Saturday, October 28, 2006

How Religious Are America's College and University Professors?

Razib at Gene Expression points out an interesting working paper by a couple of sociology professors called How Religious Are America's College and University Professors? (.pdf)

Here is what professors believe:

I don’t believe in God. 10%
I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t
believe there is any way to find out.
I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe
in a Higher Power of some kind.
I find myself believing in God some of the time,
but not at others.
While I have my doubts, I feel that I do believe
in God.
I know God really exists and I have no doubts
about it.

To sum up, 23.4% are atheists or agnostics, 19% are Deists, 16.9% are theists with doubts, and 35.7% are theists with no doubts. Professors are significantly less religious than the general population, but more than half are traditional theists and almost another fifth are Deists.

Some other interesting tidbits:

Professors at elite doctoral universities are much less religious than professors teaching in other kinds of institutions. 36.6 percent of respondents with appointments in elite doctoral schools are either atheists or agnostics, as compared to 15.2 percent of respondents teaching in community colleges, 22.7 percent of those teaching at BA granting institutions, and 23.5 percent of those teaching in non-elite doctoral granting universities. And whereas about 40 percent of community college professors and professors at four year schools say they have no doubt God exists, this is true for only about 20.4 percent of professors at elite doctoral institutions. Contrary to popular opinion, atheists and agnostics do not comprise a majority of professors even at elite schools, but they are present in much larger numbers there than in other types of institutions.

There is also significant variation on this question by disciplinary field. Looking at the top 20 BA granting fields, we find that atheists and agnostics are more common in some disciplines than others. Psychology and biology have the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, at about 61 percent. Not far behind is mechanical engineering, 50 percent of whose professors are atheists or agnostics. Behind that is economics, political science, and computer science, with about 40 percent of professors falling into this category each. At the other end of the spectrum, 63 percent of accounting professors, 56.8 percent of elementary education professors, 48.6 percent of professors of finance, 46.5 percent of marketing professors, 46.2 percent of art professors and professors of criminal justice, and 44.4 percent of professors of nursing say they have no doubt that God exists. We caution, however, that some of these differences may be a function of the differential distribution of these fields across types of institutions.

Only 6.1 percent of respondents to our survey said the Bible is the "actual word of God," with 51.6 percent describing it as "an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts." About 42 percent of respondents are of the view that the Bible is "the inspired word of God." Here again differences are evident by type of institution, with community college professors three times as likely to subscribe to the "actual word of God" position, and 72.9 percent of professors at elite doctoral universities taking the "ancient book of fables" view.

We also asked respondents to weigh in on the controversy over intelligent design. Our question asked respondents how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "The theory of intelligent design IS a serious scientific alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution." Overall, 84.1 percent of professors surveyed disagreed with the statement, with 75.3 percent registering strong disagreement. Agreement was strongest at community colleges, where 30.6 percent of professors see intelligent design as a serious scientific alternative, and weakest at elite doctoral universities, where just 5.6 percent of professors do.

Finally, although our research suggests that professorial religiosity has been previously underestimated, it is clear that on the whole, and measured various ways, professors are less religious than the general U.S. population. Insofar as this is so, and in the context of growing pressures on young people to go to college and the ongoing political mobilization of conservative Christians, we should expect continued conflict in the years to come between the forces of religious conservatism and the institution of the American university, with some such conflict taking place within the university itself as conservative professors, some emboldened by their religious views, mount a campaign for institutional change. 80 percent of Americans think colleges and universities welcome students of faith – but 20 percent do not, and there is evidence that this is a mobilized 20 percent. Theoretical frameworks must be developed to help us make sense of this situation, and to identify the steps that can be taken, if any, to keep the conflict from derailing the vital educational and research missions served by America’s colleges and universities.

Not too many surprises. Professors at elite schools are much less religious while those at community colleges are much more religious, those in more scientific fields are less religious, hardly any believe the Bible is the "actual word of God," and most believe "Intelligent Design" is not scientific.

I was surprised by how religious professors of accounting are as compared to other fields. 63% say they have no doubt God exists -- what's up with that?

Monday, October 23, 2006

This Is Your Brain on God

It seems that I'm doing a good portion of my blogging these days in the comments section of other people's blogs. In particular, I've been having some interesting discussions with Mark at Pseudo-Polymath.

This morning, I wrote a comment I'd like to post here as an entry.

Mark posted about an experience Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus had:

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining room moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two "presences." I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences — one or both of them, I do not know — spoke. This I hear clearly. Not in an ordinary way for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: "Everything is ready now."

Mark correctly points out that many people throughout history have described similar experiences. He then goes on to imply, however, that such experiences provide evidence for religion:

But, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the other world religions all depend crucially on revelation as part of their history as well as their perception who is God and what does He want with Man.

