The divide between secular, well-educated people on one hand and religious, poorly-educated people on the other may not be as stark as some think, at least in the United States. Recently released data from a highly-regarded survey suggests that well-educated people may be just as pious as poorly-educated people—depending on how one defines piety. The findings characterize a uniquely American range of attitudes toward religious belief, one which runs the gamut from the “my way or the highway” thinking of fundamentalist Christians to the modern-day faith of nondenominational ministers ordained online.
Philip Schwadel, a sociologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, looked at data from the General Social Survey, a highly-respected cumulative and nationally representative survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The survey, which provides cumulative data from 1972 to 2010, is a useful source of information for social scientists who study religious practice among lay people, the religiously lapsed, and those who aspire to become an ordained minister to serve their community. Schwadel arrived at his conclusion based on specific definitions of religiosity and God, making important distinctions between the way well-educated and poorly-educated people practiced their religion. Ultimately, he found that well-educated people were just as religious—but in a markedly different way.
When it came to belief in God, church attendance, and regular reading of the Bible or other holy book, the better-educated group turned out to be surprisingly religious. According to Schwadel, with each additional year of education, the likelihood of attending a religious sermon or worship service increased by fifteen per cent, and the likelihood of reading the Bible at least occasionally (among Christians, at least) inrreased by nine per cent with each additional year of education. Additionally, the likelihood of a conversion to atheism does not increase with each additional year of education, and well-educated people still tend to believe in God.
However, there were some important differences between well-educated and poorly-educated people. When well-educated people did read the Bible, they were less likely to interpret it as the literal word of God, and they were more likely to view God as a universal “higher power” than as the anthropomorphic, patriarchal archetype found of the Bible. Perhaps most importantly, the survey revealed that well-educated people were less likely to believe that theirs was the one true religion, and were more open-minded about the potential truth in other religions (and probably unconventional practices like online ordination for weddings), reflecting a less provincial, more cosmopolitan worldview about spiritual truth. And while well-educated people believed priests, ministers, and other clerics should be allowed to express their religious views on social issues, they were more wary about the role of religion in secular government.
It is important to remember that the survey is a nationwide survey conducted in the United States and reflects an attachment to religion as a way of creating a personal identity. It simply shows that well-educated people in America seem to be as religious as poorly-educated people. Maybe this means that they are more likely to be open to things like getting ordained to perform a wedding in an interfaith ceremony. In other countries, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, well-educated people may not be as religious as poorly-educated people, and this may be because the superior social safety net of these countries negates the need for religious faith. It is certain a possibility that deserves consideration. Furthermore, it is very important to remember what we mean by “religious”. As we have seen, well-educated people’s idea of religious devotion is crucially different from that of poorly-educated people. For now, therefore, we cannot generalize these findings and claim that well-educated people around the world are just as religious as poorly-educated people, and we cannot say that well-educated people share the same kind of religious beliefs as poorly-educated people.
Share your thoughts as a nondenominational wedding officiant. Given the results of the General Social Survey, do you believe that well-educated people are as religious as poorly-educated people, or should we be careful how we interpret the survey’s statistics before drawing any hard and fast conclusions?