Opinion: Does education “cure” people of faith? The Data Says No – The Roys Report | Team Cansler

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

It was a turning point in journalism that made much of the mainstream media aware of the reality of evangelical demographics and power.

But the bias that churches, mosques and synagogues are filled with people with little education persists. The general assumption is that formal education, particularly a college degree, is in conflict with religious affiliation.

Even a cursory glance at the most recent data shows that the opposite is true: those with the least formal education are the most likely to be non-denominational. The group most likely to join a faith tradition? Those who have earned a college degree or above.

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 earned no more than a high school diploma were more likely than college graduates to report no religious affiliation . In 2020, 38% of those who did not graduate from high school identified their religion as atheist, agnostic, or nothing special. Of those who had completed graduate school, only 32% said they were among those who did not belong to any religious community, a group known as the None.

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Correlation: belief in God and level of education achieved. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

The same insight applies to larger and more granular data sets. The Nationscape survey has a total sample of more than 475,000 respondents and includes a large number of individuals at all educational levels, including nearly 9,000 respondents with a PhD.

Most closely, non-affiliation correlates with those who did not complete high school, at 32%. About a quarter of those with a high school diploma or four years of college are not, and among those with a master’s degree, only a fifth report no religious affiliation.

When the distribution of religious traditions by educational level is visualized, this connection between these two factors becomes clearer. The proportion of respondents who identify as Christian (Protestant + Catholic + Righteous Christian) continues to rise, from 61% among those with the lowest level of education to 69% among those who have completed some postgraduate studies.

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Divide who aren’t by education level. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

It is also noteworthy that the proportion of atheists and agnostics does not increase with the level of education either. It’s 8% of those with a high school diploma and 9% of those with a master’s degree.

However, the relationship between educational attainment and religiosity changes when people are asked about the nature of their beliefs. After all, religion is not just a question of identification with a religious tradition; 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”. 56% of those with a college degree or less said they were sure of their belief in God, while 7% said they did not believe in God at all. Those who have college degrees were confident in their belief in God at a much lower rate of 38%. The proportion of those who did not believe in God at all was 10%.

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Religious tradition by level of education. (Image: Ryan Burge / General Social Survey)

The certainty of the existence of a higher power thus seems to wobble somewhat with higher educational qualifications, despite an increased likelihood of being linked to a religious tradition. This finding was replicated in a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, which concluded that education appears to move individuals from moral absolutism to moral relativism. This effect is stronger among those studying humanities, arts, social sciences, or related subjects.

This evidence seems to suggest that educated Americans are drawn to the communal aspects of religion but may be more willing to question what comes from the pulpit. This is perhaps not a surprising finding given that higher education encourages discussion and debate – and perhaps also a desire to belong.

The views expressed in this comment, originally published by Religion News Service, do not necessarily reflect those in the Roy’s report.

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

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