Mark believes that skeptics think "no experience of Theophany is valid. That every one of the millions of experiences of this sort are all fraud or insanity (temporary or less so.)" Since Neuhaus's account appears to be neither fraudulent or evidence of insanity, therefore, it must reflect a legitimate revelation experience. Therefore, there is some evidence for the supernatural.

In my response, I point out that there are other options besides insanity and fraud, and in fact there are more convincing explanations for such experiences than supernatural entities:

I don’t think you quite understand my position on what you call "revelation." I believe, as do you, that such experiences as Neuhaus’s happen. I further believe, as do you, that they happen to people who are sane.

I disagree on the cause of such phenomena. The Wired Article This Is Your Brain on God describes an experiment in which researchers direct electromagnetic fields towards the temporal lobes in certain patterns and generate what you would call a revelation experience:

I’m taking part in a vanguard experiment on the physical sources of spiritual consciousness, the current work-in-progress of Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada’s Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. His theory is that the sensation described as “having a religious experience” is merely a side effect of our bicameral brain’s feverish activities. Simplified considerably, the idea goes like so: When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a “sensed presence.”

Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of more than 900 people before me and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use - Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit. Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations - describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance - while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

It may seem sacrilegious and presumptuous to reduce God to a few ornery synapses, but modern neuroscience isn’t shy about defining our most sacred notions - love, joy, altruism, pity - as nothing more than static from our impressively large cerebrums. Persinger goes one step further. His work practically constitutes a Grand Unified Theory of the Otherworldly: He believes cerebral fritzing is responsible for almost anything one might describe as paranormal - aliens, heavenly apparitions, past-life sensations, near-death experiences, awareness of the soul, you name it.

We’ve known for millenia that our minds are tricky things. There are scores of drugs which affect our perceptions and beliefs. If you drop some acid and see your chair talking to you, would you consider it revelation?

Furthermore, the various testimonies of people who’ve undergone such “revelations” contradict each other. Some see Mohammed — you, as a Christian, wouldn’t believe that to be a legitimate revelation experience, right? The most you could say is that there is some truth to the experience, but the person is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview.

Well, why not take it one step farther and say that everybody who undergoes such an experience is interpreting it according to his or her own worldview? Neuhaus experienced two presences and heard a sentence. He added the interpretation of who the presences were and what the sentence meant.

Surely Neuhaus was on medication and was in an unusual medical condition as well. The whole thing could have been an unusually lucid dream. For all I know, the two figures could have been a real doctor and a nurse saying that everything was ready for a procedure.

Once, when my middle-aged, normally sane father was in the hospital, he woke up from a nap convinced that he had to rush to the nearby university during the Final Four game because he was on their basketball team and they needed him desperately. Another time, free from sickness or medication, my father had a strong premonition that he was going to win the lottery. Normally a skeptical person who had never bought a lottery ticket in his life, he rushed out to buy one. He didn’t win.

I ended my comment there, but I'd like to post a few more excerpts from the article, which you should read in full:

Technically speaking, what's about to happen is simple. Using his fixed wavelength patterns of electromagnetic fields, Persinger aims to inspire a feeling of a sensed presence - he claims he can also zap you with euphoria, anxiety, fear, even sexual stirring. Each of these electromagnetic patterns is represented by columns of numbers - thousands of them, ranging from 0 to 255 - that denote the increments of output for the computer generating the EM bursts.

Some of the bursts - which Persinger more precisely calls "a series of complex repetitive patterns whose frequency is modified variably over time" - have generated their intended effects with great regularity, the way aspirin causes pain relief. Persinger has started naming them and is creating a sort of EM pharmacological dictionary. The pattern that stimulates a sensed presence is called the Thomas Pulse, named for Persinger's colleague Alex Thomas, who developed it. There's another one called Burst X, which reproduces what Persinger describes as a sensation of "relaxation and pleasantness."

Here's the author's description of his own experience:

When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.

Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion. Something is definitely happening. During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.) Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.

In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.

Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.

If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associ-ated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.

I'm not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I'm not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid - read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.

So: Something took place. Still, when the helmet comes off and they shove a questionnaire in my hand, I feel like a failure. One question: Did the red bulb on the wall grow larger or smaller? There was a red bulb on the wall? I hadn't noticed. Many other questions suggest that there were other experiences I should have had, but to be honest, I didn't.

In fact, as transcendental experiences go, on a scale of 1 to 10, Persinger's helmet falls somewhere around, oh, 4. Even though I did have a fairly convincing out-of-body experience, I'm disappointed relative to the great expectations and anxieties I had going in.

