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Religious Commitment in Academia: Political Scientists Stand Out

- January 21, 2008

The true scientist is, religiously speaking, non- or even anti-religious. That, at least, is starting point for many discussions of the interplay, and often the tension between, science and religion. A recent (2005) survey of academicians in seven natural and social science disciplines (political science, economics, psychology, sociology, biology, chemistry, and physics) at elite U.S. universities casts new light on scientists’ religious views.

Among the findings from this survey, undertaken by Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo, and Christopher P. Scheitle, a Penn State doctoral student in sociology, and reported in a recent issue of Social Problems (abstract here), several stand out.

* Overall, those polled in the survey were less likely than Americans in general to place themselves in any religious affiliation category. In a recent General Social Survey, just 14% of Americans chose “none” from the menu of affiliation alternatives. But that was the self-placement category selected by 52% of the academicians. (The only other category in which the proportion of academicians surpassed that of the general public was Jewish, where academicians outran Americans in general by 15% to 2%.) By this benchmark, then, academicians clearly are an irreligious bunch.

* Agreement that “There is very little truth in any religion” averaged 23% across the disciplines, ranging from a low of 15% in political science to a high of 33% in physics.”

* Similarly, political scientists were at the low end (this time along with chemists), at 27%, in acceptance of the statement “I do not believe in God.” Again, physicists were most likely to be non-believers (41%).

* To some extent, the differences across disciplines reflected differences in the types of individuals who go into, say, physics, as opposed to those who become, say, political scientists. Even so, it wasn’t all self-selection. When the effects of various demographic characteristics were statistically controlled, political scientists in particular continued to stand out from members of the rest of the disciplines.

Among Ecklund and Scheitle’s conclusions:

bq. The findings presented here show that indeed academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are less religious than many of those in the general public … Assuming, however, that becoming a scientist necessarily leads to loss of religous commitment is untenable … Our results indicate that people from certain backgrounds (the non-religious, for example) disproportionately self-select into scientific professions. In contrast, being raised a Protestant and in a home where religion was very important, for example, leads to a greater likelihood that a scientist will remain relatively religious.

They also conclude that “The oft-discussed distinction between the natural and social science fields was inconsistent and weak,” but they don’t really try to account for the differences among disciplines that remained after other pertinent factors had been taken into account. Left dangling, then, is the question of why political scientists in particular stand out among academicians in terms of their level of religious commitment. In the realm of wild speculation, it occurs to me that most political scientists I’ve known are believers in the basic political pieties, and perhaps that mindset is a natural accompaniment to a broader worldview that also extends to, or perhaps extends from, the religious realm.