10/06/2010 10:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are American College Professors Religious?

Many sociologists of religion, as well as the general public, seem to take for granted the causal relationship between higher education and the decline of religion. The more educated someone becomes, the theory goes, the less religious they are likely to be. As European and American universities broke free from the control of the church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science and the scientific worldview arose to become the prime competitor to religious authority. With this historical trend, it was assumed that those who occupy these elite places of learning would also shed the trappings of irrational religious belief. However, more and more sociological evidence reveals that this may not be the case.

In a recent article published in Sociology of Religion, sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons use data from a new, nationally representative survey of American college and university professors to test the long-running assumption that higher education leads to irreligiousness. Based on their research, they argue that "while atheism and agnosticism are much more common among professors than within the U.S. population as a whole, religious skepticism represents a minority position, even among professors teaching at elite research universities." This has been a long-running debate amongst those who study religiosity in higher education and pay attention to trends in societal secularization.

Gross and Simmons worked with a sample size of 1,417 professors, providing an approximate representation of the more than 630,000 professors teaching full-time in universities and colleges across the United States. It should be noted that they limited their study to professors who taught in departments granting an undergraduate degree. As such, professors teaching in medical faculties and law schools were not part of the sample.

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.

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.

Gross and Simmons also attempted to discover the proportion of professors who think of themselves as religiously progressive, moderate, or traditional. They found that professors in the social sciences and humanities are more than twice as likely identify themselves as religiously progressive (32.5 percent and 35 percent, respectively), while a larger number of physical and biological scientists see themselves as moderate (32.2 percent) as opposed to progressive or traditionalist.

The research also describes the religious affiliation of professors in the United States: 37.9 percent can be classified as Protestant, 15.9 percent identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and 9 percent as "Other Christian." Jewish professors make up about 5.4 percent of the sample, and 2.6 percent are Muslim. Overall, 18.6 percent stated that they were "born-again Christians." Around 46 percent of professors who identified themselves as "traditionalist" were also born-again Christians. Although, as noted above, 51.5 percent of professors say they believe in God, 31.2 percent claim to have no religious affiliation. In other words, they don't belong to any particular religion, but still believe in a higher power.

Professors in the United States also have a complex understanding of the Bible. According to Gross and Simmons, only 5.7 percent said that the Bible was the "actual word of God." In contrast, 48.3 percent answered that the Good Book was an "ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts," and 39.5 percent note that it is the "inspired word of God."

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.