Is academia entering a “post-secular” stage? That this question was asked at all at a session of the Association for the Sociology of Religion meeting in Philadelphia in mid-August, suggests that something is afoot.
Much of the new religious influence in academia is due to a burst of evangelical confidence and activism, said Michael Lindsey of Princeton University. Lindsey added that a new breed of evangelical elite leaders, particularly philanthropists, have built powerful networks linking students and scholars that are having a “trickle-down effect” at universities.
Groups and individuals such as the Christian Union based at Ivy League colleges, a new initiative to fund evangelical students at elite schools, and the wide ranging efforts of Howard and Roberta Ahmanson and other philanthropists (400 of them, according to Lindsey) and foundations are all leading to a “deghettoization of evangelical scholarship.” John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania preferred the modifier “post-hyper-secularism” to “post-secularism,” and said the movement is more “from below” as “religious kids coming to elite schools are pushing these changes from below.”
Changes may also be taking place among the faculty. Most research has shown that it is the social scientists (sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists) who have registered the highest levels of nonbelief while the natural and applied scientists have shown more religious interest. But Elaine Ecklund Howard of Rice University presented preliminary findings from a survey of 1,646 professors which showed that the divide between largely secularist social scientists and more religion-friendly natural scientists may be narrowing.
About 29 percent of natural scientists agreed with the statement that there is “very little truth in any religion,“ compared to 23 percent of social scientists. In contrast, about 74 percent of social scientists think there are “basic truths in many religions” compared to 69 percent of natural scientists.
Both natural and social scientists viewed spirituality positively; about 57 percent of natural scientists identified themselves as moderately or slightly spiritual, while about 60 percent of social scientists did so. There has been an overall decline of Jewish faculty in the natural and social sciences and an increase in the number of Catholic faculty.
Howard added that these findings may reflect the changing demographics of the U.S. population, but the key finding of the narrowing gap between social and natural scientists may have more to do with changes within academia; more women are in the academy today, and women overall tend to be more religious than men. Howard noted that few of the faculty claim an evangelical or fundamentalist identity. But DiIulio suggested that “a groundswell of Ph.D.’s from Christian colleges will change that [pattern].”