Religious belief, educational attainment, and upward mobility

by Ryan Streeter on August 12, 2014. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

A new study adds more evidence to a phenomenon that Charles Murray wrote about in Coming Apart, namely that a greater percentage of highly-educated, higher-income people are people of faith than the percentage of lower-educated, lower-income people. This flies in the face of sociological doctrine going back over a hundred years. The study’s author writes:

The assumption that education is a motivating force behind secularization has been integral to sociology since Comte, Durkheim, and Weber, and it remains ingrained in modern sociology (e.g., Ruiter and van Tubergen 2009Wilson 1982). College or university education, in particular, is seen as a primary cause of secularization (Beckwith 1985Halman and Draulans 2006Stark 1963), leading the highly educated to be disproportionately likely to disaffiliate from organized religion (Baker and Smith 2009;Caplovitz and Sherrow 1977Kosmin and Keysar 2009).

However much that used to be the case, it seems the opposite is now happening. Scott Jaschik summarizes the study’s findings this way:

[T]he evolution of the impact on college attendance was gradual, with those who were born early in the 20th century who were college graduates much less likely to have religious affiliation than those without a college education. For those born in the ’60s, there was no impact one way or the other. And starting for those born in the ’70s, the correlation was between a college education and having a religious affiliation.

Given what we know about how people of faith also demonstrate a range of other positive outcomes, we can only assume that increasing faith among more highly-educated people will contribute to the gap between those experiencing opportunity and those who aren’t.

Note: the study above only considers belief, not religious practice or observance.