Godless Professors

Last November we learned that the US public believes in God more than college professors, who believe more than professors at elite schools:

Almost a third answered "none" when asked their religion — more than twice the percentage found in the general population.   Science professors were the least religious. Accounting professors were the most religious.   More than half the professors at places other than so-called "elite" universities said they absolutely believed in God. About a third of the professors at elite schools took that position. … About 30 percent of community college professors considered intelligent design as a serious scientific alternative. Fewer than 6 percent of professors at elite universities took that position.

If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view.   But other considerations can be relevant; if we knew elite professors favored increasing elite research funding, we might attribute that to self-interest bias.  So should we favor elite professors’ views on God, or can we identify other relevant considerations?   

Added: Tyler Cowen dares us to answer, so let’s list explanations of this correlation:

  1. Information – Elite academics have better information and analysis.
  2. Social pressure – Random variations in local social pressure are a generic explanation for all behavior differences.   
  3. Calm – Tyler says the academic neutral tone fits badly with charisma.
  4. Unfeeling – Academics prefer explicit reasoning, and neglect our feelings, which some call our best evidence for God.
  5. Safety – Anders suggests the safe cushy academic world doesn’t inspire fear, which inspires hope in God. 
  6. Contrarian – Academics distinguish themselves from others via differing beliefs.
  7. Jealousy – God would be a threat to academics intellectual authority.
  8. Mystery – God is too hard to understand for academics to make progress using him as an explanation for things.

In terms of what these theories suggest about what to believe: 1 favors no God 6,7,8 favor God, 4 is hard to interpret, and the rest seem neutral.   

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  • Matthew

    At some level, almost everyone believes in “God” if the definition is broad enough. That is, almost everyone accepts that the universe is lawful, that there are universal (“omnipotent” if you like) organizing principles which are responsible for the existence of everything. Scientists tend to call these the “laws of physics” or “natural laws”. The disagreement comes about when hypothesizing the nature of this lawfulness and organization which pervades reality, and the existence of additional organizing principles in addition to the laws of physics.

    By and large I think that elite professors are too intelligent to believe in the common understanding of “God”. If the word is only used to refer to an anthropomorphized super-entity, it seems likely that the vast majority of educated, scientifically literate, high-g people will reject such a formulation. The main problem here is assuming that the word “God” has a common meaning across all the surveyed populations.

    This is not to deny that the large majority of NAS members, as an example, maintain a deep and fundamental hostility towards the possible reality of any phenomena they might choose to label “supernatural” (a meaningless word if ever there were one). However, that hostility is easily seen in the context of the historic conflict between religious authorities and scientists, and in the sociological factors which affect NAS membership.

    Not seen by many of their adherents is that today’s institutions of the intellectual establishment are propagating their own unquestioned dogmas such as strict reductionism, consciousness = neural activity, organisms are nothing except biochemical mechanisms, and biological evolution is entirely the result of blind natural selection of genetic mutations which are absolutely random with respect to fitness. These dogmas make it essentially impossible for their adherents to fairly examine and evaluate evidence to the contrary. In most cases, they simply dismiss all such evidence outright, without consideration. Bias, indeed.

  • josh

    Good point, Matthew.

    Everyone believes in God if you define “God” to mean “God or not God.”

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    I wonder how much consideration should be given to social effects here. Obviously, religious belief would be socially embarrassing in many academic contexts, and we’d expect that the few religious people in these contexts would be more quiet about their belief. And while it obviously couldn’t explain the whole effect, since it could only exaggerate a pre-existing position, it’s interesting that the same sort of explanation is used to argue that many differences in social class are worthy of remedy, in the form of things like affirmative action. Is the explanation more valid in the latter case?

  • Matthew


    What is the official definition of “God”?

    If one is going to survey based on belief in “God”, we need a common definition. Otherwise the entire survey is meaningless. If we are going to use the “anthropomorphized being” definition, then obviously most thoughtful people will check the “does not exist” box.

    But is that the important question, or are we really looking at a somewhat different question: what is the nature of existence? Why does the universe exist? Many times question of belief in “God” is really a proxy for another question — is human existence just an accident between birth and death, is consciousness and hence the experienced world merely a flash, doomed to absolute extinction in a cold and unfeeling universe, or is our existence something much greater than that?

