Snow

      Failure to comprehend study.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • scott

      @ Cason – I was referencing research that shows exactly what I claimed. This is why I note that this study converges with prior research. You fail at reading. Here's the link. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/11/study-more-educated-tend-to-be-more-religious-by-some-measures/

      August 24, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  13. Taryntula

    I'm surprised at the negativity this article has raised. I'm an educated white female, and I'm far from "rich" and I go to church 2+ times a week. Why do you need to be rich to go to church? The richest places in the states actually have LESS church attendance...because people decide money is their religion. What I find is that it's not the education that disabuses people of their faith, but rather the though that because they are educated they can rely on themselves rather than a higher being. Education and knowledge has the same effect that zealotry does...it makes an ass out of you if you start becoming self-righteous or smarter or superior than others. People always pick on the religious people, but the most obnoxious people I met while at University were the pompous atheists that just talked me down like I was an stupid dog. I treated them with respect, which is more than they deserved...and if they had a faith, maybe they treat others with respect and appreciate that not everyone is like them, and if they were, we would have an angry and dull world.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      Sorry, the only the thing the world would be without religion is...better. After all without religion we would have a lot less reasons to hate and kill each other.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • h

      oh look another christian with a victim complex

      75% of the country is christian cry some moar

      August 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  14. Grand Oil Party


    August 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  15. *frank*

    You'd probably find a direct correlation between the percentage of uneducated people no longer going to church and the number of existing Wal-Marts....

    August 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Enjoy The People Of Walmart - Good Christians Every One!


      August 24, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  16. Jeremy S.

    Gee, I wonder who sponsored this bunch of hoo hah? Totally flies in the face of common sense; don't believe it for a minute.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  17. Eric

    Haha. Im sure.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  18. cyberCMDR

    It appears that those whites with less education do not see value added in attending church. For those with more education, I think it is more of the social experience that is driving attendance, i.e. people rank themselves by the organizations they belong to. The educated atheist does not believe because he/she does not find the arguments for the existence of God to be convincing.

    All believers belong to the "true faith", although which version that is depends on how/where they were raised. The educated believer either understands science but "suspends their disbelief" regarding their religion, or discounts science as automatically wrong because the data doesn't conform to their faith. One is a participant, the other is a science denier.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  19. wendy5

    so the dumb a sses are really the uneducated athieists; hummmmmmm are they the same ones that claim the world happened in a big bang or something; who should i take seriously then educated or uneducated; thats a tough one

    August 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  20. Dahlimama

    Well this study group may find the results distressing but I find them encouraging. By the way this so called study flies in the face of every study out there which shows that the more educated you are the Less likely you are to turn your thought processes over to a religious authority with a control and power agenda. Religions feel they have the right to demand people think the way they tell them to and when was the last time you saw a kind inclusive religion? They are all the biggest teachers of hate! Hate gays because we said you should ! Hate Jews we demand you do this if you want to be part of our special group! hate Muslims they are not like us. Muslim leaders want a A jihad on everyone not a Muslim urged on by their religious leaders and on and on and on I for one will be glad when all people say enough of your crap you have had the power to change life for the better of all and you have squandered it on petty hatred. You have paraded your hatred around and tried to sell it to folks as Jesus word but I doubt if any of you have the slightest clue what Jesus was all about. Maybe folks are just sick to death of the hate these people hawk.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:12 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.