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God And The U.S. Professoriate: Hostility Toward Evangelicals On Campus

May 30, 2007

A few weeks back I came across an interview that discussed faculty prejudice against Evangelicals in higher education. Published by the National Review online, the May 7, 2007 interview was between NRO editor Kathryn Lopez and Gary Tobin. Tobin is president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (IJCR). The IJCR had just completed research on this peculiar prejudice: their report is titled “Religious Beliefs and Behavior of College Faculty.”

The IJCR’s website links to another write-up about their results in the Washington Post. The Post article, written by Alan Cooperman, covers the IJCR study and another one conducted sociologists Neil Gross (Harvard) and Solon Simmons (of George Mason University).

Here are some pertinent statistics and observations from both studies and articles (bolds and italics are mine):

– 53% “of ‘non-evangelical university faculty say they hold cool or unfavorable views of Evangelical Christians‘ ” (NRO/IJCR, WP/Gross-Simmons);
– 71% “of the faculty who answered an online survey of 1,269 faculty members at over 700 four-year colleges and universities agreed with the statement: ‘This country would be better off if Christian fundamentalists kept their religious beliefs out of politics’ ” (NRO/IJCR);
– 38% “of faculty disagreed that the country would be better off if Muslims became more politically organized” (NRO/IJCR);
– ” ‘When we [IJCR] ask questions like this, we’re asking the respondent to say how they feel about an entire group of people, and whatever image they have of that entire group comes through,’ Tobin said. ‘There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice.’ Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed. What the poll reflects, he said, is ‘a political and cultural resistance, not a form of religious bias’ ” (WP);
– “Tobin asked professors at all kinds of colleges — public and private, secular and religious, two-year and four-year — to rate their feelings toward various religious groups, from very warm or favorable to very cool or unfavorable. He said he designed the question primarily to gauge anti-Semitism but found that professors expressed positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholics and most other religious groups” (WP, NRO);
– “Tobin . . . acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel” (WP);
– “College professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country’s 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic” (WP/Gross-Simmons);
– “Respondents were asked to select the statement that comes closest to expressing their views about God. Only 10.0 percent chose the statement, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ while 13.4 percent chose the statement, ‘I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out.’ About 23.4 percent of respondents to our survey, in other words, are either atheists or agnostics. This figure is much higher than for the U.S. population as a whole” (Gross-Simmons);
– “About 40 percent of community college professors and professors at four year schools say they have no doubt God exists, this is true for only about 20.4 percent of professors at elite doctoral institutions” (Gross-Simmons);
– “There is also significant variation on this question by disciplinary field. Looking at the top 20 BA granting fields, we find that atheists and agnostics are more common in some disciplines than others. Psychology and biology have the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, at about 61 percent. Not far behind is mechanical engineering, 50 percent of whose professors are atheists or agnostics. Behind that is economics, political science, and computer science, with about 40 percent of professors falling into this category” (Gross-Simmons);
– “At the other end of the spectrum, 63 percent of accounting professors, 56.8 percent of elementary education professors, 48.6 percent of professors of finance, 46.5 percent of marketing professors, 46.2 percent of art professors and professors of criminal justice, and 44.4 percent of professors of nursing say they have no doubt that God exists” (Gross-Simmons);
– “Beyond institutional and disciplinary location, who are the professors confident in God’s existence? The biggest group, comprising 27.3 percent of believers—those who say they believe in God despite occasional doubts or that they have no doubts—are Roman Catholics. 58.7 percent of believers are affiliated with a variety of other Christian denominations, with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus together composing less than 6 percent of believers” (Gross-Simmons);
– “Overall, a surprisingly high 18.8 percent of respondents to our survey said the term ‘born-again Christian’ describes them at least slightly well, and about a third of professors who believe in God are born-again Christians. Professors who are born-again are extremely rare at elite doctoral institutions, composing only about one percent of professors at such institutions, but they are not uncommon among community college professors and professors teaching at four year schools” (Gross-Simmons); and
– “If there is a single sociological lesson to be learned from American religious pluralism, it is that how one believes in God matters as much as whether one does. Beyond religious affiliation, we measure religious orientation with two questionnaire items: one on feelings toward the Bible, and another on approaches toward religious matters. Our general finding is that although many professors are religious, few are religious traditionalists” (Gross-Simmons).

