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Church Attendance Falling Among Less-Educated Whites: Study

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While overall church attendance has declined slightly in the United States in recent decades, a new study says attendance at religious services among white Americans who did not go to college has fallen more than twice as quickly as it has among more highly educated whites.

The study, released Sunday by the American Sociological Association, draws on decades of data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth to conclude that "moderately educated whites," defined as people with high school degrees, attended religious services in the 1970s at about the same rate as whites with degrees from four-year colleges. In the last decade, however, they attended much less frequently.

“Our study suggests that the less educated are dropping out of the American religious sector similarly to the way in which they have dropped out of the American labor market,” says researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

The research shares some conclusions with a recent study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor whose findings contradicted the common myth that less-educated people are more religious. That study, released in early August, concluded that a college degree does not make a person less religious, but that more education does make people more accepting of the validity of religions other than their own. Both studies used data from the General Social Survey, which is an ongoing survey of American' attitudes and behaviors that began in 1972.

Wilcox says his study focuses on whites because attendance rates at religious services among minority groups such as blacks and Latinos is less likely to be linked to education and income. The study is limited to people ages 25 to 44, it says, because those years encompass the "stages of life most closely associated with career development and family formation."

According to the study, in the 1970s, 51 percent of college-educated whites attended religious services monthly or more, compared to 50 percent of moderately educated whites and 38 percent of the least educated whites. In the 2000s, 46 percent of college-educated whites attended on at least a monthly basis, compared to 37 percent of moderately educated whites and 23 percent of the least educated. The study defines the "least educated" as people without high school degrees.

“Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated,” Wilcox says. “Religious congregations may be one of the few institutional sectors less educated Americans can turn to for social, economic, and emotional support in the face of today’s tough times, yet it appears that increasingly few of them are choosing to do so.”

Wilcox proposes several theories as to why the poor and less-educated have stopped frequenting church.

Over the last 40 years, he says, the moderately educated have become less likely to get and stay married compared to the college-educated. At the same time, inflation-adjusted wages have gone down and the rate of unemployment has risen for moderately educated men, while wages have remained stable for women in the same category. Both trends are also true for the least educated. Religious institutions typically uphold and encourage conventions such as getting married, having kids and maintaining stable jobs, which could make them less appealing to the moderately and least educated, he says.

The study also shows that Americans who make more money attend religious services more frequently, and that Americans who have been unemployed at any point in the past 10 years attend services less frequently. The study found that people who are married, who do not approve of premarital sex and those who lost their virginity later than their peers also attend services more often.

“While we recognize that not everyone wishes to worship, and that religious diversity can be valuable, we also think that the existence of a large group of less educated Americans that is increasingly disconnected from religious institutions is troubling for our society,” says Andrew Cherlin, co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. “This development reinforces the social marginalization of less educated Americans who are also increasingly disconnected from the institutions of marriage and work.”