Belief in God affects our lives. It changes what we do, why we do things, who we connect with, how we explain the world, and so many other things.
It’s worth asking if college and university professors believe in God. For better or worse, professors are thought-leaders in society (despite the fact that we hide our research in obscure, peer-reviewed journals). Professors are also educators. We tell young people how the world works. Though we rarely lecture on God explicitly, our assumptions about God—and spirituality and religion—leak through in our self-presentation. Students figure us out. And professors regulate access to the academy. Who hires new professors? Old professors. Professors, like most everyone else, prefer to be around people with similar beliefs. So, professors hire people who have similar worldviews, and this can include beliefs about God and religion (as evidence).
To know if professors believe in God, we can turn to Neil Gross and Solon Simmons’ 2009 study “The Religiosity of American College Professors.” They surveyed over 1,400 professors from colleges and universities nationwide. Their survey included a question about belief in God. It was the same question used in General Social Survey (GSS), thus allowing us to directly compare professors to the general population.
In the general population, a full 65% of adults over 30 believed in God with no doubt. (This was from 2004-2008). In contrast, only 36% of professors did. Likewise, 10% of professors didn’t believe in God, and 13% reported not knowing whether there is a God. In the general population, only 3% of people report not believing and only 4% report not knowing. Thus while many professors have some belief in God, they are much less likely to believe than people who are not professors.
Why so much difference in belief? As with most correlations, it is open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps people who go to graduate school, to become professors, are less religious to begin with. Maybe they are drawn to the secular-liberal culture of most universities. Maybe they are the kind of people focus on observable, natural phenomenon rather than the supernatural. Or perhaps the academy discourages God believers from entering. And, if they do get in, maybe they are pressured to change their beliefs. There is certainly no shortage of anti-God, anti-religion rhetoric in the university.
Gross and Simmons also examined how belief in God varied by academic discipline. Some disciplines, like psychology and biology, had almost two-thirds of professors who were atheists or agnostics. Other disciplines, such as finance, criminal justice, and English, had fewer (though still far more than the general population). There’s no clear pattern—at least that I can see—as to which disciplines have the most unbelievers. In fact, Gross and Simmons found no significant difference in God-beliefs between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences.
The fact that fewer professors believe in God is no surprise to those of us who attend or work at a secular university. It’s why we often seek out other believers for support. Still, we can find some faculty who believe in God. And, the diversity in God-beliefs at the university makes it an even more interesting place to be.