“Atheist” Academics

19 January 2007 at 10:40 pm 10 comments

| Cliff Grammich | 

Peter kindly draws my attention to a study by Neil Gross at Harvard and Solon Simmons at George Mason, released last fall but discussed this week here, here, and here, about religiosity of American professors. Among the findings:

  • 10.0 percent do not believe in God, and an additional 13.4 percent said they do not know whether there is a god and do not believe there is any way to find out, meaning 23.4 percent of the professoriate is atheistic or agnostic. By contrast, 6.9 percent of the general public and 11.2 percent of the college educated are atheist or agnostic.
  • 36.6 percent of those at “elite doctoral schools” are atheists or agnostics, compared to 23.5 percent at “non-elite” doctoral schools, 22.7 percent at schools BA-granting institutions and 15.2 percent at community colleges
  • Psychology and biology have the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, 61 percent each, followed by economics, political science, and computer science. By contrast, 63 percent of accounting professors say they have no doubt God exists, followed by professors of elementary education, finance, marketing, art, criminal justice, and nursing. (There was no mention of belief among professors of religion, so no updated evidence on a quip I once heard — I’d give the source if I could find it or trust my memory more — that God is dead only at the divinity schools, where he was denied tenure for lack of a publication record).
  • Attendance at religious services is lowest among professors of mechanical engineering, of whom 71 percent report attending services no more than once or twice yearly. Others reporting infrequent attendance include professors of psychology, communications, marketing, biology, and sociology. Overall, 40 percent of the professoriate reported attending religious services at least once monthly.

While the recent discussion noted above on this research wonders why the professorate is so godless, I was actually somewhat surprised to see how many believers there are among what I would have considered a more worldly, or at least cosmopolitan, population. 

Consider, for example, that, according to the most recent wave of the World Values Survey (with questions, unfortunately, that are not strictly comparable), in

  • France, 36 percent do not believe in God, 14 percent are “convinced” atheists, and 83 percent attend religious services no more than once or twice annually
  • Germany, 30 percent do not believe in God, 7 percent are “convinced” atheists, and 54 percent attend religious services no more than once annually
  • Denmark, 28 percent do not believe in God, 5 percent are “convinced” atheists, and 72 percent attend religious services no more than once annually 

In all of these nations — and in several other European ones I’m not mentioning — the proportion of persons with at least some tertiary education (much less who hold degrees or professorships) who do not believe in God, are “convinced” atheists, or who attend religious services no more than once or twice annually, is higher still. There you have it: American professors are more religious than the French, and more religious than the population with at least some tertiary education in several European nations.

So, again, I might be inclined to challenge contentions at other blogs about “godless” academics. And, indeed, Gross and Simmons note their “research suggests that professorial religiosity has been previously underestimated.” But the fact remains that the U.S. professoriate is less religious than other Americans. Why might that be?

I’ll offer one explanation I’ve yet to see mentioned. (I won’t claim it’s the best, but I would like to say something somewhat original, although — God knows — it’s entirely possible that I’ve overlooked this elsewhere). It has been said that medieval Christians believed because of Jesus’ miracles, and modern ones believe in spite of them. Perhaps the empiricism of some academics won’t permit such, um, leaps of faith without solid evidence in the miracles some modern Christians may downplay.  (Edit:  what I’m getting at here is an issue Terry Eagleton raised more clearly in his LRB review on Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion.  Dawkins and other “militant rationalists,” Eagleton claims, have “an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.”  There are, of course, other interpretations, by the faithful and those who reject faith, of what religion is, or is not.  But could it be that “militant rationalists” are more prevalent in the academy than among the public, including the best-educated members of it, and thereby account for some of these findings?)

Gross and Simmons are quite right to suggest further research on religiosity of the professoriate and how this affects the formation of their ideas as well as further conflicts between the academy and the rest of society. But the ultimate effect may not necessarily be what one thinks. Two decades ago, Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion) found the children of “secular humanists” were most likely to convert to a “cult” or “sect” movement.

I look forward to comments on this, as well as why some elements of the academy are more religious than others. (Why, for example,  are marketing profs among the most sure of belief in God, with 47 percent saying they have no doubt about God’s existence, but least likely to attend religious services, with 65 percent saying they attend no more than once or twice each year?)

Entry filed under: Cultural Conservatism, Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bo  |  20 January 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Interesting discussion indeed. I think the implied correlation between church attendance and religious beliefs is somewhat problematic in the modern, fast-paced IT addicted world. While I offer no claim to know why marketing professors in the US believe in God yet do not find it worthwhile to attend church (although one could speculate that marketing professors are not really religious but rather intriqued by the great marketing stunt that christianity has pulled off over the past 2000+ years without any solid evidence), I do think that for Denmark at least, most people do not attend church because the institution as such has lost its meaning – people will go for special occasions only but select against church-going among choices due to a time constraint and no apparent evidence of attending church leading to better (or longer) life. But does this mean that they do not believe in God? Perhaps not, perhaps the church as an institution has lost its appeal and religion has become more individual and less attached to a building or a priest etc. I know many Danish people who believe in some kind of divine force, yet they do not formulate this in the sense of the bible literally and certainly do not see any connection between their beliefs and an old building – why would a church offer you more spirituality than other places etc? Some people, of course, also turn to online churces etc..