    The people who check off “God” on the survey are often voting for the latter view, while those who select “no God” are in fact voting for belief that something along the lines of Bertrand Russell’s lament is true:

    “That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. . .

    Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding dispair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

    Asking someone if they believe in “God” is not like asking someone if they believe in Santa Claus. Because Santa Claus is clearly defined, while “God” has no commonly-agreed definition.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    Matthew, a survey asking about belief in God measures how many people are socially conditioned to respond in the affirmative when asked if they believe in God. It’s a fairly safe assumption that a large majority of the people understand the question to be referring to an anthropomorphic God of some sort, and a larger majority to a sort of immensely powerful or influential force of some sort. It’s also safe to assume that a majority of people who answer in the affirmative also actually hold a belief that fits that description–maybe a slimmer majority, but still a majority. The vagueness is not necessarily a bad thing.

    • http://kazart.blogspot.com Mike

      I belong to a church (Seaside church in Encinitas) that explicitly does not believe in an anthropomorphized god. Indeed, they are “religious” about referring to god as “it.”

      Which isn’t to say you are likely wrong about the majority. But is to support the idea that this survey answers more about social conditioning than it does about people’s metaphysics.

      I refer to my church as “my atheist church” since their concept of god is SO at odds with the Roman Catholic God I grew up with. I can feel the social pressure when I refer to it this way to stop calling me and my co-religionists atheists, they don’t like it.

      I think a good survey about metaphysics, if one were desired, would clearly need to ask about belief in various aspects of god rather than in such a loaded catchall label.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Pdf, if ordinary people feel social pressure to believe in God, and elite academics feel social pressure to not believe in God, the symmetry of this consideration doesn’t seem to offer a useful clue about which side to believe.

  • http://www.janegalt.net/archives/009599.html Asymmetrical Information


    A propos of Will Wilkinson’s attempt to convince me that I am not an agnotheist, but in fact an atheist, I pass on this question from Robin Hanson: Last November we learned that the US public believes in God more than college professors, who believe mo…

  • Matthew


    Good point, however that creates problems for Robin’s original query. Unless the question he really wants answered is: “should we believe in an anthropomorphic super-entity that magically created the universe, given that belief in such an entity declines markedly in the intellectual elite?”

    I would consider that particular question fairly uninteresting and suspect Robin does as well. But there are other more interesting interpretations of “God” as pointing towards something other than just “the known laws of physics”. But those are exactly the kinds of distinctions that are obscured when we ask a general survey question about “God” without defining what we mean.

    I suspect that for many, the easily-discarded cartoon-character anthropomorphic God is subconsciously used as a convenient red herring to avoid having to engage much more more challenging questions on the nature of consciousness, reality, the “self” and various spontaneous experiential phenomena such as the NDE, telepathy, precognition, and other anomalous phenomena usually deemed delusionary by those whose models of reality preclude them.

  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    It might matter if people became less religious the more educated they were. But this is false.

    “Religion is not the province of the poor or uninformed. In numerous analyses of cross-sectional survey data, rates of religious belief and religious activity tend not to decline with income, and most rates increase with education.”

    From Laurence R. Iannaccone, Introduction to the Economics of Religion, Journal of Economic Literature 1998.

    The article also notes that people tend to falsely believe that “individuals become less religious and more skeptical of faith-based claims as they acquire more education.”

  • http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/2007/01/scientists_arent_religious_so_why_should_you_be/ Outside The Beltway | OTB

    Scientists Arent Religious, So Why Should You Be?

    Megan McArdle reflects on a recent report that science professors, especially those at elite institutions, are much less religious than the public at large.
    Shes wondering why that might be and passes on Robin Hansons musing that, …

  • http://www.saunalahti.fi/~tspro1/ Kaj Sotala

    Matthew – you say that elite professors are probably too intelligent to believe in an anthropomorfic God. I wonder how true this might. While a higher intelligence might help you see the implausibility of an anthropomorphized God, it might also help you realize the mental health benefits that can accrue from believing in such an entity (finding it easier to face the death of loved ones if you believe in an afterlife a loving God has prepared for them and you, etc.) – regardless of whether or not such an entity exists. Thus, intelligent people might be more motivated to rationalize to themselves the existence of an anthropomorphic God purely for the “placebo effect”. On the other hand, higher intelligence seems to (in my experience) also correlate with an unwillingness to engage in such forms of doublethink.

  • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

    Recently I played around with the GSS database, looking for the reasons of high crime rates in the Bible Belt.


    I came to the conclusion that it was not godliness that led to crime, but the threat of crime making people godly. In this data the fundamentalist leanings seemed to correlate with low social class, living in a dangerous area and feeling afraid even at home. My theory is that just as mortality salience makes people more conservative these surroundings make people more likely to adopt a fundamentalist mindset.

    Conversely, religious ‘liberals’ (I did not look for atheists) were accumulated in the higher social strata. One simple explanation might be that the more safe you are and the less mortality salience, the less likely you are to become religiously conservative. Professors at elite universities have less emotional need for God.

  • http://www.stephenbainbridge.com/2007/01/does_what_elite.html StephenBainbridge.com

    Does what “elite professors” think matter?

    Via Jane Galt, I saw this quote from a post by Robin Hanson:If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view.I’m 48

  • Bruce G Charlton

    The US is the most religious (God believing, church attending) of Westernized societies and the only one where belief and chucrh are probably growing.

    The UK is less religious than mainland Europe, and (I think) England (where I live) is the least religious/ church-going place in the world (Scotland, Wales and N Ireland are all more religious than England). Yet by most measures, England and the US are more alike than the US and Europe.

    I’m tying to suggest that God believing and church going at a personal level are probably most strongly predicted by poorly-understood socio-cultural factors.

    Alternatively, since English biologists are almost uniformly atheist, maybe they are even more whatever-it-is than US elite college science professors.

  • http://www.hereticatthegates.blogspot.com will mcbride

    I actually just wrote a paper on this very topic. 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.

    See my blog for more.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    James, “religious belief and religious activity” is not quite the same as belief in God. If belief in God doesn’t correlate with education, while academic elites believe in God less, that would indeed be an important clue.

    Anders, the correlation with safety is indeed suggestive, but are elite professors really in much less danger than other professors? The University of Chicago is in a high crime area; are its professors more into God?

    Will, care to give us a link to your paper or blog? Your suggestions are intriguing, but a bit opaque.

  • http://ravingatheists.com/ocmpoma/ ocmpoma

    “So should we favor elite professors’ views on God, or can we identify other relevant considerations?”

    Well, I think one relevant consideration would be what the professor happened to be a professor of. Granted, most god-concepts are rather vague and nebulous, but I, for one, would pay more attention to the opinion of someone whose area of expertise was in subjects which are at least tangental to the question of the existence of god(s): philosophy, logic, psychology, and physics come to mind most readily.
    I would be less impressed by a professor of literature, history, or political science, since, to me, those areas are less connected with the question.

  • dearieme

    “Accounting professors were the most religious.” Bless you for brightening my day.

  • Curt Adams

    Another piece of evidence is that the more the scientist in question studies things that affect religion, the less likely they are to believe. Of all scientists, the highest rates of disbelief are in neurobiology and cognitive science. It’s apparently extraordinarily hard to believe in a soul (and hence standard religions) if you study the brain carefully. Likewise, among elite “hard” scientists biologists are most irreligious and mathematicians least so. http://www.lhup.edu/~DSIMANEK/sci_relig.htm Likewise twin religiousity studies show strong genetic influence on religious belief. http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7147 It’s hard to believe in something when you know that belief is engineered by those little pieces of bioplastic, our genes.

    I wasn’t aware that social scientists are the most irrelegious of the large groupings but it wouldn’t surprise me. Religion is primarily a social phenomena – the ignorance of most people about the doctrines of their faith is pretty shocking – and I would expect that those who study religious choice and formation (e.g. http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/religion/overview.php ) would lean more to disbelief.

  • http://www.hereticatthegates.blogspot.com will mcbride

    Sorry, my blog:


    What exactly is opaque? Perhaps the secularization thesis needs defining. It’s the idea that science and progress make religion obsolete. It’s become recieved wisdom in academia, and most other places. Larry Iannaccone has completely debunked it:


    Sorry, no link to my paper. I’ll send it to you by email. Just let me know. I have to run now.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Curt, data showing variations in religious beliefs are genetic, might suggest that you reject your deviation from the average, but it doesn’t say that one sign of deviation is better than another.

