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Secular Universities and Evangelical Christians--Stuntz

Are secular university faculties prejudiced against evangelical Christians?

The folks at Volokh [link here] are having an interesting discussion about that question. The conversation was kicked off by a study that, I gather, shows that 53% of university faculty members view evangelicals negatively. Todd Zywicki says that figure suggests a measure of bigotry among those who teach in secular universities.

Having been a part of the secular university world for almost thirty years (counting my student days)—and having belonged to evangelical churches for more than twenty years—I’m quite sure that anti-Christian bigotry exists, and that its targets extend beyond evangelicals. But bigotry is not an on-off category; differences of degree matter. And while I have only my own experience to go on, my impression is that the amount and depth of hostility have declined sharply in the last couple of decades, and especially in the last several years.

I’m not in the closet about my own faith, and I have never been penalized for it, so far as I can tell. Twenty years ago, I think it was reasonable to expect that one would be penalized for religious beliefs like mine: in the 1980s, theologically orthodox Christians were widely seen as mean-spirited, not just crazy or dumb. I have seen no instances of that way of thinking among my colleagues in eight years teaching at Harvard. One consequence of the decline of any kind of bigotry is that the worst bigots keep their views to themselves for fear of being stigmatized. I think that has happened in a lot of universities, including the two that have employed me. Unless I miss my guess, the large majority of that 53% are guilty of nothing more than skepticism about a belief system that seems a little (or a lot) crazy to them. That strikes me as a perfectly legitimate reaction, not a nasty or bigoted one. There are plenty of views that I regard as crazy; it would be self-aggrandizing for me to object to others viewing my beliefs in similar terms. That’s life: people believe different things, and though we can try to convince one another, no one has the right to insist that anyone else buy his beliefs.

If I’m right about the long-term trend toward greater tolerance of religious believers—maybe I’m not: I have only anecdotal evidence—what lies behind it? A couple of things, I think. First, American evangelicals have changed our emphasis over the past decade or so: hang around evangelical churches, and you’ll hear a lot more talk about poverty and disease than in the past, and a lot less talk about the culture’s moral failings. Second, the rising importance of diversity to most secular university faculty members has produced a greater willingness to hire professors who have strong religious convictions, even if those convictions seem bizarre to most of their colleagues. A third reason is the rising political importance of terrorism and the war in the Iraq, and the declining political importance of abortion. After the South Dakota referendum in 2006, it isn’t clear that pro-life folks can win anywhere; even if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, abortion law would quickly move to something close to its current stance. And unlike abortion, evangelicals don’t cluster on one side of the debates about Iraq and terrorism. That leads to greater tolerance, I suspect. But once again, I could be wrong; others’ experience may be very different—and different parts of universities could respond to religious believers differently. Maybe law schools have grown more tolerant while humanities departments have grown less so. I’d be interested in hearing from others whose experiences differ from my own.

Of one thing I’m pretty certain: anyone teaching in a secular university does his or her reputation more harm by saying good things about the current President Bush than by publicly embracing any set of religious convictions.


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Comments ( 12 )

What about the inverse of "loving the sinner but hating the sin" directed towards evangelicals. Suppose someone states: I think you are a great guy and I have no problem with you (or any evangelical) as a person, but I think what you believe in is nuts? Is that "bigotry" along the same grounds as "I can't stand evangelicals."

BTW: I have no problem with evangelicals. As a former student of Prof. Skeel's at Temple Law, I have the highest regard for him as a person; he struck me then and still strikes me now as an all around "great guy."

I am not an atheist. I hope for something "better" beyond the grave, in an quasi-agnostic sense and admit if atheism is indeed the truth, it's certainly not a lovable one, but a bleak one. Indeed, if evangelical Christianity is true, then there is not something "better" awaiting for me if I currently die without becoming an evangelical, but something terrible!

