See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

6. An Educated Opinion

Faculty Beliefs and the Role of Religion in Teaching

In 1916, as belief in scientific reasoning took hold across America, the psychologist James Leuba published a survey on whether scientists believed in God and immortality. His findings – that 60 percent of scientists surveyed did not – raised the specter among certain politicians and conservatives that the morality of the country was at risk. Leuba predicted that education in general – and scientific education in particular – would lead to a serious decline in organized religion.  

In one sense, Leuba’s predictions were not far off. Scientists, as well as university professors at large, practice religion far less than the general population. This is due not only to the rational, universalistic thinking required in the scientific realm, but also to the institutionalization of academic freedom and the complex relationship of church and state on college campuses over the course of the twentieth century.

Recent research in this area suggests, however, that to paint scientists as entirely agnostic or atheist is inaccurate. Eighty years after Leuba’s pathbreaking work, historian Edward Larson and writer Larry Witham decided to replicate the study. To their surprise, the proportion of scientists surveyed who professed belief “in a personal God and an afterlife” has not changed.

“Traditional western theism has not lost its place among U.S. scientists, despite their intellectual preoccupations with material reality,” conclude Larson and Witham in a 1997 article in Nature magazine.

Larson and Witham’s findings, which surveyed American scientists in general, appear to parallel the results of studies that focus on university professors in particular. University at Buffalo (SUNY) professor Elaine Ecklund, who conducted extensive research on the religious and spiritual beliefs of natural and social science faculty at 21 U.S. elite research universities, notes that many academic scientists demonstrate a strong interest in spirituality.

“When asked, ‘To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person,’ about 66 percent of the natural scientists and about 69 percent of the social scientists describe themselves as spiritual,” Ecklund says. “This means there is a population of scientists who say they have no religious affiliation but who do see spirituality as important.”

While there is substantial religiosity and spirituality among college faculty, those faculty members who are religious tend to have less conservative or traditional theological views. For many scientists, interest in spirituality appears to be a way for them to pursue questions of meaning and purpose apart from a traditional religious setting.  Very few faculty are Biblical literalists, born-again Christians, or self-identified religious “traditionalists.” according to researchers Gross and SimmonsHalf of all faculty (and 75% of faculty at elite institutions) believe the Bible to be an “ancient book of fables.”

But there are important differences between community college and elite research faculty in terms of the content of their belief: community college faculty are three times as likely to believe the Bible to be the actual word of God, only half as likely to believe that prayer does not belong in public schools, and six times more likely to believe intelligent design to be a serious scientific alternative to evolution, according to researchers Gross and Simmons.  

Perhaps the most vital question in this context is how faculty members actualize their beliefs in the college environment. How do faculty beliefs get translated into interactions with students in the classroom?

Ecklund’s research found that entrenched cultural norms discourage discussions of religion, especially at elite and public institutions. Less than a quarter of elite scientists surveyed believed that scholars in their field held a positive attitude toward religion, for instance, and faculty at public colleges are far less likely than their peers in Catholic or other religious colleges to believe that spirituality has a place in their teaching or in their curriculum.

Faculty religious beliefs may also remain in the background because they are not seen as central to the tasks of educators.

Another detailed study by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that well over half of faculty profess belief in God, and an additional 20% claim to believe in “a Higher Power of some kind.” The study also notes that two in five report attending a religious service at least once a month. And a national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute in 2006 found that nearly two-thirds of faculty consider themselves to be at least somewhat religious, and over four in five consider themselves to be spiritual.

Although religion among professors has been somewhat underestimated, the fact that they are still on the whole less religious than the general U.S. population could create friction between devout students and their less religious faculty counterparts, say Gross and Simmons.

“In the context of growing pressures on young people to go to college and the ongoing political mobilization of conservative Christians,” they caution, “we should expect continued conflict in the years to come between the forces of religious conservatism and the institution of the American university.”

Further Reading:

Ecklund, E. and C. Scheitle. 2005. “Religious Differences between Natural and Social Scientists: Preliminary Results from a Study of ‘Religion among Academic Scientists’ (RAAS).” Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Edwards, M. U. 2006. A Professor’s Guide to Communities, Conflicts, and Promising Conversations. New York: Palgrave.

Higher Education Research Institute. 2006. Spirituality and the Professoriate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles.

Larson, E. J. and L. Witham. 1997. “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith.” Nature 386: 435-436.

Larson, E. J. and L. Witham. 1998. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature 394: 313.

Schmalzbauer, J. 2003. People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Sterk, A., ed. 2002. “Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Prospects.” Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.