Do Educated People Abandon Religion? There’s No Evidence in the Data

Featured Image Credit: Emaze

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Anyone who has taken a course in philosophy has likely heard of Karl Marx’s famous quote, “Religion is the opium of people.” The underlying assumption is that religion is a means by which the societal powers placate and pacify the undiscerning population. One of the famous influential observers of religion, Emile Durkheim argued that as societies continued developing, seeing greater levels of education and industry, they would inevitably become less religious.

This sentiment is echoed in more recent articles like one published in Christianity Today entitled, “Why Intelligent People are Less Likely to be Religious.” However is that really the case? Do educated people become enlightened during their academic years and then never return to the church? I can say, after looking through seven different samples and doing some basic statistical analysis: there is absolutely no evidence of a negative relationship between church attendance and educational attainment.


Using the most recent version of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (N = 64,600), the general trend is already apparent. If you observe the furthest bar to the left (the blue one), indicating those who never attend and scan from the lowest level of education to the highest, there is a clear downward trend. That is, those with the least amount of education are the most likely to never attend. The same trend can be seen when you observe the blue bar denoting weekly attendance. Those with graduate degrees are the most likely to attend church weekly.

While basic frequencies can help to explain the relationship between two variables, a regression analysis can provide further insight as it allows to control for other variables. So I specified a number of very simple regressions using church attendance as the dependent variable, educational attainment as the independent variable and age of respondent as a control. What you are seeing below is a “coefficient plot” which help to visualize regression results. The interpretation is simple: if the horizontal dot or the horizontal line intersects the vertical dashed line (at zero), there is no statistically significant relationship. If it doesn’t intersect the vertical line and is to the right, it’s a positive relationship (predicting greater religious attendance.)


I looked at three waves of the CCES that occurred in presidential election years, and all variables were scaled from zero to one to aid in comparison. The results here are clear. In all three cases, more education is related to higher levels of religious attendance, regardless of age. It’s also worthwhile to note that age is positively related to attending church, controlling for educational levels.

I also tested this relationship using data from the General Social Survey, which has been conducted on a regular basis since 1972. I wanted to compare some more recent data so I used the 2010,2012, 2014, and 2016 versions. Again, this is a coefficient plot that can be interpreted as previously described. Here the results are more mixed. In only one of the four surveys was there a positive relationship between education and religious attendance, but in the other three instances there was no relationship at all.

Taken together, these results paint a clear picture: an individual obtaining more education does not lead them to attend church at a lower rate, and there is some evidence that they may actually attend more often. The Atlantic wrote about this phenomenon using data from Pew, and the analysis from two additional surveys bolsters the claim. The author of that piece, Emma Green, wrote, “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.” Lots of previous scholarship in the social sciences has extolled some of the benefits of church involvement including the generation of social capital and the gaining of civic skills. Unfortunately these results indicate that individuals with lower educational attainment are being shut off from these opportunities for community enrichment and personal growth either through personal choice or lack of free time. As the gap between the rich and the poor has grown in this country, the divide between attenders vs. non-attenders may continue to increase as well.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


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