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. MA

    Lolol ..... This directly conflicts with everything I've ever seen with my own two eyes! Every single person I know with a graduate degree/JD/PhD became less and less religious going through this process. A few are atheist, most are agnostic, and a few are religious in name only, mostly to appease family, even though they know it's a crock deep down. The only uber-religious people I know have high school diplomas/GEDs. Education is the enemy of dogma and organized religion; always has been, always will be.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Nah

      Right, so your own, limited anecdotal evidence outweighs any and all extensive studies.

      Bit like a fundamentalist atheist, eh?

      August 24, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • ebarsanti

      I was thinking the same thing! Most of the highly educated (doctorate, masters degree +) people I know (which are many) are not religious at all.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • rainlady9

      MA, I agree with you. The more educated my friends became, the more they walked away from church/god/religion. And the more I've read about it, the more that seems to be the case. I think this 'study' is flawed.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Steven Mading

      I don't think the study itself is flawed, but that the CNN reporter repeating its findings did so incorrectly and claimed it supports a conclusion that it doesn't. (This is a common problem with journalists re-reporting studies from journals in the field and dumbing them down for mass market – they often *change* the findings when they summarize them in their own words, because you can't correctly summarize something you don't understand in the first place. This is the typical reason most people incorrectly think scientists are "waffling" on what does and does not cause cancer, for example. The scientists in the field aren't waffling – the press is when it misreports tentative findings as certainties.)

      The problem here is that the study did NOT conclude that education corresponds negatively with religion, but it was reported as if it did. All the study found is that church attendence fell since 1970 slower among educated people than uneducated people, although it did fall for both groups. There are MANY factors the study didn't measure – for example, it didn't measure the fall in church attendence *prior* to 1970. Maybe the educated had already HAD their falling out before then. After all, you can't register as a 'drop' in church attendence if you already weren't attending in the first place. It also didn't control for job schedules (making sure that both the educated and uneducated people it studied included people who had the same M-F work week schedule so their church free time availability was the same). It also never claimed that there was a drop in religion – just a drop in church attendence. The article concluded incorrectly from this that this is a rise in disbelief when it could just be a rise in disconnecting the belief from the ceremony.

      August 25, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  2. Tim26

    This study doesn't stand up to common sense. I question its validity. You can't be serious to claim that folks with higher education on the whole go more often to church than folks with less education.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • judy1064

      Why not? Higher education = better jobs. I am "lesser paid" and work while the higher educated, better employed people are off and can afford to attend church. If I wasn't working, I might be in church too. Can't afford to worry about church when the mortgage is due... Just glad to have a job.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Sadie Boyd

      That's the problem with getting research from a magazine vs. a peer reviewed article from a sociological journal. The journalist here just gave you snippets and did not invest the time in a review of the research. There is clear evidence that the highly intelligent (highly intelligent people aren't always ivy league graduates) people and scholars often are agnostic.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  3. Strange1-2

    Many of the Evangelical Churches have become bastions of "prosperity religion" where those who make the most money (or at least appear to be the most prosperous) are seen and extolled at God's chosen. Those same congregations tend to gravitate to the political right. If you have moderate or left of center socio-poliitical views then you definitely are not welcome at those Churches. If you are jobless and not willing to kowtow to the leadership of those Churches then you aren't welcome in that Church either. I can't say that is the same in Catholic Churches, Synagogues, or Mosques. But I can definitely tell you that is the truth in Protestant Churches particularly the Evangelical ones. By the way, I have two Master's Degrees, my wife is highly educated, and my children are all college graduates. I was raised in a southern Baptist Church, but I can assure you not one person in my family will ever attend a conservative or evangelical Church again. The Sunday message in those Churches is put in religious language but the message always is about intolerance, conformity, and political and social commentary permeates both the sermon and the Sunday School discussions.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • missLolitaTn

      Amen. 🙂

      August 24, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Whatever

      Agreed. All too often the bureaucracy and other nonsense of churches make people forget the good nature of the Christian faith. Christians and Christian groups are working to alleviate suffering around the world. Organized churches participate in these good works to some degree, but they too bogged down with internal power struggles and scandal cover ups to really demonstrate what the faith is supposed to be.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
  4. Richard Cheese

    Wow, CNN. You guys really are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Really? This is news?

    August 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  5. missLolitaTn

    I am a woman with a 4 year degree in nursing. I have no problem with anyone believing in a god.....its the "churches/organized religion/business" that I have problems with....so don't report that the rest of us that don't sit our ass on a church pew every sunday and pay for our preachers to drive nice cars, live in nice houses..etc. have any less " education". We just aren't into the social networking required when you are a professional...so you can say "where do you go to church?" No..where do you go to churchA?

    August 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Strange1-2


      August 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  6. Billy Jester

    and the true morons stay there!!!

