Religion is tied to education

From EurekAlert, a public release from the American Sociological Association:

LAS VEGAS — While religious service attendance has decreased for all white Americans since the early 1970s, the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those without college degrees compared to those who graduated from college, according to new research to be presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“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 lead researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

The study focuses on whites because black and Latino religiosity is less divided by education and income. Most whites who report a religious affiliation are Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Mormons, or Jews.

Relying on nationally representative data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth, the study finds that moderately educated whites—those who have a high school degree but who did not graduate from a 4-year college—attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as the most educated whites—those who at a minimum graduated from a 4-year college—but they attended at much lower frequencies in the 2000s.

The least educated white Americans—those who did not graduate from high school—attended religious services less frequently than both the moderately educated and most educated in the 1970s and that remained the case in the 2000s. “The least educated have been consistently less religiously engaged than even the moderately educated, meaning the gap between the least educated and most educated is even larger than the one between the moderately educated and most educated,” Wilcox said.

In the 1970s, among those aged 25-44, 51 percent of college-educated whites attended religious services monthly or more, compared to 50 percent of moderately educated whites, and 38 percent of the least educated whites. In the 2000s, among those aged 25-44, 46 percent of college-educated whites attended monthly or more, compared to 37 percent of moderately educated whites, and 23 percent of the least educated whites.

Wilcox views this disengagement among the less educated as troubling because religious institutions typically provide their members with benefits—such as improved physical and psychological health, social networks, and civic skills—that may be particularly important for the less educated, who often lack the degree of access to social networks and civic skills that the college-educated have.

“Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated—those who have high school degrees, but didn’t graduate from a 4-year college,” 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.”

The study also shows that Americans with higher incomes attend religious services more often, and those who have experienced unemployment at some point over the past 10 years attend less often. In addition, the study finds that those who are married (especially if they have children), those who hold more conservative views toward premarital sex, and those who lost their virginity later than their peers, attend religious services more frequently.

Indeed, the study points out that modern religious institutions tend to promote a family-centered morality that valorizes marriage and parenthood, and they embrace traditional middle-class virtues such as self-control, delayed gratification, and a focus on education.

Over the past 40 years, however, the moderately educated have become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults. During the same period, wages have fallen and rates of unemployment have risen markedly for moderately educated men, while wages have remained stagnant for moderately educated women. For the least educated—those without high school degrees—the economic situation has been even worse, and they have also become less likely to hold familistic beliefs and less likely to get and stay married, compared to college-educated adults.

Because less educated whites are now less likely to be stably employed, to earn a decent income, to be married with children, and to hold familistic views, it makes sense that they also do not as often attend services at religious institutions that continue to uphold conventional norms, Wilcox said.

“While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” said Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”

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  • Amos Paul

    The sociological determinations found herein certainly seem *generally* accurate to me [There are, obviously, sectors I think this doesn’t apply to]. However, the lack of education tending away from practicing religion reminds me of one of my favorite quotes form Sir Francis Bacon.

    “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

  • Jason Lee

    education -> good job -> marriage -> church

    The above causal sequence has held for some time, but now seems to be unraveling. Why get higher levels of education if you can’t get a good job with it (especially considering how much education costs now)? Marriage and children bring men back to church, but its hard to get married without a stable job and many of us “responsible people” (i.e., lucky duckies who got jobs) reinforce this message about marriage.

  • Pat Pope

    While churches have benefits to offer that the less and underemployed may benefit from, churches also have the reputation of asking for money and that may be a discouragement to this segment of the population who already may feel down and out. There is a perception among some who are not so well off that they need to be able to give, but also to dress a certain way and to have a certain level of knowledge. I’ve even witnessed that among blacks (of whom I am one) that when asked about church would remark that they didn’t have anything to wear. Some that are already in church, shy away from things like reading in public settings because of shame over their reading skills. So, there may be a number of factors that go into the less educated attending church, which means we’ve got some work to do to knock down some of the perceived barriers.

  • Pat Pope

    I’ve also seen (again in the Black church) the pride with which some people hold positions in the Church that may have come from backgrounds in which they may never have had responsibility. So, a difference can be made in the life of less fortunate within the Church. We’ve just got to get them there.

  • Ed Holm

    As much of modern evangelicalism has associated itself with one form of “prosperity Gospel” or another the failing economy not only undermines faith in the economic system, the political system but also a religious system that seems to equate specific performance with economic gain. The Gospel never has promised financial security or any other kind other than spiritual security and yet the internet is rife with terse commentary that somehow hangs on to these false notions that do not deliever. Obviously a church based on such assertions does not deliver either.

  • Scot McKnight

    Jason and Pat, thanks for both of your comments (as always). Some things for me to ponder more.

  • Amos Paul


    I’d ask you to cite your prosperity Gospel comment. I’ve only ever experienced this as a ‘fringe’ belief–most prominently in a couple of very large megachurches. But where do you get your figure that ‘most’ Evangelicalism has been preaching prosperity?

  • Susan N.

    Anyone familiar with the term “socially bankrupt?”

    For a person who is already down and out, marginalized in society, would he/she be treated as inherently valuable to God and to the community (church)…which would be significantly different from the way the world tends to view and treat “needy” people?

    That, imho, is the million dollar question for the body of Christ. If “the least of these” are not coming to church, is it because they lack the education to appreciate all that the church has to offer? Or, because the church is not offering anything different than what they get any other day of the week in the world?

  • BJB

    Wake up call for all of us who value the church, and have a desire to reach out to all people with a message we believe passionately is for everyone, with answers for this life and the afterlife. Why does the education gap exist? I have some thoughts, and agree with many expressed. More important; how do we close that gap? Some churches are taking this seriously, and making great efforts to connect to the person who is uncomfortable or just uninterested. And by the church, I mean as a body of believers that worship together, and the “church” as a movement of individuals who share the same basic religious beliefs. That is the church, one that recognizes this gap, and tries to reach past that gap to include all; that is the church Christ spoke of. Count me in. Always the truth, always in love, always for everyone.

  • Diane

    Susan N and Pat Pope,

    Thank you for your comments. This has been much on my mind, especially since hearing recently that what the poor, who are truly powerless, need more than money is access to social capital or human resources–the people who can tip them to an unadvertised job, etc. I don’t think churches should be job centers, but I do grieve the extent to which my denomination is often, without evil intent, a “club ” for the college educated. To what extent do we freeze when the uneducated cross our thresholds? How can build bridges so that our churches can become places where the struggling find acceptance and love?