  • ShawnM

    Could it be that elite professors are actually just as atheistic as the general population; but, since atheists are generally scorned and oppressed by American society, they tend to undersrepresent themselves in polls?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ChasRMartin/ Charlie (Colorado)

    If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view.

    Only if we were sufficiently unfamiliar with rhetoric and syllogistic logic to not recognize the argumentum ad populum.

  • Douglas Knight

    Anders Sandberg, did you control for race?

  • Matthew

    “It’s apparently extraordinarily hard to believe in a soul (and hence standard religions) if you study the brain carefully.”

    Hmm. I would suggest that it is extraordinarily hard to get a PhD, to say nothing of being hired, much less tenure, in a neurology department if you deviate from the reductionist party line. And we see a remarkable lack of progress over the past century in actually explaining consciousness as a reductionist phenomena, or even coming up with plausible theories.

    You might be interested in reading the book “Irreducible Mind” to find out more about why the reductionist program has failed to unravel the mystery of human consciousness:


    Here is Berkeley neuroscientist David Presti’s review comment on Irreducible Mind (the gist of which he re-emphasized to me in a personal email).

    “This is an extraordinary book. In the arena of neuroscience of mind, it is the most exciting reading to have crossed my path in years. ”

    As for the “soul”, probably the best way to view this is as holism. Standard reductionism is the faith that the behavior of wholes is entirely explainable in terms of the interaction of the parts. This is why many people state that everything can be explained in terms of the known laws of physics. There is a belief that chemistry is entirely reducible to the quantum mechanics of their constituent atoms and quarks. That cells are entirely reducible to the chemistry of proteins, DNA, RNA, lipid membranesm and the intercellular fluid.

    Tissues to cells. Organs to tissues. Organisms to organs. Mind and behavior to brain. Morphogenesis to DNA. All these reductions are assumed, and assumed to ultimately reduce to fundamental particle physics. But it is entirely possible that there are new, novel properties that emerge at each level of holon. Perhaps the wholes (holons) of Chemistry build upon the holons of physics, but additional new properties and regularities emerge. Perhaps the holons of cells build upon the holons of chemistry, but additional new properties and regularities emerge. Perhaps the entire assumption of reductionism, that the properties and functions of the upper holons are completely explained by the properties of their constituents, is simply incorrect. That would mean that top-down causation is just as real as bottom-up causation. Which certainly corresponds to what appears to be the case, that our decisions as individual organisms can affect causations flowing down to the organ, tissue, and even (muscle) cellular level which of course results in large-scale chemical reactions and the movement of billions of constituent molecules and atoms.

    From that perspective, “soul” is simply another name for “holon” or “whole”. So there could be “souls” up and down the entire chain of being, from quark to societies of millions of humans and everything in between.

  • Curt Adams

    If religious belief variation (or any other variation) is strongly influenced by genes, then it is probably driven by evolution. Evolution is not a truth-seeking process.

  • TGGP

    Why are professors less likely to believe in God? It’s their job to understand things and in a sense religion relies heavily on a belief that everything or at least the most important things can’t really be understood in any normal manner.

  • http://thinkingonthemargin.blogspot.com/ Brian Hollar

    I’d certainly agree academics tend to be better informed regarding their own area of expertise, but how many are actually experts in religion? Why would people trust that academics are better informed than others about religion? Is it possible that since most religions are based on faith and not on reason, academics lose their comparative advantage and are therefore turned off or feel threatened by it?

    There may be a selection bias and path dependency story here as well. It is true that most academics tend to lean left politically. It is also true that those on the left tend to have lower levels of religiosity than the general population. With this being so, could most of the lack of religiosity be explained by the effects of left-leaning political beliefs? (Or maybe vice-versa?) According to the Seattle Times:

    The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.

    Does this also mean that the rest of us should favor the political views of the elite as well? That doesn’t seem to follow. A more plausible story is that Democrats tend to favor the elite being in control of society which empowers those in academia, particularly those in elite institutions. It would make sense from a self-interest perspective for those academics to have a greater incentive to lean left. The more elite the institution, the greater the incentive. Because of the strong correlation between political perspectives and religious beliefs, this would probably result in fewer religious people in academia. (Interestingly, there is little effect of education level or IQ on religious belief, but a big effect from being involved in academia. The implication is that highly educated religious people tend to find jobs outside of academia.)

    Read more of my thoughts in this post on my blog, including links to many of my posts on the economics of religion.

  • billswift

    There IS NO expertise in religion; unless you mean sociology of belief. Since, with extraordinarily high probability, God does not exist, no one could be an expert on It. Anyone interested in a scientific perspective on religion should read Dawkin’s The God Delusion. For a harder read Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification is also fascinating.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Curt, the point is that genetic origins of believing in God or not don’t tell us whether to believe in God or not – they just say don’t trust your genetic inclination one way or the other.

    Brian, yes the same argument would suggest that you favor elite professor political views. But they key point that most commenters seem to miss is that this is just one consideration among many possible considerations.

    Bill, if there are no UFOs, at least of the little green men variety, but we were unsure of this, would there be no experts we could turn to on the topic?

  • Curt Adams

    There is tremendous evidence against any God with any interest in human beings in the form of the total absence of any detectable intervention. Objectively this is balanced against the evidence that most Bayesian entities in the real world (ie people) strongly believe in some form of God. When you find a model that explains why people believe in God even if there isn’t one you’re left with all this evidence that God doesn’t do anything – on top of the priors issue with so many different Gods – leaving it highly irrational to put any measurable belief in any God with any particular prescriptive recommendations. And, let’s be honest, it’s *that* kind of God that people care about. Nobody’s going to fly planes into tall building for a deistic God.

    It’s just like Santa Claus. When children find that the evidence for Santa has actually been generated by Mom and Dad in the absence of Santa, they normally consider that basically disproof of Santa Claus. Why should that be different when the belief is God and the agent is evolution?

  • Brett

    I don’t give a damn what professors, elite or otherwise, believe, so long as their views aren’t enforced upon me by law.

    Unfortunately, the brain trusts have converted a free nation into a complicated tyranny that none dare recognize; to do so would require a people of conscience to vote the entire pack of jackels into some productive work, such as cooking.

  • http://www.pellucid.org Bob Knaus

    To the list of possible explanations for the correlation, I would add:

    9. Fitness — belief in God makes academics less suited for their careers.

    I believe in God, because I have an occasional sense of divine presence, and because God has spoken to me directly a few times. But, if you were to present me with any proof of the existence of God based on science or logic, I would reject it. Belief in God is a personal matter. I cannot tell you how to acquire it. I believe that it falls outside the realm of the “knowable” in a rational sense.

    Now, if an academic were honest with his peers about holding such a mishmash of beliefs as I have just stated, how likely is he to succeed as a professor? Expressing surprise at how few academics believe in God is like expressing surprise at how few NBA players are less than 6 feet tall.

    At the risk of provoking additional laughter… I read “Goedel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid” in my early 20s and found it transformational. Yes, I know, it’s a popular book and not an academic one, but I thought it did a nice job of explaining the holism that Matthew advocates in his comments. I also found it quite illuminating regarding the limits of the provable, and the unprovable.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Bob, your proposed #9 looks a lot like my #4.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think I have to agree with the various comments (not all on this blog) which note that some of the same professors are often susceptible to non-theological religions, such as radical socialism, or Deep Green environmentalism. I cannot trust that someone’s rejection of God is genuinely due to personal rationality – versus, say, mimicry of a few extremely intelligent professors, or versus the conflation of rationality with blase cynicism – unless they demonstrate decreased susceptibility to a wide range of irrational memes, of which religion is only one salient example. True rationality should not be so domain-specific.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, we only have the beliefs of ordinary folks and professors to compare; perfectly rationals are not available to tell us whether they believe in God. Surely we don’t need professors to be perfectly rational to be willing to think that their beliefs are on average better than non-professors.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/JohnAnnArbor/ JohnAnnArbor

    If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view.

    A few centuries ago, to be a professor at Oxford or Cambridge one had to be an Anglican priest. Would you agree with your statement, applied to the situation back then?

