Religion at Paris-8, Part 1

The main point of this post is as follows: One of the most left-wing universities in France is composed of a majority — a very slight majority, mind you, but still a majority — of religious believers.

Charles Soulié, of the Paris-8 sociology department, kindly shared with me some unpublished results of a survey project on campus religious belief that he conducted in 2004-2005. I’m going to post my translation of it in three segments: first the basic figures, then his comments on foreign students, and finally some very interesting results about campus beliefs in magical phenomena like the Evil Eye (beliefs which, moreover, aren’t as extinct as one might expect in our supposedly postmodern era).

Here’s what the figures look like, broken down by discipline. (I’ll post some details about the survey later; for now let me just note that it’s a survey of undergrads.)

None* Muslims Catholics Other Christians Other Religions
Cinema 71,43% 8,16% 9,18% 0,00% 11,22%
Arts 64,93% 5,69% 10,43% 8,06% 10,90%
Psychology 56,15% 15,57% 9,43% 9,43% 9,43%
Anthropology 54,72% 14,15% 10,38% 9,43% 11,32%
Communication 48,31% 14,98% 17,87% 9,18% 9,66%
History 46,07% 25,84% 13,48% 6,74% 7,87%
Others 42,37% 25,42% 10,17% 10,17% 11,86%
French Lit 36,84% 31,58% 5,26% 19,30% 7,02%
Computer Sci 26,39% 45,83% 8,33% 9,72% 9,72%
Economics 22,63% 44,53% 12,41% 16,06% 4,38%
Total 49,92% 19,84% 11,41% 9,45% 9,38%
N (total 1,280) 639 254 146 121 120

* None designates no religion, atheist or no response.

Soulié’s commentary on this goes as follows:

50.1% of students are religious believers, the Muslims (19.8%) being more numerous than the Catholics (11.4%) or the other Christians (9.4%). The believers, in other words, are a majority at Paris-8, which is at the very least surprising in view of the history of this university. For it was created in 1968 by academics at odds with authority, academics who often claimed the banners of Marxism, Nietzscheanism and psychoanalysis, and who cast themselves, in some cases anyway, as the apostles of a way of life liberated from all constraints, especially sexual ones.

This said, the rate of religious believers varies strongly by discipline, seeing as it runs from 77% in economics to 28.6% in cinema. The Nietzscheans and Freudians are certainly more numerous in cinema, plastic arts, or philosophy than in economics, computer science or law, which moreover holds true for teachers as much as for students.

In addition to the historical irony that Soulié notes, I’m amazed to see that economics students are the most religious on campus. My amazement emerges, I guess, from my own American cultural prototype of economics students as the least spiritual people imaginable, as embodiments of sheer economic practicality. And conversely, it’s a general symbolic surprise to see that some of the most impractical humanities are simultaneously the least religious disciplines. The American stereotype, it seems to me, would be that religion and religious studies are more closely linked to the humanities than to any other disciplines, sharing with the humanities a common concern with moral, cosmological and existential issues. It makes me wonder if people who go into philosophy, anthropology or the arts are finding in these fields more a substitute for religious worldviews than a complement to some prior religiosity. It’s almost as if the humanities were competing with religion to offer students a symbolic relationship to the world. (I’m probably biased here by personal experience: I feel like anthropology does for me pretty much what religion does for many others, i.e., offers a meaningful way to interpret and inhabit the social universe.)

At the same time, one gets the sense that the more religious people are tending to go into practically oriented fields, as if their interest in higher education tended to be oriented more towards the economic and material than the philosophical. Of course, the figures (the disciplines are ordered from least to most religious, by the way) don’t give a completely clear picture; French Literature for instance is a relatively religious field, while something like Psychology is the third least religious while being a fairly “practical” field (in the sense that you can get jobs with a psych degree, like social work I guess). But even more importantly, it needs to be said too that religion can have a class correlate, such that an apparent correlation between being religious and choosing a more practical, job-oriented field may actually just reflect the fact that people from working-class backgrounds tend to choose practical, job-oriented fields. In particular, being Muslim (the biggest religious group) probably correlates with being working-class or at least not from the haute bourgeoisie, while some of the students who go into vocationally futile fields like, say, cinema are from wealthy Parisian backgrounds and not needing immediate economic returns from their education.

Soulié doesn’t give us figures on class background, but in the next installment we’ll look at the Paris-8 immigrant population, a social group that itself has fairly definite class trajectories.

3 thoughts on “Religion at Paris-8, Part 1

  1. Interesting stuff. Minor point: we’d ideally like to know how the data was collected… perhaps just accosting people on campus? if instead it was email or something, what was the response rate? Any reason to believe certain populations were over or under counted?

    I think I remember hearing that U.S. humanities professors are less religious than many scientific or business disciplines. There are a lot of potential explanations for this, it’d be interesting to try to tease them out. The ones you suggest are good candidates.

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