There is a negative correlation between religious beliefs and education in that the more formal education one has, the less likely one is to be religious. But a new study suggests that that familiar pattern may be undergoing a shift, especially in the age cohort labeled as Generation X.
Today, it’s the least-educated members of Generation X — people born roughly between 1965 and 1980 — who are “most likely to leave religion,” said Philip Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Schwadel, whose study is published in the August edition of the journal Social Forces, found a clear historical shift.
“Americans born in the late 1920s and ‘30s who graduated from college were twice as likely to drop out of religion than people who didn’t graduate from college,” he said. The postwar baby boomers proved to be “the last holdout of the church dropouts.” For boomers, “a college degree was still associated with a higher likelihood of leaving religion.”
However, for the generation born in the 1960s, there’s no difference between those who did and those who did not go to college in their likelihood of religious affiliation. Now, for America’s middle-aged adults who were born in the 1970s, “those without a college education are the most likely to drop out.”
In other words, a college degree used to mean people were more likely to lose religion. Now, some people are losing religion whether they went to college or not but it’s especially true for those who didn’t go to college.
It should be clear that the study is not saying that fewer people are dropping out of religion altogether. It is clear that the total number of dropouts is increasing. What is happening is that those without college degrees are dropping out faster than before so that the differential between them and the college-educated is disappearing,
The article suggests three possible reasons for the shift, though the study itself did not focus on this question. To that I would add a fourth and that is that with atheism becoming part of the popular discussion, those ideas are now reaching everyone, not just those who go to college.