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Opinion: Does Education ‘Cure’ People of Faith? The Data Says No

By Ryan Burge
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Photo: Joseph Redfield Nino via Pixabay/Creative Commons

It’s been 30 years since The Washington Post published an article on Christian televangelists, describing their followers as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” The pushback was immediate and overwhelming, as thousands flooded the Post’s telephone switchboard and letters poured in to its editors after Pat Robertson — a Yale Law School alum himself — read the offending passage on his television show, “The 700 Club.”

It was a watershed in journalism that woke many mainstream outlets to the reality of evangelicals’ demographics and power.

Yet the bias that says that churches, mosques and synagogues are filled with people who have a low level of education persists. The common assumption is that a formal education, particularly a college degree, is antithetical to religious belonging.

Even a cursory look at recent data reveals that just the opposite is true: Those who are the most likely to be religiously unaffiliated are those with the lowest levels of formal education. The group that is the most likely to align with a faith tradition? Those who have earned a college degree or more.

The Cooperative Election Study, one of the largest publicly available surveys in the United States, began in 2008. In all 14 years since, those Americans who attained no more than a high school diploma have been more likely to report no religious affiliation than college graduates. In 2020, 38% of those who did not finish high school described their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. For those who had completed some graduate school, just 32% said that they were among those unaffiliated with any religious community, a group known as the nones.

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Correlation: Belief in God and education level attained. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

This same finding holds true in larger and more granular data sets. The Nationscape survey has a total sample of more than 475,000 respondents and contains large numbers of individuals at every level of education, including nearly 9,000 respondents with a doctoral degree.

Being a none correlates most closely, at 32%, with those who have not completed high school. About a quarter of people with a high school diploma or four years of college are nones, and among those with master’s degrees, only a fifth say they have no religious affiliation.

When the distribution of religious traditions is visualized by educational level, this relationship between these two factors becomes clearer. The share of respondents who identify as Christians (Protestant + Catholic + Just Christians) continues to rise, from 61% for those with the lowest levels of education to 69% of those who have taken some graduate courses.

education nones
Share Who Are Nones by Education Level. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

It’s also noteworthy that the share of atheists and agnostics does not rise with educational levels, either. It’s 8% of those with a high school diploma and 9% of those with a master’s degree. 

The relationship between educational attainment and religiosity takes a turn, however, when people are asked about the nature of their beliefs. Religion is not just a matter of identifying with a religious tradition, after all; it often involves an actual psychological belief in a higher power.

The General Social Survey asks individuals what they believe about God, offering a range of options, from “I don’t believe in God” to “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” Among people with no more than a high school degree, 56% indicated they were certain about their belief in God, while 7% said they didn’t believe in God at all. Those who hold graduate degrees were certain about their belief in God at a much lower rate of 38%. The share who didn’t believe in God at all was 10%.

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Religious Tradition by Education Level. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

Certainty about the existence of a higher power seems to wobble a bit, then, with higher educational attainment, despite an increased likelihood of being connected to a religious tradition. That finding was replicated in a recent study published in the American Sociological Review that concluded that education does seem to move individuals away from moral absolutism to moral relativism. This effect is stronger among those who major in the humanities, the arts, the social sciences or related fields.

This evidence seems to say that educated Americans are drawn to the communal aspects that religion provides, but may be more ready to question what’s coming from the pulpit. It’s not a surprising result, perhaps, given that higher education encourages discussion and debate — and perhaps, too, the urge to belong.

The views expressed in this commentary, which was originally published at Religion News Service, do not necessarily reflect those of The Roys Report.

Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, a pastor in the American Baptist Church and author of “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going.” 



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5 Responses

  1. I see I’m in the sweet spot, since I have a master’s degree (good) in Psychology ( uh, ????)

    Unfortunately, it took me a few years After Going to an IFB church To realize the truth of these articles:

    “Body of Christ or Family Business? Nepotism in the Church”


    “How To Check Your Church for Financial Transparency”


    “Tim Keller: Megachurches are ‘Poor Places for Formation’ & Have ‘Addictive Dependence’ on Founders”

    In his post, Keller wrote that founders tend to “see the church as their personal possession—and an extension of their personality and self-image. (T)hey often never want to leave, nor do they know how to well….”’

    Pastor Keller made other astute observations in the above article, and some things that we over-educated people have the ability to ignore in his post and the other articles given — In spite of our education.????

  2. I’m left curious about the particular class status of Evangelicals. Was that answered in this survey? Also I was unclear about the difference between Protestant and Christian in the last chart.

    1. “I’m left curious about the particular class status of Evangelicals.”

      Go to several Evangelical Church services, meet the people that attend, and go from there.

      “Also I was unclear about the difference between Protestant and Christian in the last chart.”

      One group identifies with a denominational system, the other identifies with a faith.

  3. What is it to be formally educated, and deemed qualified in this or that skill set?
    My sense is that the strongest aspect of formal education and qualification, is that it prepares persons to work within the prevailing “system” of their society. Much else then attaches to being so able to work within such systems. It would then be surprising if positive educational achievement was not positively correlated with the prevailing “faith” of that society.
    That dynamic is then qualified by the force of individualism. Some educated persons will tend to modify their “faith” in order to better shape that faith to serve themselves.
    What then of those who do not take up the path of formal education and qualification. Is some part of the explanation for this, that this cohort are not as committed to and persuaded by the cultural “faith” of their society, and so find themselves obstructed by that on this pathway.
    I think the thesis of this article is awkwardly contrived. Such that its statistical analysis involves understanding of education that differs from the historical comments made about those drawn to televangelism. Those comments pointing validly to an aspect of reasonable concern. Where the follow up might better have reviewed what the authors of those comments were thinking.

    1. I love your line of thinking, Colin. I also would like to extend it further. I call it the “university vs trade school” argument: the point of a university education is to teach one how to critically think and ultimately become a thought-leader. The point of a “trade school” is to teach a technical skill in order to operate in a specific role or work environment. I think there is room for both; it is why I cringe when people mock “useless degrees”; IMO, that thinking sets the wrong expectations of universities – expectations that are for trade schools.
      It is also why I cringe at certain speakers being banned from campuses, and why I do not like the “don’t teach my kid about that!” movement that is little more than banning and brainwashing under the guise of “parental involvement”. Don’t get me wrong – there should be NO platform for hate speech. BUT I think students should be taught how to listen, engage, and debate ideas.
      From my experience, university education REFINES one’s faith. You learn a lot about what you really believe when it is challenged by other thought leaders, or when you must prove it in written papers and classroom debate.
      I know I realized I was a Christian after having to study other religious texts and concepts in university – in a “Cultures Ideas and Values” class that many would deem “useless”. It ended up changing my life.

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