Academics and Religions

By Sean Carroll | June 20, 2008 4:31 pm

The Volokh Conspiracy is ruminating over why so many academics are hostile to some religions rather than others. Todd Zywicki cites data:

According to a study by the Institute of Jewish and Community Research, 53% of professors have an unfavorable view of Evangelical Christians but only 3% have an unfavorable view of Jews. A summary of the study is here. 33% have unfavorable views of Mormons. Muslims, Atheists, and Catholics all score in double-digits.

He goes on to express his astonishment…

It is almost impossible to imagine any identifiable group of Americans today who would hold such a reflexively negative view of other groups of Americans. I can’t imagine that any degree of racial bigotry by any group toward any other group would even approximate this degree of bigotry and prejudice.

Until, of course, his commenters point out an inconvenient fact: this “prejudice” pales next to that against atheists.

Co-blogger Ilya Somin then chimes in with a theory — it’s all just bias against conservatives.

Overall, I think the data confirm my theory that most academics are not hostile to religion as such, but merely to those religious groups that they perceive (for the most part correctly) as politically conservative.

The study Todd cites shows that 53% of academics have an “unfavorable” view of Evangelical Christians and 33% say the same of Mormons. By contrast, only 13% have an unfavorable view of Catholics and 3% towards Jews. As Todd points out, Evangelical Christians and and Mormons are generally seen as politically conservative, while Jews tend to be liberal, and Catholics somewhere in between. Todd may well be right that academics’ views of Evangelicals and Mormons are based on stereotypes rather than personal experience. However, the stereotype that these groups tend to be politically conservative is actually correct.

I have a different theory. What if academics had an unfavorable view of evangelicals and Mormons, and a generally favorable view of Catholics and Jews, because of how those groups view academia? Crazy, I know, but bear with me here. Catholicism and Judaism, whatever their other faults, have long traditions of valuing learning and scholarship, while Mormonism and evangelical Christianity … not so much. (Those are wild generalizations, of course, but the trends are clear.) Perhaps these unfavorable views are not actually prejudices at all, but informed opinions based on empirically verifiable realities?

Just a theory.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Religion
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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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