Flying in the face of the common belief that irreligiosity tends to rise with education and income, the exact opposite trend emerges from the Pew Center’s most recent comprehensive report on religion in America.
Those who identify with the label of religiously unaffiliated—sometimes known as “nones”—tend to be high-school educated, white males who earn less than $30,000 a year.
According to the survey, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults describing themselves as “nones” increased significantly in the seven-year period between 2007 and 2014, adding some 20 million to their numbers. They now account for nearly 23% of the US population.
Among the religiously unaffiliated, only a small fraction possesses a college degree. According to the Pew survey, 45% of religious “nothing in particulars” have a high school diploma or less, while only 15% have a college degree and even fewer—9%—a post-graduate degree. The numbers change only slightly when taking into account all religious “nones,” with 38% having a high school education at most.
Though not necessarily a causal relationship, the correlation indicates in fact that the more educated one is, the less likely one will identify as religiously unaffiliated.
A similar trend can be found regarding income levels, though here the results are not quite as dramatic as in the case of education. By far the largest group of religiously unaffiliated Americans are those who earn under $30,000 a year. This group makes up nearly 40% of the “nothing in particulars” in the United States. By contrast, the US median income in 2013 was over $50,000 per household.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Pew survey found only 17% of the self-identified “nothing in particulars” to be in the highest income group, those with a yearly income of $100,000 or more.
Racial differences are also striking in the report. Some 68% of the religiously unaffiliated are whites, while only 9% are black, 5% are Asian and 13% identify themselves as Latinos. The study found that whites continue to be more likely than both blacks and Hispanics to describe themselves as unaffiliated, with 24% of whites saying they have no religion, compared with 20% of Hispanics and 18% of blacks.
Gender differences are more telling still, with males tending significantly more than females to consider themselves unaffiliated. The difference is even more notable when speaking of self-declared atheists, with a whopping 68% being male and only 32% female. Being well under 1% of the population, transgenders and the other 50-odd non-traditional gender options offered by Facebook were not evaluated separately in the Pew report.
If the Pew Center study offers no other consolation to religious Americans, it at least points them in a direction if they wish to work toward recovering the nation’s religiosity: send “nones” to college and find them good jobs.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome