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Please forgive me, Professor, for I have sinned

A recent Harvard Divinity School study examines separation of church and campus

Published: Thursday, February 8, 2007

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 13:08

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Vanessa White

University Chaplain David O'Leary stands strong in his belief that religion does not affect how Tufts professors teach.

According to the "hoot and cry of the far-right, American universities are all bastions of atheism and communism," University Chaplain Reverend David O'Leary said, referring to a stereotype of the college professoriate as a demographic largely devoid of religion.

It was in response to such long-held allegations that researchers at the Harvard Divinity School recently implemented a study to determine the religiosity of college and university professors around the country.

The study, entitled "How religious are America's college and university professors?," has been circulating throughout academia since last year. It will be published in a forthcoming volume entitled "The American University in a Post-Secular Age," edited by Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Jacobsen, Oxford University Press.

The study found that 23.4 percent of college and university professors describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics, with the remainder reporting some level of belief in God or another higher power. The authors also made a distinction between the general professoriate and those professors who teach at "elite doctoral institutions," as defined by the US News and World Report's list of the 50 best doctoral-awarding universities. In the latter category, 36.6 percent of respondents described themselves as atheists or agnostics.

Given the secular reputation of higher academia, the authors of the study say this data warrants investigation into the potential influence of personal religious beliefs on academic research.

"The fact that a higher proportion of professors are religious than the usual story of academic secularization would have us believe suggests that we need more research on the causal impact of professors' religious value commitments on the formation of their ideas," the report said. "There is much intellectual-historical evidence from eras past that religious or spiritual value commitments can channel a thinker's ideas in one direction rather than another."

Several members of the Tufts community, however, do not see a definitive link between personal religiosity and academic or professional work. Reverend O'Leary said the issue rarely comes into play with Tufts professors.

"At Tufts, I just don't think [religion] comes out in the classroom," he said. "The professors here are scholars and brilliant in their fields. You are in their classroom to get a scholarly opinion, not a personal one. Maybe because of my position - because I am who I am - I am being overly sensitive, but I can't imagine bringing personal religion into the classroom."

Junior Julie Hanlon, who took Rev. O'Leary's course "Catholic Moral and Social Teaching" in the comparative religion department, agreed.

"On the first day of class, he [Rev. O'Leary] said, 'I am the Chaplain and you can call me Father or Professor, but I am not going to let my position get in the way of teaching,'" she said. "He certainly didn't sugarcoat any of the history of the Catholic Church."

According to sophomore Adam Dworkin, personal religious views are irrelevant to the quality of teaching. "A good professor will be a good professor and a bad professor will be a bad professor no matter what religion they are," he said.

As for potential religious influence on academic research, Dworkin said it depends on the responsibility of the professor.

"Someone who is really passionate about their area of study should make a marked effort to keep their religious beliefs separate from their work, to keep the research unbiased," Dworkin said.

According to junior Kristen McCabe, religion is just one of many aspects of professors' personal character that may affect their work.

"Everyone is biased," she said. "It would be impossible to have a professor like a robot, without any religion or convictions. I think it's good that professors have convictions, as long as they don't shove them down your throat."

The authors of the study, however, were clear in their demand for further research into the issue.

"Intellectual historians and sociologists of knowledge ... have often failed to attend to the ways in which the intellectual choices of some of them - everything from the kind of topics they study to epistemology - may be influenced by their religious commitments and orientation," the report said. "This is a tendency that should be corrected."

Political science professor Richard Eichenberg said he was "indifferent" about the study and others like it.

"Religion is something virtually never discussed in universities outside of [academic contexts like] religion and history classes," he said. "It's just not something I think about a lot."

In addition to gauging the religious beliefs of college and university professors, the study also investigated professor religiosity in different academic fields. The fields of accounting, elementary education, finance, marketing, art, criminal justice and nursing were found to have the highest rates of religious professors, ranging from 44.4 percent to 63 percent.

Psychology and biology tied for the lowest percentages of religious professors, with 61 percent of respondents in both fields describing themselves as atheists or agnostics.

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