Using data from the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth, the study found in the 1970s, among those ages 25-44, 50 percent of moderately educated whites and 38 percent of the least educated whites attended religious services but in the 2000s, among the same age group, 37 percent of moderately educated whites and 23 percent of the least educated whites attended services.
Lead researcher W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia says the study focused on whites because black and Latino religiosity is less divided by education and income.
Wilcox sees this disengagement among the less educated as troubling because religious institutions often provide their members with benefits -- such as improved physical and psychological health, social networks and civic skills, which may be important for the less educated.
"Today, the market and the state provide less financial security to the less educated than they once did, and this is particularly true for the moderately educated -- those who have high-school degrees, but didn't graduate from a four-year college," Wilcox says in a statement.
"Religious congregations may be one of the few places less educated Americans can turn to for social, economic and emotional support in the face of today's tough times, but fewer are choosing to do so."
The findings were presented at the106th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.
Another study, published in the journal Review of Religious Research, found disaffiliating, or dropping religion altogether, was not a popular option for highly educated Americans -- in fact, having a greater level of education was associated most often with converting to mainline, non-evangelical Protestant denominations.