The Professoriate: Surprisingly Religious

Among the non-academic public, there is a general perception that university professors are irreligious.  As someone who has long been in and around academics, I have shared this perception and commented on it just the other day.  The actual numbers, it turns out, tell a different and surprising story.

In a recent article, Amarnath Amarasingam discusses “The Religiosity of American College and University Professors” — a survey of 1,419 academics published in Sociology of Religion (2009) by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons.  As it turns out, professors are not quite so irreligious as many have assumed:

According to their study 51.5 percent of professors, responding to the question of whether they believe in God, chose the response, “While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God,” or the statement, “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.”

While atheists and agnostics in the United States make up about 3 and 4.1 percent of the population, respectively, the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism was much higher among professors: 9.8 percent of professors chose the statement, “I don’t believe in God,” while another 13.1 percent chose, “I don’t know whether there is a God.”

In other words, religious skepticism is much more common among professors than in the general American population. However, the majority are still believers.

Over fifty percent of professors believe in God and slightly less than ten percent do not believe in God!  These are surprising numbers, and should provide comfort to religious parents who worry they are delivering their children to the devil when packing them off for college.

Parents should worry, however, if their children major in psychology, biology, or (amazingly) mechanical engineering:

How do these numbers break down by discipline? Gross and Simmons explore how belief in God is distributed among the 20 largest disciplinary fields.

In terms of atheists, professors of psychology and mechanical engineering lead the pack with 50 percent and 44.1 percent respectively. Amongst biologists, 33.3 percent were agnostic and 27.5 percent were atheist. Interestingly, 21.6 percent of biologists say that they have no doubt that God exists.

In contrast, 63 percent of accounting professors, 56.8 percent of elementary education professors, 48.6 percent of finance professors, 46.5 percent of marketing professors, 45 percent of art professors, and 44.4 percent of both nursing professors and criminal justice professors stated that they know God exists.

The numbers for psychologists are much closer to what I have always assumed about the professoriate in general.  Amarasingam finds the biology numbers “interesting,” as do I.  Evolution apparently plays two ways for biologists — it leads 27.5% to atheism and a not dissimilar number, 21.6%, to undoubted theism.  This does not surprise me.

A deep knowledge of evolution can induce a sense of awe and wonder that fits easily with belief in an all powerful prime mover or creator.  John Haught at Georgetown is a prominent advocate of this idea and has written several excellent books about it.

As for the groups of professors with the highest rates of undoubted belief in God — accounting, education, finance, marketing, marketing, nursing, criminology — I also find the numbers unsurprising.  These are fairly practical trade disciplines not much concerned with troubling questions about ultimate origins or explanations.

In the end, this means there is no simple correspondence between having a PhD and belief-disbelief in God.  Amarasingam sums things up nicely:

What all of these data make clear, and future studies are sure to further complicate, is that the simplistic association of “intelligent” with “atheist” is not backed by the evidence. “Our findings call into question the long-standing idea among theorists and sociologists of knowledge that intellectuals, broadly construed, comprise an ideologically cohesive group in society and tend naturally to be antagonistic toward religion,” write Gross and Simmons.

The idea that “the worldview of the intelligentsia is necessarily in tension with a religious worldview, is plainly wrong.” In contrast, the evidence seems to suggest that instead of leaving religion behind, the intelligentsia, like the rest of society, rationally wrestle with ideas, scientific and religious, and attempt to find answers to the big questions that plague us all.

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