Level of Educational Attainment by Religious Tradition

Now that my first year as a PhD student has drawn to a close, I finally have time to dig into data from the 2020 wave of the Cooperative Election Study (CES). Given the massive sample size of the survey — over 60,000 participants on election years — it enables researchers to investigate trends in often understudied subpopulations while retaining substantial statistical power.

For my first of what will likely be several posts using CES 2020 data, I wanted to look at how educational attainment varies across faith traditions — a breakdown of which is included in the graph below.

This breakdown seems to be fairly intuitive: Jewish and Hindu Americans have the highest levels of educational attainment; non-white Catholics, who compose a sizable share of recent immigrants, have a below-average level of educational attainment — as is typical of new arrivals to the country; Mainline Protestants have higher educational attainment than Evangelical Protestants; atheists and agnostics have higher educational attainment than most religious groups.

One surprising result, however, is the difference in educational attainment between those who identify as atheist and agnostic compared to those who identify as “nothing in particular.” Historically, the image of the “religiously unaffiliated American” was that of a highly educated white liberal who lives in a cosmopolitan setting. While this profile still occupies disproportionate space among today’s comparatively browner, more socioeconomically diverse group of atheists and agnostics, it further loses relevance when looking at the rapidly growing share of Americans who identify as “nothing in particular.” This group — which is roughly double the combined size of atheists and agnostics — is considerably less educated, white, and liberal than other religious “nones.”

A future post using CES 2020 data will undoubtedly include an in-depth breakdown of the demographic differences between groups of religiously unaffiliated Americans so I will avoid providing a superficial overview here. However, this post will provide useful big-picture context through which to view my upcoming “in-depth” posts focused on specific traditions.

Want more visualizations and commentary on religion and political behavior? Consider entering your email below to get new posts delivered directly to your inbox. Also, follow me on twitter at @marktenenbaum1.

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