Why Educated Christians Are Sticking With Church

The idea is peppered through the writings of scholars, great thinkers, and New Atheist-types: Education is the cure for religion. Freud wrote that civilization “has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers” who have rejected religion. And “if religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason,” maintained Christopher Hitchens, “we would be living in a quite different world.”

New data from the Pew Research Center doesn’t disprove these claims, but it does challenge them. While Americans with college experience are overall less likely to attend services, pray on a regular basis, and say religion is very important to them, that’s not true within many faith groups. In fact, Catholic, Mormon, and Protestant college grads are all more likely to attend church on a weekly basis than their less educated peers. This was not the trend among religious minorities like Muslims and Jews, or among people who don’t affiliate with any religion at all, suggesting that education has a distinctive effect on religiosity within the world of Christianity.

There are at least two different ways to think about the relationship between education and religiosity: how schooling affects belief, and how it affects practice. Pew’s researchers looked at data from a number of recent surveys, including their 35,000-person study of American religion from 2014. They found that educated people are generally less likely to believe in God: Among all U.S. adults, only 83 percent of college grads said they think God exists, while 92 percent of people with only a high-school degree or less said the same.

Within Christianity, though, the difference all but disappears. Among educated mainline Protestants, 96 percent said they believe in God, compared to 97 percent among the less educated; among Catholics, 98 percent of both groups said the same. Among Mormons, black Protestants, and evangelical Protestants, there was effectively no difference at all, because virtually everyone in those groups said they believe in God.

Educational differences had a much bigger effect on religious practice. Sixty-eight percent of college-educated evangelical Protestants go to church every week, compared to 55 percent of those who only went to high school. In fact, college grads show up in the church pews more often in nearly every kind of Christian tradition: Among mainline Protestants, weekly attendance was 36 to 31 percent, more educated to less; among black Protestants, 59 to 52 percent; and among Catholics, 45 to 39 percent. The effect was perhaps greatest among Mormons: 85 percent of Mormon college graduates go to church at least once a week, compared to 66 percent of their peers with a high-school education or less.

The trends in religious-minority groups are different. Among Muslims, education didn’t make much of a difference in people’s belief or practice: Roughly half of people of all levels of education attend services at least once a week, and nearly all Muslims reported believing in God. Among Jews, the effect was reversed: Roughly one-quarter of Jews with a high-school degree or less attend services every week, compared to roughly one-tenth of college-educated Jews. And 58 percent of less educated Jews believe in God, compared to less than a third of their more educated peers. As Pew points out, this effect is likely driven in part by Orthodox Jews, who tend to be much more observant and much less educated—at least in a secular sense—than their Reform and Conservative peers.

Among Christians, the pattern of educated people being more involved in their religious communities makes sense. As I’ve written before, communal involvement of all kinds is increasingly becoming a luxury good of sorts, with higher levels of income and education making people more likely to participate in activities like church, book club, parent-teacher association, and more. It could be that high-school-educated Christians feel less able to find and connect with a religious community in a broader context of financial strain, family stress, and geographic isolation. Or it could be that college-educated Christians put more of a premium on connecting with their brothers and sisters in the church.

One other data point in the Pew study that supports this theory. Among people who don’t identify with any religion in particular, very few attend religious services every week, regardless of whether they’re educated or not. But 47 percent of high-school-educated people in this group still say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, and 71 percent say they believe in God. Compare that to less than a quarter of their college-educated peers who say religion matters to them, and less than half who say they believe in God. This suggests that at least some of the less educated people identify as religious but don’t have a religious community, while a majority of the more educated people simply aren’t interested in religion at all.

The unwinding of religion in America is a long and complex story, full of fits and starts and many cross currents. Survey data cannot fully tell this story. But occasionally, it can offer a useful snapshot of a certain point in time. That’s what this study offers: a quick impression of the state of religion in the United States, where education makes believers more likely to be active in their communities, not less.