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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Education and Church Attendance: The Conventional Wisdom is Wrong

Dating back at least to Karl Marx, an often unchallenged assumption is that education and religion don't mix. That is, individuals with higher levels of education will be less religious and consequently attend church at lower rates or not at all.

As if often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Individuals with lower levels of education actually attend church less frequently than those with a high school education or less. As the table below indicates (from the 2008 General Social Surveys accessed using the ARDA's "Quick Stats" feature), 22.7% of individuals who didn't finish high school and 22.6% of those who only completed high school report that they never attend church (both above the national average), while only 17.6% of those with a bachelor degree and 18.8% of those with a graduate degree say they never attend church. The opposite is also true. Those with bachelor and graduate degrees are more likely to report that they attend church weekly (24.3% and 22.6% respectively) than those with a high school diploma or less (17.0%). Some college appears to have some interesting effects. Junior college graduates are the least likely group (15.3%) to never attend church and the most likely group to attend church more than once a week (11.0%).

The bottom line is that higher levels of education do not predict irreligiousness (or rather, church attendance). Education levels do, however, predict the "type" of religion people are attracted to (if in fact they are attracted to any at all). Individuals with higher levels of education tend to prefer faith communities that have somewhat accommodated their beliefs and practices to the wider society (i.e., they have become somewhat secularized) whereas individuals with lower levels tend to prefer faith communities that resist the trappings of modern life (i.e., they are far less secularized). The former are sometimes referred to as "church-type" churches and the latter as "sectarian" churches. It is probably best to see this more as a continuum than as a dichotomy, running from highly sectarian churches at one end to highly secularized churches at the other.

What are some of the more reliable predictors of frequent church attendance (or non-attendance)? Well, females tend to be more religious than males and as such attend church more frequently, and at least in the US, non-hispanic whites are the least religious race/ethnic group and so attend church less frequently. Another strong predictor is geographic mobility. People who move around on average don't attend church as often as those who have lived in a community for a long time -- probably because people are less likely to invest the time in a faith community until they know that such an investment will yield tangible benefits.

A possible objection is these results is that they are from a single survey, so we shouldn't take them too seriously. That would be a valid objection if this was the only survey that gave such results, but it isn't. Social scientists who study religion have known for decades (at least back to the 1970s) that education doesn't keep people from attending church (or synagogue, temple, or mosque). Getting the word out about this fact has not been easy, and some people refuse to believe it even when presented with the data, unwittingly giving credence to the motto: "never let data get in the way of a pet theory."


  1. Probably people are thinking of things like this:, which is old, but makes that point that it has not changed much over time. Since the number of people who don't attend at all and attend weekly is pretty close for those with graduate degrees, it would be interesting to break it down by type of degree. For instance, biologists are the least likely to believe in god.

  2. There's a nice paper by Larry Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark that examine religious belief by academic discipline. The least religious academics are social scientists, followed those in the life scientists, and then the physical sciences. Mathematicians are the most religious group. Within the social sciences, anthropologists and psychologists are the least religious; they are followed by sociologists, then political scientists, and finally economists.

  3. Good stuff. Thought provoking. I think it is important to not mistake behavior for belief. I think the primary argument is that education leads to less faith-based (i.e. 'secular') beliefs and this seems supported by the data you present. I suspect, but have no data to support, that the relationship between education and any type of church attendance may be substantially explained by class differences in lifestyle and in particular job types. Many non-professional jobs do not grant stable 2 day weekends (ie service sector). For various reasons this would make it more difficult to attend church on a routine basis. Or at least increase the opportunity cost for doing so vs. those classes/groups with standard work schedules.