    The priest requirement was one method of self-selection amongst elite professors. Professors of today are just as self-selected, with the actual selection criteria becoming fuzzier the further you move from engineering and physics towards, say, English literature and women’s studies. Their views in their fields of study might be of interest, but to say that their views in general, in any subject are probably better than that of the average population is not a good bet, given that elite professors are self-selected, live in a world most others will never experience (tenure=never worrying about having a job again) and have to “get along” with colleagues if their work isn’t to be marginalized and ignored.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    See my related post “Outside the Laboratory”:

  • http://motls.blogspot.com/2006/10/steven-weinberg-on-religion.html Lubos Motl

    I actually agree with all points 1-8 as being a plausible explanation of the reduced belief among the [elite] professors. There are other aspects, too. Concerning the question whether they should be believed about God, I think that most e.g. scientists don’t even want to be the source of knowledge about God because they consider these questions to be ill-posed. There are also many left-wing activists who just copy each other which is why they shouldn’t be copied further. I would however single out Steven Weinberg who has thought much more deeply about these questions, arrived at very atheistic conclusions, and who has a lot to say about religion – that I would mostly subscribe. Click my name to get to Weinberg’s video about religion.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Lubos, your “ill-posed” explanation seems a lot like my #8.

  • Chester White

    “If all we know about a view was that professors held it more, and elite professors even more so, we would be inclined to favor that view.”

    You have it EXACTLY backward, and Bainbridge rips you apart.

    I have an Ivy League degree. My wife is a PhD and did a postdoc at one of the most prestigious medical schools in the world. She is now a tenured professor at one of the top universities in the US, if not the world.

    I have met more “elite” PhDs and professors than I can count. IN THEIR AREAS OF EXPERTISE, they should be consulted and their views considered. Otherwise, in general, they are clueless clowns who have not the social or economic acumen to run a hotdog stand, and are more ignorant than the average man on the street. Without a guaranteed paycheck every couple weeks, many of them literally would die from not knowing how to accomplish actual tasks someone is willing to pay for.

    They have spent their entire lives on campuses and do not have the slightest particle of knowledge on zillions of topics, and their ideological sameness pervents than from considering alternative views of things.

    Exactly backward. Remarkable. One of the dumbest things I’ve EVER read on the Internet, and that is saying a lot.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Chester, do you think there are any professors who have expertize in whether God exists? Why isn’t this a topic where expertize is possible?

  • http://stuartbuck.blogspot.com Stuart Buck

    Why isn’t this a topic where expertize is possible?

    I note that you seem to be limiting your original observation, which discussed not professors with “expertise” in God’s existence, but all professors of any stripe. In any event, flesh this thought out — which professors supposedly have expertise in whether God exists? How did they get this expertise? What does the expertise consist of? Why do these professors have this “expertise” in any greater amount than the Pope, or the Dalai Lama, or someone who has had a religious mystical experience, etc.?

    What would make you think that any professors with an opinion about God’s existence or non-existence are immune to the sort of confirmation bias that Tabor and Lodge found, which seemed to have a greater effect in the minds of sophisticated people (who are smart enough to dig out supporting evidence and explain away contradictory evidence)? In other words, why wouldn’t you suspect the same phenomenon among professors (maybe of philosophy or religion?) who have an opinion about God? I.e., they are sophisticated enough to concoct rationalizations for their pre-existing beliefs.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, expertize on whether God exists would come, as usual, from carefully studying all the evidence and analysis offered on the subject. I made no claim that non-professors could not also have expertize on the subject.

  • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

    No, I did not control for race. Doing a logit regression on fundamentalism as a function of race, income, social class, education, wordsum and fear of someplace in the neighbourhood of where they live, the biggest effect was due to race, followed by social class, wordsum (somewhat correlated with verbal intelligence), fear, education and income. When using the confidence in existence of God variable, being fearful became the strongest predictor and the only one significantly different from zero.

    What to make of that, I don’t know. In the present context I guess the tendency of elite university professors to be white, upper middle class people of high education and intelligence that can afford to live in safe areas would reduce the fear incentive for being religious.

