A new study reporting that white Americans without college degrees
are dropping out of church faster than their higher-educated counterparts has
several possible explanations, researchers said.
The study, by University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford
Wilcox, found that since the 1970s, white Americans with no more than a high school
diploma left the pews twice as fast as other Americans.
Other research has connected higher education levels with
lower religious belief, and less attraction to literal interpretations of the Bible.
People with more education, the theory goes, are more skeptical of religious
But when it comes to religious behavior, college-educated
whites seem to have more time, money and motivation to attend religious services,
Wilcox said. In other words, lower-educated people may have to work weekend
shifts, or can’t afford to spend money on gas or the collection plate.
“College-educated Americans are more likely to have the
financial resources and the stable marriages that make a church-going lifestyle
seem to fit,” he said. “Financial limitations and a broader malaise among
working-class and poor Americans — the sense that the American Dream is
slipping away from their reach — may be implicated in this retreat from
His study, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization
of Religious Life Among the White Working Class,” was presented at the annual
meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.
Wilcox said he focused on white church-goers because African-Americans
and Latinos don’t have the same kinds of education disparities. Researchers
haven’t examined possible regional differences yet, or which denominations have
been hit hardest by the trend.
Using data from the General Social Survey and the National
Survey of Family Growth, Wilcox found an across-the-board drop since the 1970s
in those who attend religious services at least once a month:
- Among college-educated whites between ages 25
and 44, attendance slipped from 51 percent to 46 percent.
- Among moderately educated whites, attendance
dropped from 50 percent to 37 percent.
- Among the least educated, attendance fell the
most, from 38 percent to 23 percent.
His findings are consistent with the conclusions recently
reached by University of Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel, who also
examined GSS data. Schwadel’s study, published in the Review of Religious Research,
found that with each additional year of education, the likelihood of attending
religious services increased 15 percent, and the likelihood of occasional Bible
reading increased by 9 percent.
“It certainly could be the case that college grads are
attending church to keep with the Joneses, and meet the Joneses. An insurance agent,
for instance, may attend church to make business contacts,” Wilcox said.
“But, here, I think the biggest non-religious motivation for
many college grads has to do with kids. These helicopter parents plug their kids
into good schools, sports, violin, and church — all in the hopes of maximizing
their kids’ opportunities to do well in life.”
Yet it’s the less-educated, lower-income families who could
really use the social services, networking opportunities, spiritual guidance and
safety nets that religious communities offer, he said.
“This research suggests that religious communities need to
do more to reach out and engage working-class Americans,” Wilcox concluded.
John Green, an expert on religion and public life at the
University of Akron, said many religious institutions are finding it hard to
reach lower socio-economic classes.
“Churches in poor neighborhoods are often less effective because
they don’t have resources, while the suburban churches have resources, but are
far away from the less well off,” he said. “Less well-educated people may not
have the time to be active in a church, and they may not feel comfortable
because they are less well off.”