It may be that all the preliminary talk about visions just set my rational left hemisphere into highly skeptical overdrive. Setting me up like that - you will experience the presence of God - might have been a mistake. When I bring this up later with Persinger, he tells me that the machine's effects differ among people, depending on their "lability" - Persinger jargon meaning sensitivity or vulnerability.

"Also, you were in a comfortable laboratory," he points out. "You knew nothing could happen to you. What if the same intense experience occurred at 3 in the morning in a bedroom all by yourself? Or you suddenly stalled on an abandoned road at night when you saw a peculiar light and then had that experience? What label would you have placed on it then?"

Point taken. I'd probably be calling Art Bell once a week, alerting the world to the alien invasion.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Richard Dawkins Has Lost My Respect

I love his books about evolution. I admire the way he's pushed atheism into the public discussion. I even paid ten bucks to see him speak once.

But this is just awful. I've frequently criticized religious bloggers for not objecting to the rantings of their loony brethren and so I feel obligated to shout my disagreement with Dawkins here.

Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place. --Richard Dawkins, as told to Emily Hourican, in The Dubliner. Via Mark.

What a callous, wrongheaded statement.

The Catholic upbringing, terrifying children with fears of Hell and telling boys who will inevitably masturbate that masturbation is a terrible sin, can indeed be harmful. But Dawkins is way, way out of line comparing it to -- no, considering it worse than -- the sexual abuse of children.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Young Earth Creationism Vs. Old Earth Creationism


The split between those who believe in evolution and those who don't gets all the press, but the divide between those who believe the world is less than 10,000 years old and those who believe it's billions of years old is nearly as big. Not only is it nearly as big, but it's even more astounding a difference.

On one side, ten thousand years. On the other, four billion.

10,000 vs. 4,000,000,000.

One side believes the world to be four hundred thousand times older than the other.

That's a hell of a difference, isn't it? Why doesn't anybody talk about it? Why all the focus on evolution?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Let's Try to Keep an Open Mind

Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.
-- Sir James M. Barrie

To what extent can we know another's motives?

Are people opposed to same-sex marriage homophobic bigots? Or do they value tradition or religious beliefs more than allowing gay people to get married? Are they torn about the issue, pulled one way by their hearts and another by their religious convictions?

Are supporters of abortion irresponsible, immoral sluts who want to escape the consequences of their actions? Or do they believe that a woman has sovereignty over her body or that the costs of criminalizing abortion are too steep? Are they torn?

Are politicians whores who will say anything for a vote or idealists who are working within the system as well as they can? (Okay, probably whores.)

Lately, I've been reading some conservative-leaning blogs which routinely assume bad -- or bizarre -- motives for liberals' actions. They seem to assume liberals do everything out of misplaced guilt or a shallow desire to pat themselves on the back for being politically correct.

I've been making the same mistake about conservatives' motives. I've assumed that many vociferous opponents of illegal immigration are barely-disguised racists and that opponents of welfare and affirmative action don't care about the poor and minorities.

I think it's time we stop assuming. If someone does one thing and says another, we may point it out. If one admits to a motive we find reprehensible we should argue forcefully with them. But if someone takes a position without stating a motive, or claims a motive about which we are skeptical but have no counter-evidence, let's stick to the arguments presented rather than arguing about what's going on inside other people's brains.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Quote of the Day: Democrats and Republicans

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it. --P. J. O'Rourke

Too bad the Republicans are so damn good at it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Quote of the Day: Truth Vs. Prior Conlusions

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life. --Tolstoy

Monday, October 09, 2006

Texas GOP Argues Atheist Shouldn't Be Elected

This is appalling and unconstitutional. ("[N]o religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.")

Funny how Christians (who have the Presidency, the overwhelming majority of the House and Senate, and practically all Judgeships) claim to be persecuted against.

Candidate for the Sixth Court of Appeals, Ben Franks, is reported to be a professed atheist and apparently believes the Bible is a "collection of myths."


All elected or appointed officials in Texas must take the oath prescribed by Art. XVI, Section 1(a) of the Texas Constitution:

"I, _____ , do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of _____ of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God." [Emphasis original.]

Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch "atheist" belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas. [Emphasis mine.]

From the Republican Party of Texas's website, via Andrew Sullivan.

When are the non-crazy Republicans going to wake up and take back their Party?

It's worth noting that Franks disputes the claim that he has professed to be an atheist, although it shouldn't be relevant.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Do I Tell My Wife I've Become an Atheist?"

I love my wife. She is deeply religious. I have become an atheist. Do I tell her? What now?

Unfortunately, a lot of my readers may find this discussion useful. I'm so glad I left Orthodoxy without getting married. Telling my parents was hard enough.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Progression of Religious Honesty

Which stage are you in?

