Rick Hills (PrawfsBlawg) writes:

Just a few days ago, I was discussing a mutual friend with a former colleague. The latter was astonished by our mutual friend’s Christianity: “What’s up with that?!” he exclaimed, expressing bewilderment and even nervousness at the thought that a well-regarded -- indeed, by academic standards, famous -- professor could believe in the existence and beneficence of an omniscient and omnipotent God. If was as if our Christian friend had declared that the world was flat or was dabbling in alchemy. My former colleague even worried that, if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.

Hills goes on to label this attitude "theophobia" and explain why he disagrees with it, among other things because "there is no obviously persuasive reason to believe that religious belief as such has any more harmful consequences than lack thereof."

Here's my quick thought on the subject: I tend to agree that fear of religious belief as such (as opposed to of specific religious beliefs) is probably unjustified, for the factual reasons Hills mentions.

But I take it that many irreligious people who are bewildered by others' religious beliefs aren't afraid of the beliefs so much as they find them factually unfounded — much like they would find beliefs in astrology, ghosts, werewolves, or for that matter the Greco-Roman pantheon to be factually unfounded. For that matter, I take it that even many Christian academics would disapprove, on empiricist rather than theological grounds, of those who say they believe in Zeus, Xenu, the Zodiac, or vampires. Why should we be surprised that irreligious academics would take the same view, but as to factual claims of the existence of God as well as to the other factual claims? (Note that there were some very interesting responses to these arguments in the comments to this post of ours from late 2005.)

This is especially so as to beliefs "in the existence and beneficence of an omniscient and omnipotent God." So perhaps what Prof. Hills is seeing is more disapproval of those who are seen as unduly willing to believe in what the disapproving person sees as fairy tales, rather than disapproval of those who are seen as morally or practically threatening.

Academics and Hostility to Religion:

Rick Hills claims that many academics have an "irrational fear of, or intense discomfort around, theist and, in particular, Christian, beliefs," which he labels "theophobia." I don't doubt that there are some academics who hold such views. But I think that most seeming academic hostility to religion is actually hostility to the association between religiosity and conservatism in current American politics. Academics are overwhelmingly left-liberal and some of them are not particularly tolerant of right of center political views, whether religiously motivated or not.

Certainly, most liberal academics have no objection to religiosity when it is associated with political causes they support. Many liberal and leftist academics are sympathetic to "liberation theology" and other efforts to associate religion with left of center causes. Martin Luther King is a hero to most liberal academics even though he was a Christian minister. Barack Obama's open religiosity doesn't seem to have hurt his image among academics either. The late Robert Drinan was a prominent left-wing law professor and also an ordained Catholic priest. His religion doesn't seem to have attracted any significant academic hostility.

On the other side of the ledger, I know of a considerable number of conservative and libertarian academics - myself included - who are atheists or agnostics. As far as I can tell, the hostility that we sometimes encounter in the academic world because of our political views is not significantly reduced by our lack of religiosity.

While there are probably some academics who are hostile to religion as such independent of its perceived association with political conservatism, this is a relatively minor phenomenon. Certainly, such generalized "theophobia" among academics is far less common than is generalized hostility to atheism in the general public. For example, as I discussed in this article, some 51% of the general public believe that "[i]t is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values" and 50% would refuse to vote for a "well-qualifed" candidate for president nominated by their party if he were an atheist. By contrast, I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of academics believe that you have to be an atheist or agnostic to "be moral" or would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate of their party merely because he was a religious believer. Indeed, the vast majority of academics are going to support Obama this year, apparently unconcerned by his religious beliefs. Admittedly, I don't have systematic survey data on academics' attitudes on these points and so would welcome correction from anyone who does have such data. But these are my impressions on the basis of many years spent in the academic world, and acquaintance with a wide range of left of center academics.

Academia and Religion:

When it comes to the attitude of academics toward religion, I suspect that the truth is probably closer to the view articulated by Rick Hills or Ilya than to Eugene's more charitable view. In particular, what the data (and personal experience) indicate is that the views of academics toward religion is not uniform. In particular, academics have a highly negative view of Evangelical Christians and very little hostility to Jews.

According to a study by the Institute of Jewish and Community Research, 53% of professors have an unfavorable view of Evangelical Christians but only 3% have an unfavorable view of Jews. A summary of the study is here. 33% have unfavorable views of Mormons. Muslims, Atheists, and Catholics all score in double-digits. Who would've thought that 13% of academics have unfavorable views of Catholics?