    (I also just noticed that there are 29 respondents who stated that they were fundamentalists, yet did not believe in God. Maybe I found the militant atheists :-)

  • http://geoffarnold.com Geoff Arnold

    Any survey asking about belief in God is pretty much useless, because of the impossibility of a consensus about how the word is to be interpreted. It would be far more useful to ask people whether they (a) believe in God, and (b) believe in life after death (other than as a metaphor for being remembered by other, living people). My suspicion is that the difference in attitude between academics and the general population will be much w[der on the question of life after death….

  • http://www.technogypsy.net Kevin


    Dang cool blog. Thanks for several interesting reads tonight.

    I dance the edge of academia and industry, working for a scientific instrument company, but teaching part time and being based at a university. My Ph.D. is in Chemistry. During my year, I visit dozens of colleges in the US, UK, and other places. I guess my question would be that a belief by a scientist outside his field is somehow better informed than average. I don’t see it. I am firmly convinced that academics, including scientists, are not superior thinkers. Sadly its like my plumber, who is terribly wiser than me in terms of running a water line but isn’t much good at polymer chemistry. On the topic of say particle physics or social policy, well, we have no special knowledge.

  • http://www.aleph.se/andart/ Anders Sandberg

    The GSS has questions both about belief in god, what religion people claim to believe in, as well as specific issues such as the existence of an afterlife, everyday presence of god or donating money to churches. See
    Most of these items correlate quite strongly, surprise, surprise.

    Doing a crosstabulation between believing in god/believing in heaven and academic degree shows that both decline with education about equally strongly (junior college seems to be the breakpoint, with less education a majority of people people claim to know god and heaven exists, beyond that people spread out among the less extreme possibilities). Belief in God and heaven correlate with each other to 0.67, while god and academic degree -0.13 and heaven and degree -0.22. I don’t think the evidence shows that people lose just parts of religious packages, they become less certain and zealous about the entire belief system.

    Still, crosstabulating strength of whatever faith they have versus degree shows an odd thing: belief decreases with education in general, but at the highest academic levels there is a small but clear rise of people in the strong faith category again. Maybe it is an age confounder (people tend to lose faith in adolescence and regain it later, often strengthened). Or maybe it is the militant atheists again.

  • http://www.hulver.com/scoop/story/2007/2/4/10017/97592 Alan Crowe from Hulver’s site

    Subduction Phrases

    When we desire the psychological benefits of a false belief how may we obtain them? One way is to play “I’ll believe if you’ll believe”. Another way is to use a clever, obfuscating phrase to push the doubts down into the subconscious. Provided we …

  • Rob


    “I have met more “elite” PhDs and professors than I can count. IN THEIR AREAS OF EXPERTISE, they should be consulted and their views considered. Otherwise, in general, they are clueless clowns who have not the social or economic acumen to run a hotdog stand”

    Ok so in your limited experience the majority of professors wouldn’t be able to run a hotdog stand. However what criteria would you actually support when it came to this question of belief? Would you trust a survey more if it found that people with a high number of expertise were more lilely to nonbelieve?

    Or would you trust a survey which found that people with a higher IQ were more likely to nonbelieve? because if you’re honest surely you must agree that professors are more likely to have a higher IQ than say hotdog stand attendants. Ok they might struggle when put up against medics or lawyers but I think they’d come pretty high up in the professions IQ league.

    Oh and its not very nice to insult your wife like that, I’m sure she could run a hotdog stand if she tried, well maybe.

    Actually come to think of it my wife could run a hotdog stand and hasn’t got a PhD so maybe your argument does hold some merit.



  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Rob, that quote is from Chester, not I.

  • themusicgod1

    Access to social space. Elite professors probably have greater social environments than your average college professor to exist in — at least I picture them that way. They can spend their time doing a lot of different things. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a poor schmuck your choice might be the church, the bar(with the same godfearing people after work (which in turn feeds on itself, given the people you work with are going to have similar constraints on their social environment)). college professors should be in between somewhere. While they may be exposed to pressure *in* the space they cohabit with others, what I’m trying to describe here is access *to* space itself. It’s not impossible to be an atheist who goes to church…it wears on you, after awhile. If not you, your children.

    This is interesting because it means that stuff like “Facebook” and blogs like Overcomingbias are really social space – – so they may change the dynamic with time.