The Effects of Education on Americans’ Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Affiliations

Abstract

I challenge the scholarly contention that increases in education uniformly lead to declines in religious participation, belief, and affiliation. I argue that education influences strategies of action, and these strategies of action are relevant to some religious beliefs and activities but not others. Analysis of survey data shows that (1) education negatively affects exclusivist religious viewpoints and biblical literalism but not belief in God or the afterlife; (2) education positively affects religious participation, devotional activities, and emphasizing the importance of religion in daily life; (3) education positively affects switching religious affiliations, particularly to a mainline Protestant denomination, but not disaffiliation; (4) education is positively associated with questioning the role of religion in secular society but not with support for curbing the public opinions of religious leaders; and (5) the effects of education on religious beliefs and participation vary across religious traditions. Education does influence Americans’ religious beliefs and activities, but the effects of education on religion are complex.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Response rate based on Response Rate 5 as defined by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (2008). See GSS Appendix A for more information on sampling and response rates.

  2. 2.

    The Jewish and other religion categories are combined in the multinomial regression models to ensure a sufficient number of respondents from each religious tradition within the response categories of the dependent variables. Models of switching traditions control for religious tradition at age 16.

  3. 3.

    Income is coded as follows: less than $1,000, $1,000–2,999, $3,000–3,999, $4,000–4,999, $5,000–5,999, $6,000–6,999, $7,000–7,999, $8,000–9,999, $10,000–12,499, $12,500–14,999, $15,000–17,499, $17,500–19,999, $20,000–22,499, $22,500–24,999, $25,000–29,999, $30,000–34,999, $35,000–39,999, $40,000–49,999, $50,000–59,999, $60,000–74,999, $75,000–89,999, $90,000–109,999, and $110,000 or more.

  4. 4.

    Urban–rural is coded as follows: central city of the 12 largest SMSAs, central city of the remainder of the 100 largest SMSAs, suburb of the 12 largest SMSAs, suburb of the remaining 100 largest SMSAs, other urban, and other rural.

  5. 5.

    To ensure there are enough cases in each response category and for ease of presentation, I condense the original six response categories for both prayer and reading the Bible into four response categories.

  6. 6.

    I condense the original seven-category variable measuring whether respondents think of themselves as religious people into five categories.

  7. 7.

    Since I am unable to determine religious affiliation between youth and the time of the survey, it is possible that some cases I code as non-switchers switched denominations or traditions and then switched back by the time of the survey.

  8. 8.

    With multiple denominations subsumed under the mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and “other” religion categories, it is possible for respondents to switch denominations yet remain within one of these three categories. I code any change in denomination as a switch, even if the respondent switches to a denomination within the same tradition.

  9. 9.

    The results are similar when frequency of religious service attendance is used as a dependent variable (using OLS regression) instead of the dichotomous measure of attendance in the last week.

  10. 10.

    Alternative analyses using dummy variables for highest degree earned suggest that the continuous years of education variable employed in this article is a better predictor of religious beliefs and activities than are measures of highest degree earned. When the years of education variable has a meaningful effect, the degree dummy variables generally indicate a continuous effect of education. There are two notable exceptions: the positive effect of education on strongly agreeing that one tries to carry religious beliefs into other dealings and the negative effect of education on agreeing that religious leaders should not try to influence people’s vote primarily reflect differences between the college educated and those without a college degree. Additionally, respondents with a high school degree are particularly unlikely to report that the Bible is an ancient book recorded by men, compared to those with either more or less education.

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Acknowledgments

Philip Schwadel would like to thank Elaine Howard Ecklund, Roger Finke, Phil Jenkins, John McCarthy, Julia McQuillan, Helen Moore, Kristen Olson, Alan Sica, and the editor and reviewers of Review of Religious Research for their comments and advice.

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Schwadel, P. The Effects of Education on Americans’ Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Affiliations. Rev Relig Res 53, 161–182 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-011-0007-4

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Keywords

  • Education
  • Social class
  • Culture
  • Religious tradition