1) God created the universe approximately 6,000 years ago, which is what science would tell us if it weren't biased.

2) God created the universe approximately 6,000 years ago but made it look older than it is.

3) God created the universe billions of years ago, exactly as the Bible describes it if "yom" means "era" rather than "day."

4) God created the universe billions of years ago, but man was a special creation approximately 6,000 years ago and the rest of the Torah is still true.

5) God created the universe billions of years ago and guided evolution to make man, but the rest of the Torah is still true.

6) God kicked off the universe billions of years ago, fine-tuning it ahead of time to ensure man would evolve and the rest of the Torah is still true.

7) Adam and Eve and the tower of Babel are probably mythological, but the rest of the Torah is still true.

8) Also, the Flood story is exaggerated, but the rest of the Torah is still true.

9) Also, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs may be mythological, but the rest of the Torah is still true.

10) Moses may have written the Torah himself with divine inspiration rather than taking down God's dictation, but the Torah is still divine.

11) Moses and the Exodus may be mythological, and the Torah may have been written by several men across several centuries, but the Torah is still unique and divinely inspired.

12) The Torah may be no more than a flawed product of its era, but Judaism is mankind's best method of reaching towards the Divine.

13) God hasn't had any involvement with humanity since the dawn of time, but He was still the Prime Mover who fine-tuned the universe.

14) There was a Prime Mover, which we can't say anything about, but we'll call it "God" to make ourselves feel better.

15) Nature is "God."

16) "God" is love.

17) We don't know if there is a God. Could go either way.

18) It sure doesn't seem like there is a God.

Legislating Violations of the Constitution

With little public attention or even notice, the House of Representatives has passed a bill that undermines enforcement of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. The Public Expression of Religion Act - H.R. 2679 - provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorneys fees. The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.

A federal statute, 42 United States Code section 1988, provides that attorneys are entitled to recover compensation for their fees if they successfully represent a plaintiff asserting a violation of his or her constitutional or civil rights. For example, a lawyer who successfully sues on behalf of a victim of racial discrimination or police abuse is entitled to recover attorney's fees from the defendant who acted wrongfully. Any plaintiff who successfully sues to remedy a violation of the Constitution or a federal civil rights statute is entitled to have his or her attorney's fees paid.

Congress adopted this statute for a simple reason: to encourage attorneys to bring cases on behalf of those whose rights have been violated. Congress was concerned that such individuals often cannot afford an attorney and vindicating constitutional rights rarely generates enough in damages to pay a lawyer on a contingency fee basis.

Without this statute, there is no way to compensate attorneys who successfully sue for injunctions to stop unconstitutional government behavior. Congress rightly recognized that attorneys who bring such actions are serving society's interests by stopping the government from violating the Constitution. Indeed, the potential for such suits deters government wrong-doing and increases the likelihood that the Constitution will be followed.


[C]onservatives in the House of Representatives have now passed an insidious bill to try and limit enforcement of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, by denying attorneys fees to lawyers who successfully challenge government actions as violating this key constitutional provision. For instance, a lawyer who successfully challenged unconstitutional prayers in schools or unconstitutional symbols on religious property or impermissible aid to religious groups would -- under the bill -- not be entitled to recover attorneys' fees. The bill, if enacted, would treat suits to enforce the Establishment Clause different from litigation to enforce all of the other provisions of the Constitution and federal civil rights statutes.

Such a bill could have only one motive: to protect unconstitutional government actions advancing religion. The religious right, which has been trying for years to use government to advance their religious views, wants to reduce the likelihood that their efforts will be declared unconstitutional. Since they cannot change the law of the Establishment Clause by statute, they have turned their attention to trying to prevent its enforcement by eliminating the possibility for recovery of attorneys' fees.

Those who successfully prove the government has violated their constitutional rights would, under the bill, be required to pay their own legal fees. Few people can afford to do so. Without the possibility of attorneys' fees, individuals who suffer unconstitutional religious persecution often will be unable to sue. The bill applies even to cases involving illegal religious coercion of public school children or blatant discrimination against particular religions.

The passage of this bill by the House is a disturbing achievement by those who seek to undermine our nation's commitment to fundamental freedoms laid out in the Constitution. Should it come up for a vote, it is imperative that the Senate reject this nefarious proposal. The religious right is looking for a way to get away with violating the Establishment Clause and is now one step closer to this goal. The Establishment Clause is no less important than any other part of the Bill of Rights and suits to enforce it should be treated no differently than any other litigation to enforce civil liberties and civil rights.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science, at Duke University

Legislating Violations of the Constitution, via Religious Freaks

"The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion."

of Republicans supported it and 87% of Democrats opposed.