And finally, on one of the biggest questions of all for Evangelicals:

– Gross-Simmons “asked respondents which statement comes closest to describing their feelings about the Bible:
* ‘The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word’;
* ‘The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word’; or
* ‘The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.’
– “When last asked on the 2000 version of the GSS [General Social Survey of the U.S. population at large], 30 percent of respondents (13 percent of the college educated) chose ‘actual word of God,’ 49.2 percent (56.8 percent of the college educated) said ‘inspired word,’ while 17.5 percent (25.9 percent of the college educated) said ‘ancient book of fables.’ “
– “On this matter, divergences between professors and the general population are stark, as one might expect given that the culture of academe encourages professors to take a historical and critical view of texts. Only 6.1 percent of respondents to our [professor] survey said the Bible is the ‘actual word of God,’ with 51.6 percent describing it as ‘an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.’ About 42 percent of respondents are of the view that the Bible is ‘the inspired word of God.’ “
– “Here again differences are evident by type of institution, with community college professors three times as likely to subscribe to the ‘actual word of God’ position, and 72.9 percent of professors at elite doctoral universities taking the ‘ancient book of fables’ view.”


So what’s to be made of this? Why do people care about the professoriate’s collective belief in God?

I see this as a class issue in disguise. How? Do pollsters, for instance, receive demands for assessments of the working-class’s collective belief in God? I don’t think so, but I can’t say for sure. I can’t recall seeing any recent assessments of that nature, but they surely exist. Do sociologists assume that working-class belief in God is high? I’d love to see a breakdown like the Gross-Simmons one above for the U.S. working class. But even if those studies exist, do they receive the same attention in the popular press? I don’t think so. Why?

I think one reason centers on the question of leadership. I imagine that concern for the professoriate’s collective belief in God similar to concerns about politicians’ beliefs. If so, then pollsters and sociologists, either from themselves or by demand, are likely concerned about the leadership class in the United States

I recall historical arguments to the effect that questions about Evangelicalism are also class issues. I admit that no particular studies come to mind when I say this, although perhaps a Mark Noll book or article is in the back of my mind.

What do you think is driving this concern? How does it all matter? Do the numbers about the professoriate’s beliefs really indicate hostility toward Evangelicals? Do professors look down their noses at those “silly” believers, or are Evangelicals, in turn, hostile toward agnostic and atheist professors? Who’s to blame if hostility exists? – TL


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  1. I think we see once again the class distinctions in academia–the differences in confirmed belief in god between community college profs and elite research institutions are striking. These cultural distinctions matter, because they set the agenda for “professional” organizations such as the AHA and OAH, which are dominated by research institution profs, who receive the support necessary to join and travel to these conferences.

    The results also seem to suggest that institutional Catholicism is the most successful national space where religion is respected.

    I was dissapointed by the lack of geographical breakdown. Recently, I went through the faculty of Jerry falwell's Liberty University History department. Going from memory (so I might not be 100% accurate), there were at most 2 of the 15 or so faculty members whose PhDs were awarded from institutions not located in the states of the Confederacy, and at least 5 (if not more) of the faculty members had done at least some of their post-secondary work at a “bible college” “seminary” or the like. That's significantly different than even such bastions of Catholicism such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Boston College. This kind of insularity may be why Evangelicals are not trusted by the professoriat; it is similar to what was saida bout institutions of Catholic higher education several generations ago.

    I think the real conclusion is that the “elite” has always had different religious beliefs than everyone else, but also that entry into the “elite” is not permantly barred.


  2. CM: If you haven't done this already, you might check the Gross-Simmons study for geographical breakdowns. I selectively buzzed that report for the post, so the information you want may be there. That said, I feel like your unofficial Liberty assessment is probably accurate. – TL


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