As it were, my biggest problem with evangelical thought is its belief on salvation. If what orthodox evangelical Christianity teaches is true regarding salvation -- that you must accept "Christ" as He really exists (as *the only* Savior in a Triune Godhead about Whom the infallible Bible teaches) -- or else you are damned...and considering that the overwhelming majority of humanity ends up NOT accepting this and are consequently damned to a horrible place for eternity!...then what a horrible reality this actually ends up being.

Evangelical Christianity, if True, is horribly "bad news" with a silver lining that you can escape the terrible fate that awaits most of humanity almost necessarily including many of your loved ones.

*This of course assumes that Hell is a "bad place" to be, as opposed to some kind of benign separation from God, where folks get to basically continue their "unsaved" existence they lived on Earth for the rest of eternity.

"the rising importance of diversity to most secular university faculty members has produced a greater willingness to hire professors who have strong religious convictions"

I would like to believe this, but in my experience the idea of diversity in higher education is a narrow one.

Sure, if you're a former Supreme Court clerk and graduate of a top 10 law school, being an evangelical isn't going to hurt you too much - but for the rest of us, being an orthodox Christian and not having those protections of prestige leaves us very much unprotected against the bigotry very evident in today's universities against people of faith.

I'm sure some people would say that bigotry is justified - and maybe it is - but then by that logic, most bigotry is justified irrespective of who is the target.

Thanks you for sharing your experiences and your views. But can we explore some of these? You state that your colleagues view Christianity with “… skepticism about a belief system that seems a little (or a lot) crazy to them.” “Crazy?” That seems an extreme view for a belief system that has been around for a few thousand years and that has been the basic theological belief system in this country since the first white settlers; a belief system that surrounds the people in this country like water in a warm bath. Does the faculty at Harvard believe that most Americans are “Crazy?”

My second point is that you believe that attitudes toward Christians may be changing because Christians have begun to embrace the secular attitudes of the Harvard faculty toward social programs and leaving such outmoded concepts sin and redemption. In other words, shifting the focus of religion from your personal relationship to God to your relationship to man. Of course that is exactly what mainline churches have been doing. But I have always had a problem with the “Church” becoming the religious arm of the Department of HEW; social workers with clerical collars. I’m fairly sure that will get you greater acceptance by a group who think that your belief in God is crazy.

On re-reading this I realize that my comments could be misinterpreted. They are not meant to be “snarky.” They are simply my reaction to what you have written from my perspective.

Good observations, Moneyrunner. Of course, the ideal situation is that our primary focus on developing our relationship with God will lead to secondary and tertiary improvement in our relationship with fellow man.

Just as a thought experiment, in reaction to question one: what if damnation, rather than an active place of punishment, is as you say a place of separation? Then perhaps the punishment is one of withdrawal?
Suppose that while souls are on earth they are sustained by a divine spark. Suppose that during time on earth, all judgment is withheld and no matter the level of sin or evil the spirit is sustained. Perhaps it is this esoteric element that allows for social identity: perhaps it provides our ability to love and be loved.
Then suppose that after death, the spirit lives... and goes to judgment. What would it mean to be in "rebellion"? Incompatibility with the main source of spirit. Perhaps, and this is just a thought experiment, heaven is a place of fulfillment because the discrete spirit are unified within the greater spirit-- all souls become one, and that joy of love is eternal.

Now, suppose that hell is a place of permanent detachment. Suppose that, as you describe, there is no lake of fire or sulfur, but just a separate existence. That would mean no ability to love or be loved, as that divine essence (God is love, etc) is eternally withdrawn. Thus all pain is without ceasing. Perhaps souls can't be destroyed, and thus must be separated or joined...

These are pretty religious thoughts for an agnostic so I will stop.

If the definition of evangelical or orthodox in this context has anything to do with biblical literalism/inerrancy, then I wouldn't get my hopes up for some kind of detente with academics. Or with modernity for that matter. It is a free country, everyone should knock themselves out. But that works both ways, and if you run around proclaiming your belief in something that is irrational, then you will probably be called on it.

