Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Law professors are more religious than scientists, but it probably doesn’t matter much (Michael Simkovic)

At Taxprof blog, Paul Caron (Dean, Pepperdine) covers a study by James Lindgren (Northwestern) about the religious beliefs and practices of law professors.  Lindgren compares law professors to the overall U.S. population and finds that law professors are more likely to express doubts about the existence of God. 

This study is part of a line of research from Lindgren and others which compares law professors to the general population or the median member of congress on dimensions like religious or political views.  In my view, these comparison groups are uninformative and inappropriate for some of the uses to which they have been put.  For example, some argue for hiring preferences for faculty members with certain supposedly under-represented ideological views. 

Law professors should not be judged by their ideological beliefs, but by their academic rigor. Law professors should not be compared to the general U.S. population or members of congress, but rather to scientists. Like scientists, law professors are much more highly educated than the general population, have higher incomes,1 and have opted into a career where they are expected to advance knowledge, often by relying on data collection and analysis based on scientific principles of causal inference.  Even non-empiricists are taught and teach that legal adjudication depends on application of legal rules and standards to facts and evidence, not on faith. (Brian Leiter notes that law professors are also more religious than philosophers).

Many law professors are also likely more familiar with other cultures where religion plays a smaller role than in the U.S., such as Western Europe and much of East Asia, because of conference and personal travel and because of interactions within the U.S. with international students and scholars.  For a high-income country, the U.S. is unusually devout, more closely resembling Cyprus or Poland than the UK or Japan.

Pew research finds that 41 percent of scientists do not believe in God or a Higher Power, and an additional 18 percent do not believe in God.  Thus 59 percent of scientists report that they do not believe in God.  By contrast according to Lindgren’s study, only 24 percent of law professors report that they do not believe in God.  Law professors are therefore approximately 2.5 times as religious as scientists. This is in spite of the fact that law professors are disproportionately trained in the North East of the United States, a region that is on average both more economically developed than much of the rest of the country1--in the sense of having higher per-capita income and higher life expectancy--and also less religiously devout

But it is not clear that law professors' relatively high level of religiosity makes much of a difference.  Outside of some narrow subjects that are mostly confined to a few days of a Constitutional Law classes, most subjects taught in law school have very little to do with religious belief. For example, it is unclear how a religious conception of basis or capital gains or the business judgement rule would differ from a secular one in a way that would be pedagogically or legally materially relevant. Moreover, even when covering religiously sensitive topics, in my experience most law professors have the empathy and poise to fairly and respectfully describe views and perspectives other than their own.

The potential benefits of religion and spirituality (see footnote below) may suggest that universities--even non-religiously-affiliated universities--should make pastoral and counseling services and faith-based affinity groups readily available to students, faculty, and staff who might benefit from them, but do not suggest a reason to specifically favor religious faculty in appointments decisions.

1Belief in God is inversely correlated with income and education, i.e., as income and education level increase, the percent of the population group that believes in God declines.  This does not necessarily mean that education or high incomes cause people to become less religious (although some studies find evidence of this, with others finding that church attendance increases with education and income), nor does it mean that religious beliefs are an impediment to academic or worldly success (although some studies find that religiosity or spirituality may reduce income while also helping to protect against or treat clinical depression).


Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink