Why many professors are atheists: Academe as a secular religious community

Atheists. Agnostics. Freethinkers. Nonbelievers. Nontheists. Humanists.Whatever you want to call them and whatever they

Famous atheists, including several career academics.

Famous atheists, including many career academics.

want to call themselves. People who do not believe in God. I describe myself as an agnostic atheist and a secular humanist. For the sake of this article, I will use the term “atheist” (i.e., one who lacks a belief in God(s) or definitely rejects the existence of God(s)) to refer to the collective non-believing community.

It is no secret that atheists enjoy greater numbers in university communities than in the population at large. Their/our numbers aren’t quite as high as I thought, but the proportion of nonbelievers among professional academics is nevertheless several multiples of their proportion in the general population. They are particularly well represented in the sciences and among more elite research universities.


Why are there so many atheist professors?

Standard answers to this question often cite the advanced education, intelligence, scientific literacy, dexterity with respect to critical thinking, and high valuation of an empirically substantiated worldview. Then there’s the “religion is the opiate of the masses” reasoning which points to the upper-middle class socioeconomic status of so many professional academics (though, as I’ve discussed in my series, The Grad School Gospels, this good fortune appears to be skipping vast swaths of the current generation of newly minted PhDs). The purpose of this writing is to suggest another possible contributing factor for atheism’s relative popularity in University Faculty Clubs.

Academe: A secular religious community?

Except for the the whole God thing, the academic community can serve as a sort of Total Culture. An academic can quite Princeton University Nassau Hall falleasily live nearly her entire life within campus limits. After completing undergraduate and graduate education, maybe a post-doc, and then 5-7 years on the tenure-track grind, a person could easily have spent the entirety of their post high school adult life up until the age of thirty-seven spending the grand majority of their waking hours within the idyllic ivy-clad confines of a university community. Most of their friends – and nearly all of the new friends that they have made over the past ten years will have been met in the academic community. If they exercise, they probably do so at the university gym. Get sick? Go to the campus doctor’s office. Go for drinks? Campus pub. Hungry? Campus restaurants and nearby student-oriented eateries. Need a haircut or groceries, go to the campus salon or grocery store, or to the salon or grocery store 5 minutes off campus (by foot). It is entirely do-able for one to spend their entire life within the academic community or within five to ten minutes of campus if one is so inclined. I did it for several years.

Some readers might be wondering, is this article describing a religious community or a cult? I have argued before that the academic world absolutely can take on meaningfully cult like roles in the lives of some of its members. Such considerations aren’t the point of this writing, though. The point here is to show how the academic community can wonderfully serve many of the most cherished and worthwhile roles of meaningful, personally and socially enriching religious communities. Good things!

Like religious communities, the academic community offers the following to those seeking the University Priesthood (i.e., professorship):

  • A distinctive, distinguished and exclusive physical space;
  • An internal culture comprising a comprehensive and cohesive total life value system, social systems and standard operating procedures, reverent rituals, rites of passage, symbols and icons;
  • Love, friendship, belonging, and a path to personal development and self-actualization in the pursuit of transcendent noble goals.

The Physical Space

The university campus is akin to something between a big church or a small Vatican. Frequently comprised of a mixture of historic classical architecture harkening back to a nobler, more charming past, and modern state-of-the-art research and educational facilities, universities are made to impress and dazzle. This grandiosity is enhanced by rich use of symbology: regal coats of arms, robes, idealistic ancient Latin and Greek inscriptions, massive painted portraits of esteemed former Presidents and eminent scholars, and the ivy, it’s hard to get over the ivy!

The Culture

The physical space and symbology is an extension of the academic culture. It’s been well over a year since I was last a student – when I was in a professional Master’s program – and it’s been five years since I’ve been in a non-professional, 100% academic program. Even though I went through some very difficult times as I attempted to join the academic priesthood myself, I still hold the university community and its culture in reverential terms. To me, the university community is a place where my most cherished values – intellectualism, curiosity, activism, fellowship, individual and collective pursuit of greatness – are embodied and practiced with their deserved dignity. University communities are my churches. University students and faculty are my fellow practitioners and keepers of the “faith”.

Tenured professorship: A force that gives us meaning

In his 2002 book, War: A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges speaks about US militarism and the American war-is-force-that-gives-us-meaning-chris-hedges-hardcover-cover-artwar culture, particularly after 9/11. He spoke of how the shock, awe and devastation of 9/11 brought a typically more divided America together, unified by an external threat. He spoke of how, in the days following 9/11, many rattled and stunned New Yorkers felt a level of kinship to their fellow city dweller that was unheard of in a city infamous for its widespread interpersonal distrust and separateness. This culture, unfortunately, was exploited by US leaders to usher the country into the Iraq War.

