Why are U.S. churches losing the less educated?
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
September 02, 2011

Why are U.S. churches losing the less educated?

Why are U.S. churches losing the less educated?
Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service
September 02, 2011

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.”