Who Does Attend Church

Who Does Attend Church July 21, 2023

The conventional wisdom is that religion is especially attractive to the poor and uneducated.  As education goes up, religion goes down.  As income goes up, religion goes down. But research shows that this is not so.  In fact, the opposite is the case.

The Christian social scientist Ryan Burge backs up that contention in his post Religion Has Become a Luxury Good. He crunches the data and concludes that

Religion in the 21st Century America has become an enclave for people who have done everything “right.” They have college degrees and marriages and children and middle-class incomes. For those who don’t check all those boxes, religion is just not for them.

Read the whole article, but here are some samples of his findings (his bolds):

People with higher levels of education are less likely to identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular when it comes to religion. Yes, if you just include atheists and agnostics, the trend does reverse itself. But non-religious people are not just atheists and agnostics. In fact, most non-religious people are nothing in particular when it comes to religion. . . .

The most likely to be non-religious? Those who didn’t finish high school. As education increases, so does religious affiliation. The group with the highest level of religious affiliation are those with a master’s degree.

Although when post-graduates go for their doctorates, the number reverts to that for bachelor’s degrees:  “24% of those with doctorates are non-religious. That’s the same rate as those with a four-year college degree.”

As for affluence,  “the people who are the most likely to attend services this weekend are those with college degrees making $60K-$100K. In other words, middle class professionals.”

As for marriage, he cites statistics showing that

“Married people are much more likely to be in a religious service than those who are divorced, separated, or never married. . . .Among forty-year-old married people in the sample, nearly 30% are attending services weekly. Among those who are separated, divorced, or never married – it’s half that rate: just 15%.

The effect increases when the married people also have children.

Now Berge does not consider this to be good news.  He says that Christianity is supposed to be for people in need, for the poor and lowly.  He worries that the church has become a bastion of the successful and complacent middle class.  “The conclusions are unmistakable: religion has become a luxury good, and that’s leaving most of society on the fringes, yet again.”

The church, he says, has “become a hospital for the healthy. An echo chamber for folks who did everything ‘right’, which means that is seeming less and less inviting to those who did life another way.”

But you could interpret this data differently.  Christianity may inculcate the virtues that make for a “good life.”  The faith held by Christians leads them to get married, to have children, to learn about the world God has made, to work hard.  I don’t see what is wrong with “doing everything right.”  That Christians tend to do well in life has significant apologetic value, serving as evidence that their faith jibes with reality.

And yet, I see what Burge is saying.  The gospel is indeed for sinners and for those who know they are sinners.  Prosperity and success can indeed make us spiritually complacent.  As Luther always said, we do need the Cross and suffering for our faith to grow and be strong.

Actually, though, married parents with a good education and a decent income will, in fact, have their trials and tribulations.

And it is also true, as I keep saying in this blog (see this and this and this), that the biggest cohort of the unchurched is the white working class.  Burge gives still more evidence of that.  People in this group are often quite open to the Christian message–far more than the 24% of the non-religious with doctorates–and yet our churches are so oriented to the middle class that they tend to ignore them in favor of trying to reach more people like themselves.  But the  field of lower income folks, so often dismissed as “deplorables”–is white for the harvest.  And Christianity can dramatically improve their lives, both in this world and the next.


Illustration by Howard Chandler Christy via creazilla, Public Domain

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