    My sense is that – at least in Denmark – the church as an institution has lost its appeal and relevance to most people. The void that the church filled in people´s lifes in the past can no longer be filled by the church – the value-added of spending time and effort going to church is less than the cost and so in a society driven by efficiency and time-constraints – people simply select against the church. BUT I am not sure this is equal to not being religious (or at least spiritual) – only people define and live out this spirituality differently in the modern world. (and yes I am saying implicitly that the US is not the modern world when it comes to spirituality and religion but this is a different discussion grounded in anthropology, history and political science, among other thins)..

  • 2. Cliff Grammich  |  20 January 2007 at 6:01 pm

    There are at least two broad competing theories used to explain differences in religiosity between the United States and the rest of (?) the modern world. One, as mentioned in an earlier post, is the market hypothesis (e.g., Finke and Stark). This suggests U.S. religion thrives more because there is a more free market for it here, and with no single state-preferred options, as in many European nations. The other (e.g., Inglehart and Norris) suggests higher inequality in the United States and a corresponding need for an institution to deal with the effects of this lead to higher religiosity. Some day I’d like to test these at the county level in the United States. Do counties with more vibrant religious “markets” or greater inequality have more religiosity? I’ve yet to think through how, if at all, either theory would affect religiosity of the professoriate. Anyway, I think proponents of the “inequality” thesis would agree with you that the United States hasn’t joined the “modern world” on these issues.

    I’m not broadly familiar with the literature on the effects of religiosity on health, but I’m not sure that I can agree that there is “no apparent evidence of attending church leading to better (or longer) life.” For example, work by Chris Ellison and his colleagues at UT-Austin has explored connections between religious involvement and risks of mortality in the United States, with particular focus on racial and ethnic minorities. They found a difference in life expectancy of seven to eight years between those who reported attending religious services more than once weekly and those who said they never attend, with even greater differences for African Americans. (See, for example, Research in Aging, 22(6):630-667). I suppose the result for African Americans may provide some support for a theory of religion as a compensation for inequality. I should add, however, that Ellison, with whom I’m pleased to be working on some projects, is skeptical about the “inequality leads to religiosity” hypothesis.

    I agree that decreases in worship service attendance or affiliation with a given religious body does not necessarily mean decreases in religiosity or spirituality. This is one of the points Mike Hout and Claude Fischer make in their analysis of the rise of the “nones,” claiming the rising proportion of persons claiming affiliation with no formal religious tradition has more to do with politics than piety (but see also remarks in an earlier post on how churches whose politics are seemingly opposed to their host counties haven’t necessarily suffered in recent decades).

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  20 January 2007 at 6:32 pm

    To what extent is religious belief part of a bundle of characteristics, i.e., a larger belief system or world view? Based on the information in your third bullet point above, the most devout disciplines are accounting, elementary education, finance, marketing, art, criminal justice, and nursing. Curiously, in the survey of academics’ political affiliations we reported on earlier finance, accounting, marketing, and nursing (but not education or art) are among the disciplines with the lowest Democrat-to-Republican ratio. Psychology and biology, the least devout, are high on the D-to-R scale. Do you suppose there’s a connection?

  • 4. Allen  |  20 January 2007 at 6:46 pm

    To sum it all up, and to enlighten those who just dont get it, just remember this: Greater is he that is in me, than he that is in the WORLD.

  • 5. Cliff Grammich  |  21 January 2007 at 5:57 am

    Good question on the connection between religion and politics. Yes, there is one. Gross and Simmons promise further analysis of the topic, but note that, “Whereas 36.5 percent of professors who are not born-again Christians can be classified as strong Democrats, this is true of only 13.2 percent of born-again Christians. Likewise, whereas only 13.3 percent of non-born-again Christians in the professoriate are Republicans of any stripe, this is true of 57.6 percent of born-again Christians. While some liberal born-again Christians can be found in the professoriate, the vast majority appear to be conservatives, at least as measured by party affiliation. Looking at religious belief more generally, we find that 90.1 percent of Republican professors say they believe in God, as compared to 42.6 percent of non-Republicans. This suggests that what conservative political presence there is in academe is very often bound up with religion.”

    I’ve never quite understood why the connection between “conservative” religion and modern Republicanism exists (or why it exists for some times and places but not others, contravening examples arguably including William Jennings Bryan or, more recently, that of religious African Americans in the United States), but that’s another topic for another time, I suppose . . .

  • 6. Bo  |  23 January 2007 at 2:43 am

    What do muslims in the US vote? Does this faith fall naturally somewhere on the R-D “!continuum”?

  • 7. Cliff Grammich  |  23 January 2007 at 10:23 am

    ProjectMAPS.com has some analyses of the Muslim vote, particularly its sharp shift toward the Democrats in recent years. I’m looking forward to reading Peter Skerry’s forthcoming research on this topic as well.

  • 8. Caiphen Martini  |  11 January 2010 at 12:55 am

    It’s all pretty clear. The more educated one is, the more atheistic one is.

    With the knowledge of the most proven scientific theory in all of human history, evolution, what job does God have to do?

  • 9. David Hoopes  |  11 January 2010 at 1:03 pm

    “This suggests that what conservative political presence there is in academe is very often bound up with religion.”

    Wouldn’t want to be “bound up with religion.”

    Telling choice of words.

  • 10. Ted Craig  |  11 January 2010 at 4:40 pm

    What I find interesting is the disciplines with the least faith aren’t the ones in direct competition with God (physics, biology, etc.) but the ones in direct competition with religion (psychology, economics, etc.).

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