I know it isn't fair because white guilt and leftwing politics prevent most academics from giving Islam the same treatment. But that is what fairness would look like: disdain for all superstitions, not just the ones most associated with rightwing politics in America. The fact is, anyone who goes around thinking the Bible is the literal word of god is not likely to be a strong critical thinker nor to have a firm grasp on how evidence works.

Re: "if you run around proclaiming your belief in something that is irrational"

Everyone has to choose foundational beliefs. The consequences of one's choice can be assessed by rational means, but every rational methodology requires a source of premises, and must include at least one major faith commitment prior to beginning the reasoning process: trust in the truth-preserving properties of the reasoning process itself. That, and other starting points are, by their nature, prior to reasoning, i.e., "irrational".

Most of the uses of the adjective "irrational" that I see in print or conversation employ it as a pejorative term whose meaning, when analyzed, boils down to "you don't buy my premises". Your comment is such an instance, based on your statement: "The fact is, anyone who goes around thinking the Bible is the literal word of god is not likely to be a strong critical thinker nor to have a firm grasp on how evidence works."

Perhaps I'm wrong. It's always possible. You might tell us "how evidence works". Maybe we can glean from that something about what your starting point is. But absent that, please drop the tedious, mindless pejoratives.

willis - compared, say, to the critical thinking of people who thought the USSR the moral equivalent of the US? Or who think that oil companies spend billions tweaking the price of gas so that Republicans can be elected? Or who think organic food is superior? I prefer the evolution account to creationism, but the evidence isn't quite so out in front of us as the superstitions of academics are.

We would likely agree on many points. Just be careful about jumping to conclusions.

Brian - several Christian groups believe that. I tend toward the CS Lewis view that the doors of hell are locked from the inside.

Willis, you might want to distinguish between such widely different views as inerrancy and literalism. An inerrantist believes what the Bible is intended to communicate is true. A literalist believes everything in the Bible is literal, and there are no metaphors. This comes in degrees, since no one is too stupid to think literalism in its extreme form is true. Jesus wasn't a plant just because he said he's the vine. But some people take a lot more of the passages in the Bible literally than others, and inerrancy doesn't require doing that. All it requires is that whatever was intended to be communicated is true, and a lot might not be intended literally as the people often thought of as literalists might think. Someone who holds that can still be an inerrantist, and I think there's a world of difference between those views.

I'm in a program that among philosophy programs is very open to evangelicals compared to many others. Yet two faculty refused to serve as adviser to an evangelical who wanted to argue that religious convictions are a legitimate basis for private citizens to base their support for public policy matters. A number of the faculty and students over the decade or so I've been around simply don't care about religious matters and think those who do are being silly and childish. A few respect us but do little more.

I know from reports from others, including a former atheist who has become a Christian, that a number of the students would make fun of the Christians among the grad students behind our backs. I know of at least one student who is embarrassed enough to be an evangelical that no one knows except one or two of the other Christians who have been in the program at the same time as him. An theist on the faculty told me that another faculty member opposed hiring someone because the person believed in God and explicitly gave this as a reason with the expectation that they all would agree. I had a grad student say to me once of a top-notch philosopher we were hiring, "Is he really a Christian?" with a sneer that carried the sense of "Ewww, gross."

Keep in mind that this is a program with a continuing history of evangelical students because of a past with some very big name faculty who happened to be Christians, and there's been a lot of friendliness to religion among many faculty. If these problems appear in such a place, imagine what it's like in a place where there have been hardly any theists, never mind evangelicals, for decades. Philosophers who do not work in philosophy of religion are very dismissive of religion (without being aware at all of the best work defending it in philosophy of religion).

Jeremy, you are one smart dude. Your discussion of inerrancy/literalism is the best summary I have ever heard. You need to explain this to people like Penn & Teller and Bill Maher who mock a caricature of what orthodox Christians believe. Also, thanks for taking a stand on the academy's intolerance of Christianity.

My experience in academia is that while people may not openly express hostility toward Christianity they are nonetheless hostile toward it because they embrace secularity. Secularity is the new religion. And anyone who does not embrace it is seen as a threat to it. And I have experienced that in a Catholic University and in a secular State university.