Friday, January 19, 2007

Why are academics twice as likely to be atheists?

Robin Hanson asks the question, Tyler Cowen and Jane Galt pick up on it, but I alone have just written a paper on the topic of atheism in academia. This is no conincidence. All except Jane are professors of mine, as is Larry Iannaccone, who beat us all to the punch on the economics of religion.

Here are my comments posted at the other blogs:

The 1975 Carnegie Foundation National Survey of Higher Education revealed the same basic facts, especially that academics are twice as likely to be atheists. It also revealed that atheism is highest among social scientists, whereas "hard" scientists to not exhibit higher than average levels of atheism. I figure there are four ways to explain this:

1) Academics lack exposure to the business world, and are less moral because of it. Sounds harsh, but this is Adam Smith's idea.
2) Also from Adam Smith, academics are prone to group-think, and produce sciences which are "a mere useless and pedantick heap of sophistry and nonsense." Here, the bad science is the secularization thesis, which has dominated the study of religion for 100 years.
3) Academics seek fame more than fortune, and this is at odds with Christian theology.
4) Academics seek to persuade and influence society, partly because their minority views put them at a disadvantage. This applies to atheism as well as extreme political views.

I do find support for all of these. Let me know if you'd like to see the paper.

Addendum: More from Arnold Kling, and my posted comment:

I don't doubt there is a certain degree of socialization going on, but I still think selection explains most of it. If I'm recalling correctly, this is supported by Wuthnow's article "Science and the sacred" found in "The sacred in a secular age" edited by Phillip Hammond.

I'm going to go check that out again myself. There's a lot of good research on this summarized in that article.


KSoFM said...


Max said...

Okay, smartguy, I'll bite.

I have no problem with your central thesis, that economists are more likely than average to be atheists. Fine. But the four points you make to explain the phenomenon seem a bit flawed. As a matter of fact, the arguments you make to explain the atheism (and implied immorality of economists) can be all be applied to religious leaders.

1) If lack of exposure to the business world makes you less moral, then priests, bishops, imams , rabbis, nuns et al. are some pretty immoral folks. And let's canonize Ken Lay.

2) How you can disassociate "groupthink" from religion is beyond me. Isn't organized religion the biggest enterprise in group orthodoxy in the history of mankind? The type of consensus that prevails among a group academic scholar pales in comparison to the doctrinaire sycophancy found in any congregation.

3) What are you smoking? Since when does Christian theology put the accumulation of wealth over the promotion of its heroes (Jesus, saints, etc...). Hell, isn't God demanding his props the main point of the old testament? Since when are the clergy encouraged to shove cash down their robes (though they always seem to do it). And you'd have to agree that on the whole, the Bible is a lot more pro-poor people than pro-moneybags.

4) Who doesn't seek to persuade and influence society? And who seeks it more (and to a greater extent) than religious leaders and activists?

I think that the reasons why an above-average percentage of economists are atheists come from more socio-economical sources. I will take as a given that the wealthier the segment of society, the higher the atheism rates (certainly the case when you look at countries). I would also guess that the ranks of the economics departments (like those of other "soft sciences") are garnished by more offsprings of high-income families than those of "hard science" fields.

And Adam Smith's mom got worms.

Will McBride said...

Wow. Max, did the parish priest play "let's make a tent" with you when you were a boy? Firstly, my central thesis is not regarding economists alone, but rather all academics, since that is what the Carnegie survey covered. It did not cover the clergy. But you may be right about them. I'm generally not a fan of hierarchy, which appears to be especially problematic for the Roman Catholic church.

Regarding 3), I'm referring to fame as an incentive for the average schmuck, not the saints, etc. The primary incentive in Christianity, or most other religions, is not the possibility of sainthood but rather goodies in the afterlife, e.g. heaven, bunch of virgins, etc. It's true that Christian theology can be seen as admonishing wealth, but many scholars have argued that that aspect was downplayed with Augustine and Aquinas. Famously, Max Weber argued that Reformation theologians, especially Calvin, encouraged hard work and asceticism, which means wealth accumulation. As for fame, honestly I don't know the Bible well enough to say, but I take the whole idea of submission to one God as discouraging the attainment of fame. I think this area is generally under-researched.

Your assumptions about wealth and religiosty are opposite of reality. The two are positively correlated, although only slightly. Another common misperception, that the more educated the less religious, is also not supported by the data. There is generally no correlation with education, which makes this finding that academics tend to be atheists all the more bizarre.

Will McBride said...

Excellent source for data on religion:

Max said...

Hey, just trying to keep you honest over here. Maybe I've been exposed to too much liberation ideology in this place.

And if you talk to Trader Joe, please tell his hippy ass to bring a store to Port-au-Prince. We won't kidnap him for ransom. I swear.

Will McBride said...

On fame, I think I found something more concrete:

"Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 18:1-6.

Modesty is the virtue here, which clearly may be violated by flashing one's wealth, but not neccesarily by the mere accumulation of wealth. Fame, on the other hand, does seem to require immodesty, at least more so than wealth does. I give you Britney's crotch shots.

Joseph said...

If atheism is correlated with intellectual ambitions instead intellectual firepower, we would expect to see atheism widespread among dropouts from elite universities. Is that the case? It sounds plausible but I don't know of any studies on that topic.

Will McBride said...

yup, sounds plausible to me. I know of no such study. It probably hasn't been tried because it's hard to track down the dropouts, and then get a random sample of them.

Is Bill Gate's an atheist?