    August 24, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  7. Atheist

    I'm a highly educated college graduate with a 146 IQ and I am an atheist. Sorry to disappoint your study but your demographic is a petri dish and not a true cross section of the population. Sounds more like the religious right trying to push an agenda.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Strange1-2

      I'm not an athiest but I have the same concerns about the research. I am highly educated and move within an educated circle. I would speculate that Church attendance vs non-attendance is about 50/50. Of the 50% that do attend, I would argue (without any hard statistics to back my guess) that about 15%-25% have genuine religious feelings which I respect. Another small group attend the Church of their families which means that either they choose to do so to remain connected to their communities or they simply attend because of the enormous peer pressure. But, there are quite a few of my colleagues that attend Church because of the social and professional networking. In fact, I know a community college president who is an ordained Baptist minister who changed to a Methodist Church simply because the Chairman of his Board of Trustees attends there. I can respect the faithful, but I have nothing but disdain for the hypocrites and even more disdain for those that attempt to create social and political conformity in their community through concerted actions of their Church in the community.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  8. John T

    Whast benefits ? I can see no possible benefits in church.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  9. Matthew

    here are the actual figures for the entire USA, not just a small portion of some small state. They paint a completely different picture. Biased poll, that is all.


    August 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  10. Bo

    ==========@SHRIKE===================== Is that a befitting name for a person who thinks this world would be better off without religion? =================================

    August 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  11. Notoj

    Religion. A means to control people with fear. A tool politicians use to manipulation people. I am just like you when in fact his kids go to private school, he gets free medicare a high salary and a really nice pension.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Natrldiver

      Tool: What you are because you have no faith. Just because people have a beliefe in something that you do not believe in does not make them any less of a person. It does however make you ignorant. People of faith are strong and united, It is the common belief that might be intimidating to you. Before you go cutting down people, learn why they believe what they do before you go blasting your trap like an ill informed politician.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  12. judy1064

    We "less educated" folks work jobs that require us to be at work on Sunday (think retail, restaurants, etc.). The "more educated" workers have the weekends off (think office workers, teachers, business professionals). The more you make, the better your perks, including weekends off. You are all over-thinking this. I'm just glad to have a job, even if I do give up weekends off (i.e. no church for me).

    August 24, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  13. cjr

    totally disagree = I feel the more educated you are- the more likely you will question- I do not believe in organized religion but do believe in a supreme being- however I also believe strongly in personal responsiblity-and in the golden rule= therefore I do not attend church- nor do I believe in heaven. I question the validity of this study- who funded it?

    August 24, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • cosmicsnoop

      I agree with you; I don't get this study. I hang out pretty much only with people who went to college and because my wife is a nurse, also hang out with doctors and lawyers. No one goes to church. Well, the Jewish ones do go to Synagog, but (not being Jewish) I think it is just as much an ethnic thing as a religious one for them. Just my take since this study in no way reflects my personal experiences.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  14. Bo

    ============@Everyone================== I hope you read my 6:15 post– I don't want to write it again. =================================

    August 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      You can't make me. Bugger off your boring.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Billy Jester

      billly j. don;t care what you say no matter what tome you choose to say it
      can u dig it?

      August 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  15. soysauce

    And it's no surprise that middle class types still attends church...because it helps reinforce the "we're better than everyone else" mentality, which is what organized religion is all about anyway..."us versus them"

    August 24, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • SHRIKE

      I concur

      August 24, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  16. CLP

    Perhaps some who don't attend an organized church, avoid it because they are unable to contribute to the collection plate and are made to feel giving is a mandatory part of attendance. That perceived financial commitment/requirement in this economy can chase a lot of people away.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Meat Puppet

      sounds like you are talking about a country club as opposed to a church

      August 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • soysauce

      church, country club, same thing..it's about image

      August 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  17. Meat Puppet

    maybe those that are less educated are a bit more in touch with reality and have realized that organized religion is not the opiate for the masses that it used to be – thank you History Channel

    August 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  18. Qev

    The less educated probably can no longer afford the "luxury" of extracurricular activities such as religious worship. They more than likely have to use that time working and trying to make ends meet.

    With the stagnation in the wages of ALL American workers (regardless of level of education) that has been going on for decades, now, as a result of the fruits of U.S. productivity being funneled to the very few at the top (and KEPT there), higher educated individuals will soon be working seven days a week just to make ends meet, too.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  19. Angela

    I don't consider myself a christian but I do believe in God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. I don't understand the need to label someone because of their beliefs. To many have died in the name of organized religion.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • samdan

      Angela, I sometimes try to understand the feelings of people like you, but when I think of how many millions of people that have been killed over the centuries because of religion, I shudder. As long as you don't try to change my beliefs, I'll respect yours!

      August 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • Ran

      I don't know how you can believe in those things and not be a Christian... It's their holy book that tells you those things are real and that you should believe in them. Its the very thing that makes a Christian a Christian. If you believe those things—you are a Christian, you can kid yourself all you want it doesn't change the fact.

      I think you need to ask yourself why you believe those things.
      Then set fear aside.....and ask yourself why you believe those things.

      August 24, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  20. Grahame

    no, its just because people are discovering religion is just another word for a REALLY REALLY good story.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:45 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.