• One in four employees consider themselves religious
  • Almost half of them is Protestant
  • Only 11 percent shares religious or philosophical convictions with students
  • 46 percent thinks science and religion are incompatible
infographic religieonderzoek EM 4

Erasmus University is a secular university. However, there are still academics working here who have religious beliefs. How large is that group, what do they believe and how is that expressed in their work? To find out, EM conducted a survey. Religion is apparently a big issue, because within three days, 533 staff responded.

26 percent of EUR staff consider themselves religious. Among academics, that percentage is slightly higher, 29 percent, while 21 percent of the support staff are religious. Agnosticism is more common among support staff than among academic staff: 43 percent and 36 percent respectively.

Religious rituals

infographic religieonderzoek EM 4 – welke religie

A quarter of the staff practise religious rituals at work; a fifth of them do this every day. The rituals of these 25 percent vary from a monthly ‘express prayer when something important is about to happen’ to the five daily prayers of Islam. A Muslim academic describes these rituals: “I pray five times a day, even more if I feel I need some encouragement to concentrate on my work or if I feel lost.” Praying is by far the most common ritual, but listening to music and meditation are also mentioned. A Buddhist member of staff practises “mindfulness meditation, friendliness, a vegan diet and lifestyle, the behaviour and the ethics of ‘do no harm’, active listening and social engagement”.

Nearly half of the religious staff are Protestant, 19 percent are Catholic and 10 percent Muslim. More than one in ten staff members who consider themselves religious would not attribute their beliefs to one of the major world religions. They call themselves ‘somethingist’ or spiritual or are unwilling to give a name to their religious beliefs. “There’s a higher power, but I don’t know exactly what that is,” writes one of the respondents: “Not one religion in particular; more the mystical schools from various religions.” A third: “I believe that there’s more between heaven and earth.”

Discussing religious beliefs

Only 11 percent of the academics discuss their religious or philosophical ideas with students. All the respondents were asked whether they feel that lecturers should share their religious beliefs with students. 26 percent agree, while half disagree. Among atheist respondents, this is 56 percent, while only 35 percent of the religious respondents are of this opinion.

“Your religious ideas are like your penis or vagina: you keep them private,” writes one atheist economist. He gets support from an agnostic PhD student: “I would say that lecturers should chair a discussion about religion rather than adopting a position themselves.” Another agnostic who does talk about personal religious and philosophical ideas with students sees it differently: “For clear communication, expressing your views of the world is indispensable.”

Nevertheless, one religious academic does not feel that her beliefs “should be explicitly shared with students”, but she places a critical note here. “As a student, however, I had several university lecturers who did explicitly express their atheism.” She therefore wonders whether a university shouldn’t offer an environment which “is totally free of religious ideas and communications, so both pro and anti-religious visions”.

45 percent of the academics do talk to colleagues about their religious or philosophical beliefs, although not everyone feels free to do so. “Because the RSM is a very atheist environment, I don’t see it as a place where I can admit to having religious beliefs,” writes a protestant PhD student.

Science and belief

All the respondents were asked whether they felt that science and religion are compatible. 46 percent feel they aren’t, 32 percent feel they are. Of the religious respondents, nearly three quarters thought this. Among agnostics and atheists, only 22 and 15 percent.

“Religion does not belong at a university. In fact, it is a contradiction in terms,” according to an atheist professor. An agnostic participant underlines this: “Strong conviction, about religion or any other subject, is not a desired trait for university staff. Constant research is the characteristic that improves science and the world.” A Catholic academic disagrees: “Science is about explaining events in terms of motives and causes; religion is about their ultimate goal. They do not contradict each other because they concern two different aspects of reality.”

Religious influence

A majority of 61 percent feel that religious beliefs should not influence the work of an academic. Support staff are slightly stricter than academics: 67 percent versus 56 percent. Of the atheist respondents, three quarters shared this opinion. Among agnostics, this is 68 percent and among religious respondents 31 percent. 41 percent of people who call themselves religious feel that religious beliefs may affect the work of academics.

One Muslim in the survey describes this as follows: “Being religious has made me more aware of our daily life. As a contemplation phase, it can be part of your life, when I reflect on findings in my research or about good or less good things that I’ve done.” A Protestant has doubts about whether religion may have an influence on academic work: “If religion is a ‘certainty’ (and unfortunately it is for many people), then I disagree. If religion is about ‘searching and admiration’, that’s fine.”

Many respondents make a condition. For example, they say that religious beliefs may not influence their work, but it may serve as a source of inspiration or study object, or they feel that academics should be open about their religious or philosophical beliefs. “Science is not value-free,” writes an atheist lawyer. “Of course someone’s beliefs play a role, even if it’s just deciding what subject to research. However, it’s important that beliefs and assumptions are identified and that they may be subject of discussion.”