Churches are losing the less educated

August 25, 2011

A recent study reports that white Americans without college degrees
are dropping out of church faster than their more highly educated
counterparts, and re­searchers are offering several possible
explanations.

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 have been leaving the pews twice as fast
as other Americans.

Other research has connected higher education
levels with liberal religious belief and less attraction to literal
interpretations of the Bible. People with more education, the theory
goes, may be better able to manage ambiguity and uncertainty in matters
of faith.

In matters of religious practice, college-educated
whites seem to have more time, money and motivation to attend religious
services, Wilcox said. In other words, less-educated people may have to
work weekend shifts or can't afford to spend money on gas or add to the
collection plate.

"College-educated Americans are more likely to
have the financial resources and the stable marriages that make a
churchgoing 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 religion."

Wilcox's 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 churchgoers 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.

Wilcox's
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 up
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 nonreligious 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 socio­economic
classes for a combination of reasons.

"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," Green said. "Less-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."  —RNS