This study has been online for more than a year, but it’s just been touted in two places: in an article at HuffPo by Ph.D. candidate Amarnath Amarasingham, and as a link at Templeton’s Big Questions Online site. Why the attention? Because the study, published in Sociology of Religion by Neil Gross at the University of British Columbia and Solon Simmons at George Mason University, supposedly shows that American professors are nowhere near as Godless as people think. That seems to hearten people who worry that American higher education is infested with nefarious atheists. Remember Elaine Ecklund’s palpable relief at her supposed demonstration that American scientists are also more religious than people think?
Actually, neither the authors nor Amarasingham (nor Ecklund, in her study) know what people think about the atheism of the professoriat. They cite no surveys of this nor give any data themselves. They merely assert that Americans think that professors are all raving atheists. And the data show that that’s not the case, though professors prove to be far less religious than the public at large.
The Gross and Simmons study has a long and boring introduction about the incursion of religion in American universities and of secularism in the faculty. And their study has a curious motivation: not to find out the degree of atheism among professors, but to show that it’s not pervasive.
Our aim in undertaking this largely descriptive endeavor is precisely to cast doubt on assumptions of faculty atheism, not because we ourselves have any interest in advancing a religious agenda, but because such assumptions have kept a range of important sociological questions—about the processes and mechanisms responsible for the distribution of religious views in academe, as well as about the potential consequences of religiosity for teaching, research, and other faculty attitudes—from being given the attention they deserve.
That’s just weird: no real science paper would have as its aim to demonstrate a certain phenomenon. Presumably studies like this are supposed to find the truth, not “cast doubt.” Well, maybe the authors are just guilty of hamhanded writing. What did they find? They surveyed 1417 professors at American colleges and universities (including junior colleges), sampling from a wide swath of disciplines. Here’s a precis:
- Among professors, 9.8% say “I don’t believe in God” (this compares to 3% among the public as a whole), 13.1% say “I don’t know whether there is a God” (4.1% of Americans as a whole). That makes 22.9% of the professoriat atheists or agnostics, compared to 7.1% of the public. In other words, in America irreligiosity is three times more pervasive among professors than among the public. To mitigate the sting of this statistic, Gross and Simmons aver that “skepticism is by no means the most common stance toward religion of professors.”
- The frequency of other beliefs among professors includes “I do believe in a higher power”, 19.2%; “I find myself believing in God some of the time”, 4.3%; “While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God,” 16.6%; and “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it,” 34.9% (2% gave no answer). The authors don’t compare this to beliefs among the public at large (they did no surveys of this group).
- The more “elite” the university, the more pervasive the unbelief. At “elite doctoral universities,” 36.5% of professors are agnostics or atheists, a figure that drops to 22.7% at “nonelite doctoral granting universities” and 15.3% at community colleges. Conversely, 44.5% of community-college professors have no doubt that God exists, compared to only 20.4% of professors at elite doctoral universities.
- As you might expect, the area of scholarship makes a big difference in the degree of belief. While only 6.1% of “health” professors were atheists or agnostics, this figure was 29.3% for humanities, 32.6% for computer science and engineering, 39.4% for social sciences, and a whopping 42.4% for physical and biological sciences. When disciplines were divided more finely, biologists and psychologists nearly tied as the most heathen, with 60.8% of biologists and 60.9% of psychologists being agnostics and atheists, though there were relatively fewer outright atheists among the biologists.
I’m not sure how much succor these data can provide to those who worry about the incursion of atheism into universities. Yes, about half the professors are still religious—though not among scientists—but who ever thought that we were all atheists?
Nevertheless, Gross and Simmons, in their discussion, are clearly heartened by the results, and just as clearly wanted to find a pro-religion result. What kind of “objective” study is that? They note at the end:
Whatever the outcome of these and other lines of future investigation, we have shown that religious believers are more common in the ranks of the American faculty than many strands of social-scientific analysis—and much popular discourse—would suggest.
And, at HuffPo, Amarasingham also breathes a sigh of relief:
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.
Never mind the three-times-greater irreligiosity among faculty than among the public, never mind the correlation of atheism and agnosticism with the quality of the institution: the faitheists and accommodationists can always spin the data to their liking so long as the correlation isn’t perfect and 100% of professors aren’t atheists. So much for the “science” of sociology!
Gross, N. and S. Simmons. 2009. The religiosity of American college and university professors. Sociology of Religion 70:101-129. doi:10.1093/socrel/srp026