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  • 1. Sociology of Religion 2009, 70:2 101-129 doi:10.1093/socrel/srpO26 Advance Access Publication 29 May 2009 The Religiosity of American College and University Professors* Neil Gross University of British Columbia Solon Simmons George Mason University For more than a century most U.S. colleges and universities have functioned as secular institutions. But how religious are American college and university faculty in their personal lives? We answer this question by analyzing data from a new, nationally representative survey of the American pro- fessoriate. Contrary to the view that religous skepticism predominates in the academy, we find that the majority of professors, even at elite research institutions, are religious believers. We go on to examine the distribution of faculty religiosity across institutions, fields, and other variables, and identify a number of issues that future research-sensitive to the fact that religious faith and aca- demic life, at least in the American context, are by no means mutually exclusive-should take up. Key words: religion, professors, secularization, atheism, agnosticism Few topics have attracted as much attention from sociologists of religion in recent years as the fate of secularization theory, the paradigm that dominated thinking in the subfield in the 1960s and 1970s (Tschannen 1991; Sherkat and Ellison 1999). Inherited from Comte, Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, seculariza- tion theory, as formulated by Berger (1969), Luckmann (1967), Martin (1978), and others, posited an association between modernization and the withering away of religious institutions and belief. Although research shows that nation- states with advanced capitalist economies do tend to evidence lower levels of religious belief and participation than agrarian societies (Norris and Inglehart 2004; Crockett and Voas 2006), recognition over the last two decades of *Direct correspondence to Neil Gross, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia, 6303 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver, Canada BC V6T IZI. E-mail: ngross@ Names are listed in alphabeticalorder only; this is an equal collaboration. For their comments on earlier drafts we thank Mark Chaves, Elaine Ecklund, DouglasJacobsen, Mark Regnerus, John Schmalzbauer, and Christian Smith. The Author 2009. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: 101
  • 2. 102 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION continuing high levels of religiosity in the United States (Greeley 1989; Emerson and Hartman 2006) and in a number of other, structurally similar societies, and of the degree to which battle lines in many geopolitical and domestic struggles remain drawn around religion, has led to an outpouring of theoretical and empirical work questioning and rethinking secularization theory (e.g., Warner 1993; Casanova 1994; Chaves 1994; Yamane 1997; Berger 1999; Stark and Finke 2000; Chaves and Gorski 2001; Gorski 2003a; Smith 2003) and exploring the role of religion in arenas of modem social life long thought destined for rationalization and an evacuation of the sacred. One such arena is higher education. Although secularization theorists, clas- sical and postclassical, disagreed as to the full set of mechanisms by which modernization would bring about religious decline, most shared the view that the growth of science and higher education represented one such mechanism. For them, the breaking free of the European and American university from church control in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not simply an effect of already ongoing processes of secularization, or of more general ten- dencies toward institutional differentiation, but was also an important contri- butor to secularization inasmuch as the scientific worldview associated with the university became the preeminent form of cultural authority to compete with religion (Smith 2003). This interpretation was consistent with that offered by many sociologists and historians of higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, who depicted the turn of the twentieth-century American "academic revolu- tion" (Jencks and Riesman 1968), involving the professionalization of the pro- fessoriate and the institutionalization of academic freedom, as a triumph of science and Enlightenment ideals over religious dogmatism (e.g., Hofstadter and Metzger 1955; Veysey 1965; for discussion see Hart 1999; Smith 2003). In light of the reformulations of secularization theory now taking place, scholars have begun to reexamine the decoupling of higher education and reli- gion. On the one hand, sociologists and historians have written revisionist his- tories that show the dependence of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century on religious authority (Shapin 1996; also see Merton 1973), the degree to which Protestant ideals continued to inform scientific investigation and the curriculum in American universities in the early years of the twentieth century (Marsden 1994), and that the decline of religious authority in American higher education was not a matter of historical inevitability, but the result of collective action by committed secularizers taking advantage of opportunities to effect institutional change (Smith 2003). On the other hand, sociologists studying the current American scene have noted that while in general exposure to higher education is associated with somewhat less-and less traditional forms of-religiosity (Johnson 1997; but see Uecker, Regnerus, and Vaaler 2007), by no means is religion absent from college and university life. Some authors bemoan the fact that only in religiously affiliated colleges and universities can one find "God on the Quad" (Benne 2001; Riley 2005), but others see evidence of the religious engagement of many American
  • 3. RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN PROFESSORIATE 103 undergraduates (Cherry, DeBerg, and Porterfield 2001), and even a growth of "scholarship grounded in religion" in the humanities, social sciences, and other fields (Hart 1999; Wolterstorff 2002:3; Schmalzbauer 2003.) This paper extends the latter line of research by formulating a systematic empirical answer to a related question: How religious are American college and university professors in terms of their personal beliefs? Under the influence of secularization theory, sociologists and others have long assumed that professors in the modem era, as carriers of Enlightenment values and agents of secularization, would themselves tend 'to be religious skeptics. Analyzing data from a new, nationally representative survey of the American faculty, we show that more extreme forms of the assumption of widespread religious skepticism are incorrect. While atheism and agnosticism are much more common among professors than within the U.S. population as a whole, religious skepticism represents a minority position, even among professors teaching at elite research universities. We go on to examine how belief in God, views of the Bible, spiritual identity, religious orientation, and attendance at religious services are distributed across the profes- sorial population, focusing especially on field- and institution-level differences. Our aim in undertaking this largely descriptive endeavor is precisely to cast doubt on assumptions of faculty atheism, not because we ourselves have any interest in advancing a religious agenda, but because such assumptions have kept a range of important sociological questions-about the processes and mechanisms responsible for the distribution of religious views in academe, as well as about the potential consequences of religiosity for teaching, research, and other faculty attitudes--from being given the attention they deserve. We begin our discussion by reviewing the literature on religion and the American professoriate; move on to discuss our methods and findings; and conclude by considering the impli- cations of our study for future research. RELIGION AND THE AMERICAN PROFESSORIATE Research on the religiosity of American professors has been limited. What work has been done revolves around four themes: the growth of the research university, changes in the ethno-religious composition of the professoriate, secularism and intellectualism, and religion and contemporary campus life. The CTrowth of the Research University As many historians have noted, the growth of the American research uni- versity around the turn of the twentieth century involved, inter alia, a severing of ties between institutions of higher education and the religious denomina- tions that had founded and supported them. "For the better part of a millen- nium" before that, a close connection had existed between "Christianity and higher education" (Marsden and Longfield 1992:4). Although the boom in European university foundings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
  • 4. 104 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION coincided with the rise of the early modem state (Gorski 2003b) and saw state authorities attempting to harness the institution for their own ends, "the state never acquired exclusive jurisdiction in relation to the universities" (Hammerstein 1995:122), where Church control remained entrenched, theol- ogy was preferred to science, and students and faculty were expected to demon- strate piety. The intellectual latitude offered to faculty members differed between Cathol

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