Correction Appended: Photo captions on this story misidentifed the First United Methodist Church.This story also omitted the title and first name of Rolf Bouma. Bouma is the director of the Center for Faith and Scholarship.

Scott Bell
First United Methodist Church on Huron Street, a parish near campus, on Monday evening. (SHAY SPANIOLA/Daily)
Scott Bell
Rows of pews at the First United Methodist Church on Huron Street, a parish near campus, on Sunday afternoon. (ROB MIGRIN/Daily)

Studies show that professors are three times more likely to be atheists or agnostics than the rest of the population. Is a complete separation of church and state good for the University, or should you be worried about being indoctrinated by godless liberals?


It’s a brilliant Sunday morning, but the sunshine deceives. Step outside and the air is frigid, still below the freezing point. South University Avenue looks like a mirage in the windy cold. The winter just refuses to give up.

The detritus of our national day of alcohol abuse – pardon me, St. Patrick’s Day – litters the streets and yards of campus. Cracked green knickknacks are blown about. Partially-filled beer cans roll down South U.

One block away, the Campus Chapel on 1236 Washtenaw Avenue opens its doors for Sunday service.

On campus, the sacred and profane maintain an uneasy peace. It’s a fraught situation when the two intersect – not unlike running into your ex at the grocery store. You exchange quick smiles and dash away to the drain cleaner aisle where you study the labels for a good while.


At the moment, there is something of an atheist revival going on. Books by notable atheists – including the “unholy trinity” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett – are international bestsellers. Publications like Time, Wired and The New York Times have devoted their covers and yards of copy to the phenomenon.

“Dawkins doesn’t know a thing about religion,” said Brian Malley, a lecturer in the University psychology department’s culture and cognition program. The lights in his office were off, and it was dark enough that one couldn’t tell if he was being entirely serious. “There’s reams of research about what religion is actually like.”

He makes an important point. For his doctoral work, Malley studied the actual practices of Evangelical Christians at a local church and found that they don’t always match up with the dictates of scripture. Sometimes they don’t even believe what they think they believe. A great deal of personal interpretation often underlies their strong claims of biblical inerrancy.

In his popular class, “Why do people believe in gods?” Malley leads a tour of religious beliefs and the psychological landscape in which they evolved. Such a venture leads to a big idea: that humans, for better or worse, are evolved to believe. It isn’t exactly a good Christian viewpoint.

Scott Atran – a visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University as well as the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story earlier this month called “Darwin’s God” – is a figure engaged in active debate with the new atheists.

Atran – unlike Dawkins who wants to convince you of the silliness in believing – wants to figure out why people believe what they believe.

The new atheists savage the religious point of view by rebutting the more unpleasant portions of monotheist texts. But combing for inconsistencies and non-sequiturs in the Holy Scripture won’t tell you a thing about the value and ubiquity of religion, or the way in which it affects the lives of the majority of the human population.

Spirituality is felt, not thought. And the interactions between people’s lives and their beliefs create infinitely greater complexity than the new atheists can handle. Religion imparts a texture to the lives of these people, one that is utterly glossed over in hardnosed scriptural analysis. In this way, the new atheists may be some of the strictest biblical literalists of all.


Amid the scholarly explorations of religiosity, a more pressing issue in the culture wars might be the reverse: the religiosity of scholars.

The stereotype of the university as a bastion of liberal elites has been examined in surveys of faculty members conducted in the past few years.

The Spirituality and Higher Education survey conducted by UCLA found that 81 percent of faculty in the country identify themselves as “spiritual beings,” although that drops to 65 percent when faculty are asked whether they identify themselves as “religious.”

A different study from the Harvard Divinity School showed that faculty members had a 20 percent incidence of atheist and agnostics, much greater than the 7 percent of the general population.

And as for the students of these professors, about 10 percent identified themselves as atheists or agnostics.

The plot thickens when the survey data are sliced up according to the reputation of the institution. Universities, like this one, ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News and World Report had the highest proportion of atheists – 36 percent. The percentage of atheists then steadily fell from non-elite universities to four-year colleges to community colleges, which only had 15 percent atheist faculty members.

So what accounts for the correlation? Is there something about the practices and atmosphere of the elite university that leads to irreligiosity?

It might be tempting here to make the statement that better education, which leads to better thinking, could lead to the denial of religion.

“There is an atmosphere here where religion equals stupidity,” said Malley. “I’ve heard professors mock religious people openly and I’m shocked.”

But Malley also said some faculty had approached him “behind closed doors” to “come out” to him about their Christian beliefs.

Nate Ardle, the minister of Campus Crusade for Christ, attributes this to a common intellectual position on campus. “It seems much easier to talk about not believing in God than believing in God,” Ardle said. “Because you can’t prove religion scientifically, the default is to not talk about it. You assume it doesn’t exist.”

