Less Educated, Less Religious?

According to polls cited by the CNN Belief Blog, church attendance is down among those in America who are less educated:

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.

[...]

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 who lack degrees from four-year colleges – attend religious services at least monthly, down from 50% in the 1970s.

Among college educated whites, the drop-off was less steep, with 46% regularly attending religious services in the 2000s, compared to 51% in the ’70s.

The rest of the article is basically hand-wringing. It’s probably too strong a reaction for a single survey, particularly since it’s only an issue with American whites, and not blacks or Latinos whose church attendance “is less divided by education and income.”

There’s also what I call “the Putnam effect.” In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam freaked out because people were no longer joining PTA groups. However, he ignored the fact that people were joining alternative groups with the same function. Basically, just because people aren’t going to church doesn’t mean they aren’t religious. Perhaps they’ve found another outlet.

But let’s assume that the common interpretation is true. It’s always been assumed that the less educated were far more likely to become part of a church. Further, in these tough economic times, it was assumed that many people would actually come to rely on their church communities more. So what’s happening here?

Whether or not the survey is depicting something real, the political right has picked up on it. Several pundits are milking it for all it’s worth. Consider Walter Russel Mead’s column titled – I’m not kidding – “Inequality Grows As Poor, Ignorant Atheists Swamp US” and David French comment at The Corner:

It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable.

I can’t quite decided whether they think that lack of church attendance is the cause of poverty, or just something that makes poverty worse.

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