The growth of atheism among the non-college educated

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.


  1. Chiroptera says

    Small quibble: the article doesn’t talk about the atheism but “dropping out of religion” or becoming non-affiliated.

    Small quibble since this is still interesting news and possible indicates something positive.

    Another possible explanation for this phenomenon is that the very visible, vocal proponents of religion, namely the public advocates for the Religious Right, continue to seriously discredit the idea of organized religion with their decreasingly popular and increasingly extreme homophobia, misogyny, and racism.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Oops: forgot to add, and their increasingly ridiculous and counterfactual scaremongering conspiracy theories.

  3. Chiroptera says

    I should also add that I think Mano’s main point still stands. I suspect that many of the people are becoming at least “functional atheists”: they may claim to believe in some vague goodness that permeates the universe and that their existence will continue after death, but in such a vague way that they don’t really have an impact on how they reason about the world in which we live.

  4. says

    I find myself wondering about the increase in denominations and personalities whose primary activity is harvesting donations over the same period and if that coincides with an increased focus on evangelizing those with higher education/higher incomes.

  5. says

    Should we also be worried that maybe education standards are falling? Is there too much “believe whatever you want, without regard to whether or not it’s true” (i.e. one opinion is as good as another as long as we all get along it’s okay to agree to disagree) going on at the level of the educated?

  6. Seekers says

    Speaking broadly, members of Gen X (that’s my gen) were never all that religious to begin with. We didn’t buy into institutional religion because institutions have screwed us over all our lives. We don’t tend to buy into the mysticism of the Boomers, either, because the Boomers made it perfectly clear to us that we could never, ever measure up to their supreme worthiness. So ‘religious believers’ is a pretty small group to begin with, and for whatever reason, in this small group of believers, it’s the less-educated who are dropping away. Is this because of the small group of believers, the largest proportion is the less-educated, so proportionally it’s the same ratio? The article doesn’t say.

  7. Onamission5 says

    Or, with increased visibility, more working class people who are already atheists are willing to risk their entire existing support systems by outing themselves, because they have realized that they are not in fact alone.

    I think it’s a mite condescending to assume that just because people lack expensive education they can’t or won’t arrive at the same conclusions re: deities all on their own same as someone who attended a university.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    if that coincides with an increased focus on evangelizing those with higher education/higher incomes.

    I have been accosted twice by god-botherers in the coffee shop of my local Barnes and Noble, but if that is evidence of focusing on those with higher education, it looks like a pretty poor attempt. Their arguments were pretty stupid even for Christians. One guy even talked at me in tongues!

  9. Brucee says

    These studies are complicated by the role of education in society. Other studies show that increasing education correlates with INcreasing conformity to societal norms, up to the Bachelors degree. But people with graduate education or advanced degrees show decreasing obedience to conformity. This was shown in studies of which people supported the Vietnam war, for example. So if studies conflate BA students with grad students, the data may become less clear.
    It’s hard to generalize from the data available here.

  10. Matt G says

    How about this one: people with college educations are more likely to benefit (socially, financially, etc.) from the status quo, which the religious right tends to prop up.

  11. Seekers says

    @Matt G; that might be true in some instances, but not all. >people with college educations are more likely to benefit (socially, financially, etc.) from the status quo, which the religious right tends to prop up.>

  12. smrnda says

    I think the drift away from religion is going to become more and more pervasive. On top of that, even people without educations can get on the internet and find out all kinds of things about religion.

    From the less educated non-believers I know, many of them also found that (most of them being Christian) the churches just were useless. Quite a few comment that, though churches litter their neighborhood, the neighborhood doesn’t seem to do too well.

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