How Secular are Academics?

Many people, especially among political conservatives, believe that most academics are secular, possibly even hostile to religion. However, a recent study of academics' religious beliefs by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research suggests otherwise (some of the study's results have already been cited in our discussion of supposed anti-religious bigotry in academia). It is indeed true, that academics are on average less religious than the general public. However, far more academics are religious believers than atheists or agnostics. The prevalence of religious belief in academia undercuts claims, such as Rick Hills', that "Secular academics typically do not know many religious believers — especially not many overly devout Christians — and their isolation leads to the most naively lurid fantasies about what religious belief entails." It also reinforces my argument that academics' unfavorable views of Evangelical Christians and Mormons are mostly due to hostility to these groups' conservative political ideologies rather than a generalized antagonism to religion as such.

The IJCR study shows that 66% of academics believe in God, while only 19% say that they don't. This is a fairly overwhelming majority of theists, even though smaller than the 93% of the general public who say they believe in God. Some 66% of academics (compared to about 85% of the general public) identify with a particular religious denomination such as Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, or Muslim. With the important exception of Evangelical Christians (33% of the general public, but only 11% of academics), most major religious groups are represented among academics in roughly the same or higher proportions as in the general public.

It is, of course, possible that many theistic academics are still "secular" in the sense that religion doesn't play an important role in their lives. However, the IJCR survey shows that 63% of academics say that religion is "very important" or "somewhat important" to them. This is a lower figure than the 85% of the general public who fall into these two categories, but still suggests that religious belief is important to a large majority of academics. Further, 44% of academics say they attend religious services at least once per month (compared to 56% of the general public), and 73% of academics (compared to 86% of the general public) want their children to receive religious training.

Moreover, the gap between the general public's religiosity and that of academics may be smaller than it appears. Members of the general public are probably more likely to overstate their religiosity in surveys than are academics. There is a great deal of prejudice against atheists and agnostics in the general population, with some 50% of the public believing that it is impossible for one to be "moral" or have "good values" without believing in God. In academia, by contrast, the IJCR survey found that only 18% of faculty have a "cool" or "unfavorable" view of atheists (compared to about 50% of the general public who expressed similar "unfavorable" views of atheists in other surveys). Thus, there is much less incentive for academic atheists to hide their beliefs than for those in the general public to do so. There is also less incentive for academic theists to exaggerate their religiosity, church attendance, etc., than for those in the general population. But although academics are far more tolerant of atheists than is the general public, the overwhelming majority are not atheists themselves.

Like many other studies, the IJCR survey finds that academics differ enormously from the general public in their political orientation, with academics being far more left-wing. That is where most of the really important attitudinal differences between academia and the general public lie.