Americans find too much religion in politics, see professors as unfriendly to faith

June 18, 2012 • 4:34 am

With the campaign season right around the corner, there’s a hopeful sign from a recent Pew Survey:  Americans are getting sick of politicians talking about religion. These sentiments are running at their highest since the poll began in 2001. You can download the full pdf of the report here (about 1500 people were surveyed; the 95% confidence limits for the overall data is + 3% and for political parties about + 5-6% ).  Here are some questions asked and the trends over 11 years:

Do you think there has been too much, too little or the right amount of expressions of religious faith and prayer by political leaders? (click to enlarge)

Here are the above data divided up by political party. Naturally the Republicans don’t see an excess of religious talk by political leaders, but in all three categories the numbers complaining about too much religious talk have tripled in only 11 years.

There are a lot more data, but I’ll highlight just two things.  First, the public isn’t completely oblivious to party differences:

A majority of the public (54%) views the Republican Party as friendly to religion, while 24% say the GOP is neutral to religion and 13% say it is unfriendly toward religion. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) rate the Obama administration as friendly, with 32% saying it is neutral and 23% saying the administration is unfriendly to religion. The Democratic Party is seen as friendly to religion by 35% of the public; it is seen as neutral by 36% and as unfriendly by 21% of the public.

And second, we of the professoriate are viewed as religion-unfriendly:

About a third of the public (32%) perceives university professors as unfriendly to religion, while 37% describe professors as neutral to religion; far fewer (14%) say university professors are generally friendly toward religion. Compared with 2003 (when this question was last asked), there has been a noticeable rise in the number describing professors as unfriendly to religion and a slight downturn in the number saying professors are friendly to religion.

College graduates are more apt than those with less education to describe professors as neutral toward religion, while more of those who have not graduated from college express no opinion on this question. A majority of Republicans (56%) say that professors are unfriendly toward religion. By  contrast, a plurality of Democrats (46%) says that professors are neutral toward religion. Among independents, 37% say professors are neutral toward religion, while 31% describe them as unfriendly and 16% say they are friendly to religion.

Among white evangelicals surveyed, 56% view professors as unfriendly toward religion. Among most other religious groups, pluralities or majorities describe professors as either neutral or friendly toward religion.

There is no control group here save the media, which gets about the same ratings from the general public.  But the public clearly recognizes the pervasive nonbelief of professors. And Republicans see this unfriendliness three times more often than do Democrats.

What effect will this have on the campaign?  Likely not much on the Presidential race, since neither Romney nor Obama make a big deal about religion.  But the trend is pretty clear, and could filter down to congressional or more local races.  It’s heartening that Americans are getting sick of politicians trying to out-Jesus each other.

25 thoughts on “Americans find too much religion in politics, see professors as unfriendly to faith

  1. About the professors: I once sent out a letter on behalf of a state congressional candidate and got a phone call from a Republican.

    When she found out that I was a college professor, she accused me of “teaching students to hate this country and to not work hard.”

    I laughed and said that I didn’t realize that there was an un American way to solve a differential equation….and she got mad at me for lampooning her!

    Bottom line: many haven’t a clue as to what college professors do. I AM unfriendly toward religion but I NEVER talk about religion in the classroom nor do I discuss it with students.

    1. I don’t remember any of my professors ever talking about religion in class, and for most of them I have no idea what their beliefs were, nor did they ask about mine. They all seemed to consider it a private matter. When I was teaching (graduate school TA, public school substitute, several artist-in-residence positions, etc.) I did the same thing.

    2. I talked about religion in class at University; I let myself get dragged off on a tangent when discussing the history of science. I was asked my stand on religion and said I was atheist. My almost entirely Christian class was interested and polite (to my face at least), and a great conversation ensued – in fact, it led to a short publication on the teaching of science and evolution at universities. But that was in South Africa.

    3. Religiosity is roughly negatively correlated with education level – particularly education in the sciences. I would EXPECT professors to be less friendly toward religion than the general population, but I suppose that this is automatically phrased as if it were a bad thing. I HOPE it is not merely a perception, and reflects some of the fact that professors are a non-random sample of people who are a bit more rational (and who may indeed be fed up with the sources of irrationality around them).

  2. And as if on cue, is this link from Arts and Letters Daily:
    In God we trust “…approximately 31 percent of Americans…believe that God is steering the United States economy.” Truly bizarre reasoning among these believers, to wit:
    “they believe issues of abortion and gay marriage are linked to whether God is willing to help solve both social ills and their economic woes.” Against that kind of magical thinking, reason stands not a chance.

  3. Too bad the lines in the top graph are not labelled by group and/or match the color code on the graph below it. Now I’ll have to look through the whole thing to be sure my surmise is accurate.

  4. But the public clearly recognizes the pervasive nonbelief of professors.

    That may be part of it, but I would also expect that believing professors will challenge students to analyze and think critically about their beliefs (in appropriate classes).

    I’m guessing some of the perceived hostility is due to this; very devout believers equating a professorial demand to think critically about ones own beliefs with an attack on those beliefs.

  5. Hmm, the highest number who think profs are
    !*friendly*! towards religion are Black Protestants, 29%. Everyone else who thinks profs are friendly is under 20%

    I think profs are selectively unfriendly and/or friendly.

    1. I may be completely off beam here as it is a long time since I studied statistics. However for a single statistic it means:

      If the actual value of the statistic is more than 3% different from the estimated value then we have witnessed (in the survey) an event whose probability is less than 5% (=100% – 95%).

      Where several statistics are involved it gets a bit more tricky to express in words but the idea is the same.

  6. It’s heartening that Americans are getting sick of politicians trying to out-Jesus each other

    Then let them show their displeasure by voting appropriately. But they won’t, and so it will continue.

  7. Looking at where the statistics rise, the perception that university professors are “unfriendly” towards religion is probably fueled by evolution/creationism. That’s an area where the average person knows the academic world is coming directly into conflict with religious belief.

    It may even account for a rise among religious groups which don’t actually endorse creationism, since they may be working on the fond assumption that one should never directly contradict a ‘matter of faith.’

  8. That is *great* news!

    But this I don’t get:

    the public clearly recognizes the pervasive nonbelief of professors.

    Not that college graduates necessarily have high education or those who attend services less often than weekly necessarily have low religiosity. But the trend is that the more familiar or less religious you would be, the more neutrality toward religion you perceive in university professors.

    Wouldn’t that be part of the problem? The neutral stance that education elicit. And possibly an unwillingness to let a “pervasive nonbelief” lead into visible confrontation even when it is warranted by religious threat to quality of education?

    [Not that I think such unwillingness wouldn’t be highly motivated by the same threat, naturally.]

  9. I remember people who liked Ike during the Adlai Stevenson v. Dwight D. Eisenhower election in 1954 refer to Stevenson supporters as “pointy-headed intellectuals and little old ladies in tennis shoes.” No connection to religion in that description that I’m aware of, but it was all too typical of many people’s image of professors. Good to see things are getting better after only 58 years.

  10. The only thing that gets me about this is the dividing line for religiosity being set at “attend church weekly” or not.
    I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever known who attends any sort of religious service on a weekly basis. Not one. People who might go once a quarter year … that would be in the tens-of-people. I may even know one or two at the moment. But weekly?!

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