Now let me say that again--53% of academics have an "unfavorable" view of Evangelical Christians. It is almost impossible to imagine any identifiable group of Americans today who would hold such a reflexively negative view of other groups of Americans. I can't imagine that any degree of racial bigotry by any group toward any other group would even approximate this degree of bigotry and prejudice. I also have to say that based on my personal observations this finding is completely plausible (note that it was a Jewish affairs organizaiton that conducted the study so one wouldn't expect that it had an axe to grind or was biased toward trying to find evidence of anti-Evangelical sentiment).

So what to make of this? Given that there are a divergence of views toward different subsets of religious groups, this does not seem to me to be consistent with Eugene's thesis that what is going on here is an incomprehension of a religious worldview. It is clear that bigotry toward Evangelicals and Mormons is much deeper than mainline protestants, Buddhists, and Jews. As Ilya suggests, it is likely that many academics simply know no Evangelicals (at least that they are aware of), so this seems to be pure bigotry based on some general prejudice. But I doubt many academics know many Buddhists either, yet very few hold negative perceptions of Buddhists. And I doubt that academics are any more informed about what "weird" views Buddhists hold than Mormons or Evangelicals. All of these views are based primarily on simple prejudice (in the descriptive sense) not on knowledge or experience.

So what about Ilya's thesis that religious bigotry is a proxy for political bigotry? There may be some truth to this. I suspect that Evangelicals and Mormons are generally perceived as political conservative and Jews are perceived as politically liberal. Other views, such as Catholics and Muslims, I suppose fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to such stereotypes. But I don't think this can explain it all either. For instance, I think that most academics are quite tolerant of conservative Jews. I also suspect that academics probably think that it is ok for blacks to be Evangelical or Southern Baptist, even if they dislike white Evangelicals. Ditto for other unusual religious groups, such as the Amish. My opinion on this score is based on hunch, not data, however, so I could be wrong--it may be that academics hate conservative Jews or black Southern Baptists as much as Evangelical Christians, but my instinct tells me that is not the case.

If that is true, then I think the answer must lie somewhere closer to Hills's thesis that what is really going on here is something closer to simple bigotry, hatred, or fear. The source of the bigotry, I suspect, is cultural in nature. Conservative Jews and black Southern Baptists are ok because their religion is seen as an extension of their cultural and ethnic background and academics look at those cultures through a multicultural mindset.

Moreover, I suspect that many academics would say that their negative stereotypes are justified because they have formed a perception that Christians are "hateful" people intent on imposing a theocracy on the United States. So they would say, "My hostility is based on their hostility, so it is fully justified."

Hills's experience reflects a really quite common mindset in my view. And the disbelief that is expressed is not that suggested by Eugene--"Really, how could he believe that?" What the disbelief suggests is, "Really, yet he seems like such a nice guy. How could he hold such [hateful] views?"

Finally, let me stress one final point--what is so surprising to me about all of this is that the views of academics toward Evangelicals and Mormons are likely based purely on stereotypes and ignorance. I doubt that many academics know any Evangelicals (that they are aware of) and few probably know many Mormons, nor do they likely have much but superficial knowledge about the views of many of these people.


A commenter notes that in the population at large there are subgroups who are also viewed unfavorably. Opinion polls show that indeed to be the case to some degree. According to this poll, atheists are viewed negatively by 45% of the population and scientologists by 52%. Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians are viewed negatively by 23-25% of the population at large.

I have updated the post to reflect this.


Some readers have taken issue with my use of the term "bigotry." I used that term to try to capture the flavor of the response that Rick Hills heard in his friend's remark--"the academic’s irrational fear of, or intense discomfort around, theist and, in particular, Christian, beliefs." The flavor of the remark is that the friend had a negative prejudice against Christians such that he or she was surprised to learn that the person in question was a Christian. This is functionally no different from meeting someone who is inconsistent with one's negative stereotypical prejudices of a racial or ethnic group. I think the correct word to apply to that prejudice is "bigotry," but if there is a different word, then please suggest the correct word. I think that the term must be freighted with greater normative implications than I intended, as I intended it to be used descriptively, not normatively.

