It’s not the class you think. Although academics often assume that religion appeals primarily to less-educated, working-class types – “religion-clingers,” as it were – two new studies suggest that the reality is more complicated. If anything, education correlates positively with religious participation. Earlier this month, sociologist Philip Schwadel (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) published a study of American religious practice showing, among other things, that education has “a strong and positive effect on religious participation” in the United States. With each additional year of education, Schwadel found, “the odds of attending religious services increased 15 percent.” Education also correlates positively with more frequent Bible reading and, interestingly, more questioning of religion’s role in secular society. Similarly, a study released by the American Sociological Association on Sunday reveals that less-educated American whites, defined as people without a high-school degree, have been dropping out of religious services at a much higher rate than their more educated counterparts. According to this study, 46% of college-educated whites attend religious services at least monthly, compared to 37% of those who have graduated high school and 23% of the least educated. Religious participation is also associated with higher incomes and stable employment.
Of course, it’s not clear why religion should be more a part of upper- and middle-class than lower-class identity. Bradford Wilcox (University of Virginia), one of the ASA study’s authors, suggests that religious institutions, which typically stress marriage and family, may be losing their appeal for less-educated Americans, who are less likely to marry and stay married than Americans with a college education. Perhaps less frequent religious attendance reflects a deeper alienation of lower-class Americans from social institutions that have failed them. In any event, these two studies are further indications that, as in other parts of the globe, religion in America today is a marker for education and upward social mobility. — MLM