Not So Godless After All

Believers outnumber atheists and agnostics, survey finds, and many professors regularly attend religious services.
October 9, 2006

Listen to many critics of higher education, and you would think that faith had been long ago banished from the quad -- or at least all those quads not at places like Notre Dame or Liberty or Yeshiva.

It turns out though, that there are plenty of believers on college faculties. Professors may be more skeptical of God and religion than Americans on average, but academic views and practices on religion are diverse, believers outnumber atheists and agnostics, and plenty of professors can be found regularly attending religious services.

These are some of the findings of a national survey of professors at all types of institutions, conducted for a presentation sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. The survey was conducted and analyzed by two sociologists, Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University.

In March, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles released a study indicating that more than 80 percent of college professors consider themselves spiritual. The new study focuses more on religious belief -- whether professors believe in God, attend services, etc., and how they classify themselves within their faiths.

On the question of belief in God, the study notes the "common perception" that professors are atheists and suggests that this view is simply not true. The following statistics show how professors aligned themselves:

Professors and Belief in God

Positions of Belief % of Professors
I don't believe in God. 10.0%
I don't know whether there is a God and I don't believe there is any way to find out. 13.4%
I don't believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind. 19.6%
I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others.    4.4%
While I have my doubts, I feel that I do believe in God. 16.9%
I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it. 35.7%

While the study found no sector of higher education without believers, there are significant differences by type of institution and discipline. Faculty members at religious colleges made up about 14 percent of the sample in the survey and they were more likely to believe in God. While 52 percent of professors in non-religiously affiliated colleges believe in God either despite doubts or without doubt, 69 percent of those at religious colleges feel that way. Professors are most likely to be atheists or agnostics at elite doctoral institutions (37 percent) and less likely to be non-believers at community colleges (15 percent).

In terms of disciplines, professors in psychology and biology are the least likely to believe in God (about 61 percent in each field are atheists or agnostics), with mechanical engineering not far behind at 50 percent. Professors most likely to say that they have no doubt that God exists are in accounting (63 percent), elementary education (57 percent), finance (49 percent), marketing (47 percent) and nursing (44 percent).

The survey found a "surprisingly high" proportion -- 19 percent -- of the professoriate that identifies as "born-again Christian," and they are not restricted to religious colleges. While very few professors (about 1 percent) have this identity at elite doctoral institutions, the share at secular institutions over all is 17 percent.

Professors are much less likely than members of the public to see the Bible as the literal word of God, but many academics do see the Bible as having been inspired in some way by God. Six percent of professors view the Bible as the "word of God," 52 percent see it as "an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts," and 42 percent see it as "the inspired word of God."

The authors of the report note that Americans tend to over-report their attendance at religious services. But comparing data on the general public and professors, the authors write that significant numbers of academics do attend services regularly -- even if they represent a slightly smaller share than that of the general public with this inclination. Asked whether they attend services once a month or more, 49 percent of all Americans and 40 percent of professors said Yes. Professors at elite doctoral institutions were the least likely so have that answer.

While professors' responses indicated that they do take religion more seriously than their stereotype, they are likely to take positions counter to those of the religious right on some issues that involve the intersection of faith and politics. For example, 75 percent oppose religion in the public schools in the form of school prayer. And just over 84 percent disagree with a statement that intelligent design is a "serious scientific alternative" to evolution.

In their paper, Gross and Simmons write that their findings challenge a widely held narrative of the history of American higher education. From Harvard's founding in 1636, that story is one of religious institutions or ideas (Harvard was founded to train ministers) gradually becoming secular. It's not that Harvard (and many other institutions) haven't in fact abandoned their ties to religious groups or changed them, Gross and Simmons write. But the simple way that story is told -- particularly by those criticizing higher education -- "ignores many points of historical ambiguity, tension and conflict."

They write that their research suggests a need for more study of the differing attitudes about religion in subgroups of academe: the relatively more secular elite universities and the relatively more religious community colleges.

In addition, they write that having established that many professors do take religion seriously, it's time to study what that really means. "The fact that a higher proportion of professors are religious than the usual story of academic secularization would have us believe suggests that we need more research on the causal impact of professors' religious value commitments on the formation of their ideas," they write.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top