The religious and political disparity in elite faculty doesn’t surprise Ardle. “I would call the best schools in the U.S. the most liberal,” he said.

Ardle attributes this to differing motivations in the religious and the atheist. “If you’re an atheist, education and the things that come out of education are some of the highest goals that you could possibly strive for in society,” he said. People who have education as their first priority, he said, are more likely to end up in administrative positions, and are then more likely to hire people who share that mindset. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle,”

The authors of the Harvard Divinity School study recount the waxing and waning of religious influence upon higher education.

The earliest colleges and universities were religious by nature. In the late 19th century, an academic revolution ushered in the professor as scientist and scholar, rather than preacher. Ties with religion were cut and researchers specialized within their departments. Academic freedom became guaranteed.

The next generational changes came in the middle of the 20th century, as American dominance in the world increased enrollment at U.S. colleges and attracted diverse faculty members from abroad, who brought with them little religious baggage. The story now has it that the leftists of the sixties have settled nicely into academia, turning America’s great universities into hippie hideouts.


Faced with a choice between eternal peril and everlasting pleasure, any thinking person would pick the latter and go to church. But for many the choice isn’t that simple. And besides the different incentive schedules, it’s possible that professors just think differently.

“Academics tend to think about everything too much,” said Law School Prof. Douglas Laycock, an expert on religious liberty. “So it’s not surprising that they come to a different set of answers.”

Is it possible that the spirit of liberal inquiry itself is inherently incompatible with the traditional practice of religion?

The holy books of the monotheistic religions claim to be histories. They are reports of events that led to the formation of the religion. This stance instills in each believer an emphasis on that which has come before, on valuing traditions.

In other words, perhaps religion instills a conservative worldview. A reformer may pop up every few centuries and nail up a list of grievances to the door of his church – but the dominant mode is resistance to change. The believer enters into a personal relationship with distant historical events. Sacred history is compressed and made alive again in the present.This is the participatory stance toward history.

In contrast is the academic, critical stance toward history. Roman Catholics who receive the Eucharist claim to be ingesting the actual body and blood of Christ. The scholar may consider this a testable hypothesis and attempt to falsify it according to the principles of the scientific method. He lugs out his mass spectrophotometer and begins taking readings, completely missing the point.

The authors of the UCLA survey also analyzed religiosity by subject area. Not surprisingly, biological sciences had the highest incidence of atheism, while the humanities had one of the lowest. However, the profession with the very fewest atheists turned out to be health care.

Technically, medicine and biology are similar fields. However, in terms of a day job, they’re completely different. Could the academe factor in the impersonal of the biologist sitting behind a microscope account for the lack of religiosity? Is there more of that subtle, incomprehensible “real life” factor in treating and caring for people in the health professions and hence greater religiosity?


So what, if anything, do the religious affiliations of professors have to do with the religious climate on campus?

Little, it appears. Eighty percent of respondents in the UCLA survey said colleges and universities welcome students of faith.

“I don’t mind saying what I believe as long as I preface it by saying this is my religious view,” Malley said. “But I don’t know why anyone would care to know.”

“In my own experience I know people of all types of religious commitments and nonreligious commitments among the faculty. I don’t detect any kind of hostile atmosphere at the University,” director of the Center for Faith and Scholarship Rolf Bouma said.

From the legal perspective of individual rights and liberty, “atheists and evangelists should be equally protected,” Laycock said. “But I’m sure some religious folk and nonbelievers think this is a problem.”

Malley described an instance when a gay rights advocacy group made an event announcement at the beginning of one of his classes.

“The example of LGBT groups coming to your class to do a presentation shows that the University tolerates it,” although some religions would find it disagreeable. “There is definitely conflict between some religions and liberal inquiry.”

Laycock brings up the important distinction between opposition and separation. “Historically, the University’s had to separate one’s discipline with one’s religion. You cannot let your religious views interfere with your research,” Laycock said.

Ardle described some of his congregants as “trying to make their way in a University that generally doesn’t support their religious views. They pretty much seem to expect it.”

But the University’s withholding of support for particular views is a symptom of its larger neutrality towards any religious positions. The University cannot please everybody all the time. So it tries its best to keep the peace.


It is this atheist reporter’s first time in church. Campus Chapel holds its intimate services in a simple space. Thick wooden beams overhead reveal the airy ceiling structure. A few dozen worshippers sing along to piano and acoustic guitar, led by a solo voice. These people aren’t here for miracles. They are no less intellectual than their atheist counterparts at the University.

It’s past noon when the services end. The sun has warmed the air outside. The congregants leave with kind eyes. There are slightly fewer wrinkles on their faces, and smiles appear spontaneously. Across the street, students begin picking up the red Dixie cups on their lawns. They return the smiles of the congregants.

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