[Paleopsych] CHE: Religious Belief Is Found to Be Less Lacking Among Social Scientists

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Religious Belief Is Found to Be Less Lacking Among Social Scientists
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.8.15


    Is godlessness moving from one end of the campus to the other? Perhaps
    so, according to a new survey described here on Sunday at the annual
    meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. Scholars in
    the natural sciences, the study found, are now more likely to identify
    themselves as nonreligious than are their counterparts in the social

    The finding, which is based on a recent survey of 1,646 scholars at 21
    top-tier research universities, stands in counterpoint to several
    well-known studies from the mid-20th century, all of which found that
    social scientists were the least religious group on campus.

    The new study covers scholars in three natural-science fields
    (physics, chemistry, and biology) and four social sciences (sociology,
    economics, political science, and psychology). Among the natural
    scientists, 55.4 percent of the respondents identified themselves as
    atheists or agnostics. Only 47.5 percent of the social scientists said
    the same.

    The single most irreligious field covered in the study is biology, at
    63.4 percent. The least irreligious is economics, at 45.1.

    In the entire study, only two respondents -- both of them chemists --
    said that they agreed with the statement, "The Bible is the actual
    word of God and it should be taken literally." (Roughly a quarter of
    the respondents agreed with the statement, "The Bible is the inspired
    word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.")

    The study's authors -- Elaine Howard Ecklund, a postdoctoral fellow in
    sociology at Rice University, and Christopher P. Scheitle, a Ph.D.
    candidate in sociology at Pennsylvania State University -- are in the
    early stages of a large-scale project that will assess the spiritual
    practices and ethical beliefs of religious and nonreligious scholars
    in the seven fields.

    Ms. Ecklund said that she hoped to explore how both religious and
    nonreligious scholars "understand the relationships between religion
    and spirituality and such questions as how to develop a research
    agenda and how to make ethical decisions involving human subjects."

    Their project has been financed by a $283,000 grant from the John
    Templeton Foundation, a Philadelphia-based philanthropy that often
    supports studies of the intersection between religion and science.

    Ms. Ecklund and Mr. Scheitle conducted the survey in May and June, and
    they have only begun to analyze the data. Their project will also
    involve approximately 300 in-depth interviews with scholars who
    responded to the initial survey.

    In her presentation, Ms. Ecklund said that she strongly suspected that
    gender differences could explain the apparent shift of unbelief from
    the social sciences to the natural sciences.

    In contrast to the new survey, a well-known 1969 study by the Carnegie
    Commission on Higher Education found that scholars in the natural
    sciences were far more likely than social scientists to identify
    themselves as religious. Since then, however, women have entered the
    academy in large numbers -- and they have entered the social sciences
    at higher rates than the natural sciences. (In the new study, for
    example, only 16.7 percent of the natural scientists were women,
    compared with 27 percent of the social scientists.) Across the
    American population, Ms. Ecklund said, women are consistently more
    likely than men to say that they are religious. So, all else equal,
    women's greater presence in the social sciences might account for the
    fact that those fields are now less irreligious than their
    hard-science counterparts.

    Ms. Ecklund has not yet performed the statistical tests that might
    confirm or refute her gender hypothesis.

    In their paper, Ms. Ecklund and Mr. Scheitle write that they hope that
    their study, once completed, will "increase our overall knowledge of
    cognitive moral reasoning processes and the role of science in
    providing spiritual insights, even for scientists who are not part of
    an established religion and who do not study specifically religious

    In the new study, the proportion of nonreligious scholars is roughly
    consistent across all age groups: 52.3 percent of respondents younger
    than 36, for example, are nonreligious, compared with 54.2 percent of
    the respondents age 66 and older. The same is true of self-reported
    Protestants: Their proportions are roughly equal (around 17 percent)
    across all age levels.

    Self-reported Catholics, however, were much more prevalent among the
    younger academics: 11.2 percent of respondents under 36, but only 1.4
    percent of those over 65, said they were Catholic. The opposite trend
    was apparent among Jews: 21.1 percent of the oldest group, but only
    11.2 percent of the youngest, said they were Jewish.

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