The More You're Educated, the Less You Believe?
Dr. James Emery White
- 2017 May 01
It’s almost considered conventional wisdom – the more educated you are, the less likely you are to believe in God or hold strongly to a particular faith.
Those with letters following their name who eschew God say the reason is clear: religious faith is irrational, anti-scientific, anti-intellectual and… well, you get the point. The only way you could be, say, a Christian would be to check your brains at the door.
Not so fast, says a new Pew Research Center study.
While it is true that overall, U.S. adults with college degrees are less religious than others, this is not the case when it comes to Christians. Among Christians, those with higher levels of education are just as religious as those with less schooling. “In fact,” the study says, “highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.”
As mentioned, this does not hold up when you look at the U.S. public as a whole. There, more education is correlated with less religion. Still, “fully three-quarters of college graduates are affiliated with some religion.”
Two pivotal questions emerge from this study that the authors themselves say lay outside the scope of this particular research project:
First, why, overall, does faith decline as education climbs? Contrary to the belief of some, it is not because there you discover that all religion is bogus. No, it is because there you are told that all religion is bogus.
There’s a difference.
I have long been concerned with the tendency of many professors in secular colleges and universities who take it upon themselves to not simply educate, but indoctrinate according to their own predilections. It’s as if they are on a mission to undermine a freshman’s faith as a matter of duty.
To make matters worse, many, many students entering college have never examined their faith intellectually. They have never been exposed to many of the arguments and attacks against their beliefs. Which means they have never been equipped with the responses to such attacks. So when a young study is confronted with challenges to their faith for the first time at the hands of an intellectual predator, the damage to faith can be severe.
Which raises the second question: Why are educated Christians more immune to this pattern? There are several probable reasons. Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, have taken the life of the mind and, more specifically, apologetics much more seriously than other faiths. One is that it is a clear biblical mandate to know why you believe what you believe (e.g., I Peter 3:15). And while many churches have failed their students who are preparing to leave for college, many have not. They have solid worldviews, have been exposed to the more common cultural attacks on the Christian faith, and are able to engage the secular academic environment as a thinking, informed person of faith.
But there’s an easier answer. Perhaps the reason Christians are outliers when it comes to the effect of education on their faith is because their faith stands up under intellectual scrutiny better than any other faith. When Christianity is examined, it’s not found wanting – it’s found more compelling than ever.
So perhaps the reason so many educated people are still Christians is because when it comes to the Christian faith, you don’t have to check your brains at the door to believe it. If anything, you have to check your brains at the door not to.
And here’s one Ph.D. who will put his name on that list.
James Emery White
“In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?,” Pew Research Center, April 26, 2017, read online.
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “Sorry Weber, Durkheim, and Marx: Educated Evangelicals Are More Religious,” Christianity Today, April 26, 2017, read online.
Emma Green, “Why Educated Christians Are Sticking With Church,” The Atlantic, April 26, 2017, read online.
Emily McFarlan Miller, “More Education Means Less Religious Commitment — Unless You’re Christian,” Religion News Service, April 26, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.