I bring up Hedges’ book not to invite images of carnage or deceit upon the university community, but because I absolutely love the title and believe it has application in many areas aside from post 9/11 America. One of them is in the pursuit of tenure.

The pursuit of academic tenure is a nearly perfectly transcendental pursuit. At the individualist/egoist level, attaining tenure is an absolutely tremendous accomplishment. It requires years of extreme dedication, exceptional intelligence, and great personal accomplishment. The path is a long one full of sub-goals and rites of passage.

Remember when you were in school? Remember how the path seemed so clear and progressive? There was no question of what to do or why to do it. Working harder led to better grades. Grade 3 led to grade 4. Middle school led to high school. High school led to university. If you pursued professorship, university led to grad school. Grad school involved attaining a Master’s degree then a PhD. Then perhaps you went on to a Post-Doctoral Fellowship (Fellowship – where else do we hear that title?). Then perhaps you were lucky enough to be selected for a tenure-track professorship position. Then perhaps you got tenure. In total this may have been a 34 year process of hard work followed by recognition and moving up to the next level. At each level you were esteemed more, challenged more, and you accomplished more. It was a meaningful, challenging and well-structured program for one to push one’s limits and strive to be their most excellent self.

The path of the career academic can be a two-sided coin. In lock-step, as one pursues his egoistic needs for accomplishment, recognition, pride and status, he partakes in and advances the noble cause of advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. And he does this in the fellowship of other like-minded scholars, sharing ideas, working together, competing and collaborating. He participates in something bigger than himself for something bigger than himself.

This upward, progressive, well-defined path to self-actualization and contribution to the Greater Good gives direction, recognition, motivation and value to many of those on the path. It is a force that gives us meaning.

So, Why are so many professors atheists?

Religion, too, is a force that gives people meaning. For many, religion is the focal point of social life, a source of illumination with respect to values and meaning, it provides opportunities for self-actualization for some, and opportunities to partake in and contribute to the noble and transcendent for many. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that most people need these roles to be filled in their lives, one way or another. Religion is one way. Might academics as a career and total culture be another?*

* Then again, maybe having to work 60 hour weeks for years on end simply sapped this group of time and made them covet Sunday morning sleep that much more…

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6 thoughts on “Why many professors are atheists: Academe as a secular religious community

  1. There are probably many communities and methods of giving us meaning. I have often thought that science fiction fandom provides many of the things that religion does, like a canon with moral lessons, gatherings to praise and acceptance of people who are different. The advantage of science fiction fandom is that people know the stories are fiction.

    However, I think the primary reason there are so many athesists in academe is primarily because they are taught to be rationalists. Without the university community they probably would just be lonely rationalists

    We really should do a better job at teaching the scientific method in schools. It would solve a lot of problems, not just religion.

  2. @ Darwin:

    I don’t know much about the sci-fi community, but it appears to me that academia provides a more comprehensive moral/values/religious community experience. It’s not just a community of similarly interested people and a shared activity. It’s a life mission and a moral cause.

    And of course I don’t at all discount the role of the institutional valuation of and instruction in rationalism.

  3. Let’s appreciate this moment in history that involves humans teaching humans. With all of our quirks and weakness,or even despite them, we are accumulating information and knowledge at such a pace that we already require computers to tell what IT all means.

  4. If you’re a fan of speculative fiction, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem offers an interesting world with monastic communities focused on intellectual and rational pursuits as their religion. An interesting, if voluminous, read.

  5. My years in academia have led me to another theory.

    Academics, perhaps to a greater extent than most people, are obsessed with their relative status. They typically don’t have enough money to make much of a statement with their wealth, but they make myriad lifestyle choices as part of their strenuous effort to rise above the lowly masses.

    I am increasingly convinced that for a great many people (perhaps most people), religiosity is less about belief than about identity (though there certainly are people who believe sincerely and deeply).

    At some point, religiosity–at first fervent religiosity, but perhaps now ANY religiosity–became associated with the lowly masses, and thus academics find the complete dismissal of religion to be another convenient way to distance themselves from the hoi polloi.

    I have no problem believing that academics (who can be breathtakingly shallow, despite their reputation) care far more about their perceived social standing than about the nature of existence.

  6. I think that the lack of religiosity in the academic environment may be a result of the potential ridicule or ostracization (?) in that community. Too many freethinkers at a senior level / supervisory level or to quote Geddy Lee conform or be cast out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4vd9OVLO7Q cool link for guitar or rush fans

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