Last November we learned that the US public believes in God more than college professors, who believe more than professors at elite schools….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?
I’m sure we could tell any number of just-so stories here, though the one I’d expect most people to fall back on first—elite “social pressure”—has an obvious circularity to it. I’m inclined to favor the rather prosaic explanation that rejecting religion is just what highly intelligent, educated people typically do in a milieu where they’re expected to think hard about such questions and come up with defensible rather than merely personally pleasing answers, and that the tendency to reject will covary directly with these factors because it’s the correct tendency. But that’s not to say other forces might not be at work. For instance, if your disposition is to want to develop theories to understand and explain the world around you in an abstract and fundamental way, it would presumably be disappointing to learn that for many complex phenomena, the end of the explanatory road is just that God did it, for motives and by means that are both beyond human fathoming. Or, to borrow a page from Nozick’s account of intellectual hostility to socialism, you might prefer to think that the pursuit of the kind of knowledge to which you’ve devoted your life is important and useful, rather than a sort of sideshow to the really crucial task of attaining salvation through faith and grace, in which you have no special expertise.
We could go on, I’m sure, but it seems the fairer question to ask is: Are there any such stories where the factors we’re imagining as atheist biases aren’t matched by parallel factors in the general population pushing even more strongly in the other direction? After all, while it may be a disappointment to the theoretically inclined to discover that the answer to their deepest questions is “God did it,” surely many will find this wholly congenial: You know the Big Answer to all the Big Questions without doing any hard work; have a piña colada! I expect looking at biasing factors on both sides of the ledger will find them much heavier in the direction of belief.
Addendum: James Joyner suggests that whatever added credence we give the views of academics ought to be limited to their field of expertise. Fair enough; that would seem to suggest either philosophy or theology. But theology at worst assumes the answer to the question, at best is subject to a very strong selection bias, insofar as I doubt very many people pursue theology doctorates without a powerful preexisting conviction that God exists. That leaves philosophy. I’ve got no numbers here, but I’d lay money that there’s much, much more disbelief among philosophers at elite institutions than among either the general population or academics in general. Of course, part of the problem here is deciding what counts as “expertise.” If you think belief in religious propositions is a matter of faith generated by some kind of direct apprehension of their truth, then training in syllogisms is not going to count as providing the relevant expertise. But then, philosophers are also the ones who devote a lot of energy to debating things like whether that counts as a sound method of belief formation.