Working class vs. middle class white seculars

By Razib Khan | February 13, 2012 9:27 am

Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, White Working-Class ‘Seculars’:

What’s interesting to think about is that these working-class non-churchgoers are probably not secular in the same way white intellectual elites are secular. I bet if you polled them, 999 out of 1,000 would say they believed in God and considered themselves to be Christians. It’s just that they don’t go to church. Where I live, during deer hunting season, to be a white male is to be seasonally “secular” in this way.

One way to answer this question is look at the GSS. I used the ATTEND (attend church that is) variable to ascertain secularity. Those who never attended church or did so less than once a year (in other words, some years they did attend, in other years they did not), are “secular.” Those who attend nearly weekly, or more, are “religious.” To assess class I simply divided the non-Hispanic white population into those who had a college degree or higher (middle class), and those who did not (working class).

Below are some responses to a selection of questions.



Secular Religious
No College College No College College
Atheist + agnostic 13 32 1 2
Know God Exists 39 17 89 79
Bible World of God 18 2 57 31
Bible Book of Fables 31 61 3 6
Religious fundamentalist 18 5 45 29
Humans from animals 68 91 18 40
Hell definitely exists 33 10 82 65

Qualitatively Dreher is roughly correct. Working class seculars are more ‘religious’ than middle class seculars. But they are still more secular than the religious middle class. This isn’t too surprising. In many Western societies there is a pattern where:

1) The church-goers tend to be more middle class (positive correlation between socioeconomic status and church-going)

2) The church-goers tend to be more religiously orthodox/conservative in their beliefs

3) The middle class tends to be less  religiously orthodox/conservative in their beliefs ( (negative correlation between socioeconomic status and orthodoxy/conservatism)

These results confuse because because many are assuming that if A is correlated with B, and B is correlated with C, then A must be correlate with C. This may be true, but it is not necessarily true. Ergo, you get this pattern where in the USA and many Western nations there is a positive correlation between institutional religious adherence and class, and a positive correlation between skepticism of orthodox religious beliefs and class. To be coarse about the main difference is that there are relatively few religious liberals within the working class, and proportionally fewer orthodox non-church-goers among the middle class. There is also a more punctilious adherence to institutions among middle class of all stripes.

For example, among the working class 73 percent of those who believe that the Bible is the word of God attend church at least nearly weekly. In contrast, the figure is 95 percent of the middle class of the same beliefs. The difference is greater for those who believe that the Bible is the inspired word, 42 vs. 72 percent. In other words, very few church-going mainline Protestants among the working class. Finally, it is notable that even among those who believe that the Bible is a book of fables 12 percent of middle class respondents went to church nearly weekly, vs. 8 percent of the working class!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Religion
MORE ABOUT: Religious
  • qohelet

    I’d bet that the heavily middle-class Mormon community is at the pinnacle of this trend.

  • soren

    “I used the ATTEND (attend church that is) variable to ascertain secularity.”

    Way too often secularists(who want to attack Christians) and preachers(who want to scare and shame congregations) use statistics based off of self description instead of church attendance.

    For instance, the idea that there is no difference in the divorce rate between practicing Christians and everyone else is complete nonsense but it is an idea repeated over and over again.

  • vel

    each theist thinks that their version of god is the only “right” one. Some of them have created a god that is okay with them not going to church, just like others have decided that this god doesn’t really mean for them to give up all of their posessions and go preach, that this god doesn’t really mean he hates homosexuals, etc.

  • ohwilleke

    “Finally, it is notable that even among those who believe that the Bible is a book of fables 12 percent of middle class respondents went to church nearly weekly, vs. 8 percent of the working class!”

    I went to church for years, and was even a Sunday school teacher for the better part of a school year, after clearly coming to an internal belief that God did not exist. If you can be at peace with being hypocritical and just don’t care much about the metaphysics of it all, there are a variety of benefits that can come from being affilated with a church and it is possible to think of church rituals as cultural rituals that don’t call for any more sincerity of metaphysical belief than rituals related to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Groundhog day, and other elements of vestigal folk belief and paganism. I couldn’t come to peace with that, but I am probably in the minority in that regard.

  • Jacob Roberson

    You’re forgetting the high rate of: not having a car; drinking too much to get up on Sunday morning.

  • Lab Lemming

    How did our society get to a point where “working class” and “middle class” became opposites?

  • duende

    ‘each theist thinks that their version of god is the only “right” one.’

    Each and every one? You must be a pretty smooth talker to get all the theists on Earth to disclose their feelings.

  • duende

    I had an uncle who was a priest, and (older generation) cousins who were nuns and my mother is very religious so I think there’s a religious strain my DNA. I’ve always been spiritual (sometimes practicingCatholic sometimes not), but if you are only mildly devout or even non-believing but tolerant there are social benefits to belonging to a church. Of course church benefits a certain type of person. If you are too drunk or mentally ill to be civil to the other members, or you are an intolerant atheist who thinks everyone who believes in God is stupid and are eager to tell them that you won’t gain anything.

  • yogi-one

    Intriguing. One thing is that I would question whether the presence of a college degree is what makes someone “middle class”.

    My understanding of “class” is that it is more defined by income level than by education. You’ve sifted them out by how religious they are, and how educated they are. I would have sifted them by how religious they are and how much money they make every year.

    I’ll concede that, yes, overall, there is a correlation between whether or not someone has higher education than high school and how much money they pull down in their profession or job. But I think if you want to to look at “class” then income is the better defining criteria. There are many folks with bachelor degrees whose incomes are low enough that they may not be considered middle class, say, below $30,000 per year.

    The study does seem to indicate a positive correlation between education level and secularism. What if you resorted the data using income level? It would be interesting to see what differences emerge.

  • Anthony

    yogi-one, a college degree is a much better marker for class in the U.S. than is income level. People who make a lot of money in manual trades (construction, factory work, mechanics, etc.) are generally more like those people who do the same sorts of work but make less money than they are like people who make the same amount of money doing work which requires a college degree (engineers, accountants, teachers, etc.)

    This wasn’t really true in the 1960s and into the 70s, and as more and more people get college degrees, it will become less true again, but right now, having a bachelor’s degree is the best readily-available class marker for this sort of statistical work. Better might be “is your usual work one which requires you to have a bachelor’s degree or higher?”, but that’s not a question asked by large, publicly available surveys like the GSS.

    For more about class in the U.S., read Paul Fussell’s _Class_ – it’s a little dated in terms of the actual class markers, but the attitudes and ideas are still pretty current.

  • Miguel Madeira

    Speaking from a Portuguese point of view (that can not be valid in US):

    a) Many small and medium businessmen fall in the “No College” category; however, I consider them middle (or even upper-middle) class

    b) I think that there are relevant differences in religiosity (and many other things) between “owners” and “employes”, independently of education and income:

    b1) the regions of Portugal were rural populations are mostly small/micro landowners are much more religious than the regions were most people are wage-labours

    b2) in the educated classes, the secularism (and social liberalism in general) are more common in the families of “professionals”, teachers, etc., while, in the families of business-owners, it is relatively common the curriculum “Catholic school as a child/teenager, a degree in the Catholic University, and member of the Opus Dei”

    My theory if that family business (be a miserable small farm in the mountains or a big corporation) favor enlarged family (while being employed favors nuclear family), and enlarged family favors social conservatism

    I don’t know if the GSS has a variable style “works in a family business”, but perhaps WRKSLF could be a proxy for that?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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