In her new book, Sarah Palin claims that most people who teach at universities “don’t share the religious faith of their fellow Americans.” A blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education unearths evidence that he believes proves she’s wrong. According to a professional journal article reporting results of a 2006 survey, “Just over 50 percent of professors surveyed either believe in God without reservation or believe despite harboring some doubts.” You can read more about that article here and here.
I have three thoughts. First, I find it impossible to draw inferences from the survey regarding the relationship of the faith of professors and the religious faith of the American people. Who knows what anyone means when he or she answers a survey question about belief in God? Do the professors questioned in the survey have the same deity in mind as those who are surveyed, for example, here? By my lights, his counterassertion is as problematical as Palin’s assertion.
Second, as I just said, Palin’s assertion is problematical. She offers no evidence and, indeed, I don’t know what kind of evidence she could offer. Professors are easy targets and she takes a potshot. This does nothing to convince me that she’s presidential timber. (I can almost hear her saying that in times of trouble professors cling to their Sam Harris books and their laptops.)
Third, on the other hand, it probably is the case that the loudest voices coming from the academy are those that are, to put it mildly, heterodox. Most ordinarily pious professors probably have little or no occasion to discuss their faith in their classrooms, unless they teach at religiously affiliated institutions. What place, for example, does one’s faith have in the accounting classroom? (I use this example because according to the aforementioned survey, accounting professors are more likely to believe in God than anyone else in higher education.) I’m not saying that faith should simply be private or that one should not bear witness in public, only that one’s witness would most likely be offered as a human being, rather than as a professor of such-and-such. There is a difference between a lectern and a pulpit and between a seminar and a small group.
So perhaps Sarah Palin can be excused for thinking that the loudest voices are necessarily representative. Ordinarily that’s what the loudest voices want us to believe. But isn’t it more “presidential” to distinguish between the volume of a speaker’s voice and the ”volume” of the people for whom he or she claims to speak?