More on Academics and Hostility to Religion:

In his excellent recent post, co-blogger Todd Zywicki cites some data that shed light on academics' attitudes towards different religious groups. Overall, I think the data confirm my theory that most academics are not hostile to religion as such, but merely to those religious groups that they perceive (for the most part correctly) as politically conservative.

The study Todd cites shows that 53% of academics have an "unfavorable" view of Evangelical Christians and 33% say the same of Mormons. By contrast, only 13% have an unfavorable view of Catholics and 3% towards Jews. As Todd points out, Evangelical Christians and and Mormons are generally seen as politically conservative, while Jews tend to be liberal, and Catholics somewhere in between. Todd may well be right that academics' views of Evangelicals and Mormons are based on stereotypes rather than personal experience. However, the stereotype that these groups tend to be politically conservative is actually correct. For example, a recent survey found that 47% of evangelicals describe themselves as "conservative," while only 14% call themselves "liberal." A Pew survey found that 72% of white Evangelicals voted for the Republicans in the 2006 congressional elections. The numbers for Mormons are similar (majority-Mormon Utah is perhaps the most reliably Republican state in the country).

With the exception of attitudes towards Evangelical Christians, the percentage of academics who view various religious groups unfavorable is actually similar to or lower than the percentages of the general public who feel the same way. For example, Todd expresses surprise that 13% of academics have an "unfavorable" view of Catholics. But a 2007 Pew Survey shows that 14% of the general public take the same view. The 33 percent of academics who have an unfavorable view of Mormons is only slightly higher than the 27% of the general public who gave the same answer in the Pew survey. And the Pew study shows that a much higher percentage the general public have an unfavorable view of Jews and Muslims than the percentage of academics who do so; 35 percent of the general public have an "unfavorable" view of Muslims and 9 percent have an unfavorable view of Jews. Among academics, the equivalent figures are 22% and 3%. The study Todd linked to also cites data showing that academics take a more favorable view of Buddhists than does the general public. The Pew study shows that 19% of the general public view Evangelical Christians unfavorably, which is of course a much lower figure than the 53% of academics who do so.

Thus, the evidence shows that those religious groups that are viewed more negatively by academics than the general public are the ones that are (for the most part correctly) viewed as politically conservative.

Todd nonetheless partially rejects my political bias theory of academic attitudes for the following reasons:

So what about Ilya's thesis that religious bigotry is a proxy for political bigotry? There may be some truth to this. I suspect that Evangelicals and Mormons are generally perceived as political conservative[s] and Jews are perceived as politically liberal. Other views, such as Catholics and Muslims, I suppose fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to such stereotypes. But I don't think this can explain it all either. For instance, I think that most academics are quite tolerant of conservative Jews. I also suspect that academics probably think that it is ok for blacks to be Evangelical or Southern Baptist, even if they dislike white Evangelicals.

My own experience is that politically conservative Jews are not viewed more favorably by liberal academics than are other conservatives. The reason why this doesn't translate into unfavorable attitudes towards Jews more generally is that conservative Jews are exceptional and also that most of them are not conservative because of their religious beliefs. By contrast, the majority of politically aware white Evangelicals and Mormons are conservative, and that conservatism is often at least partially dictated by their religious commitments. As for black Evangelicals and Baptists, the fact that academics may view them more favorably than whites of the same religion is entirely consistent with my theory. Black Evangelicals and Baptists tend to be liberal (or at least to vote Democratic), whereas white ones tend to be conservative Republicans. Politically conservative blacks, by contrast, are not popular in academia, whether they are religious or not. Although I don't have survey data to prove it, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is harder to be a conservative or libertarian black in academia than to be a white academic with similar views - perhaps because some leftists view black conservatives and libertarians as "traitors" to their racial group.

To say that academics' hostility to certain religious groups is based on political ideology is not to say that such hostility is justified. As a general rule, I don't think it's defensible to have a negative view of an entire religious group merely because the majority of its members disagree with you on political issues. Be that as it may, what we have here is more a case of political intolerance than religious bigotry. Significantly, the percentage of academics who have an unfavorable view of various religious groups is, in most cases, the same as or lower than the percentage of the general public who feel the same way.

Bill Stuntz on "Secular Universities and Evangelical Christians":

Bill Stuntz, a longtime member of evangelical churches, adds some thoughts based on his personal experience to our discussion on religion and the academy over at "Less Than the Least."

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.