Friday, July 30, 2010

Anti-Christian Discrimination in the Academy

Timothy Larsen, Wheaton College's formidable Professor of Christian Thought, today writes a formidable article on the experience of anti-Christian discrimination in the academy for the formidable e-publication Inside Higher Ed.

Always interesting with such articles are the comments that follow, insofar as internet comments are ever more than a banal exchange of rambling diatribes laced with ad hominem invective. One can surmise that for many established academicians, the historic Christian faith is so demonstrably without merit as to demand immediate, all-fronts repudiation, even when the Christian who articulates the faith isn't himself being obtusely dogmatic.

We mention this because what Larsen does in this piece is so innocuous, yet it sparks the usual rants. His proposal is simply that someone should study the subject of anti-Christian discrimination in the academy, by whatever quantitative or qualitative means that an intrepid scholar might devise. We find that an excellent proposal, inasmuch as all sides would benefit from the findings.

One can hardly imagine a more blandly neutral suggestion, yet many of Larsen's respondents cannot restrain their penchant to deride Christians as antirationalists who need to be corrected or excluded, as if the classic early-modern attacks on Christian faith were somehow not already addressed thoughtfully.

We (for purposes of interaction on Larsen's article, an "evangelical, low-church Christian teaching biblical studies at an evangelical Bible college," of all things) yesterday lunched with a new friend, an "Eastern Orthodox Christian teaching engineering at a large public research university." SWNID and friend see the issue of anti-Christian bias in the academy very similarly. We note this anecdotally for those who insist that the only ones perceiving discrimination are evangelicals. Of course (in response to one comment) liberal Protestant Christians don't complain of discrimination: their faith demands accommodation of the inculturated certainties of academe. The same goes for other people of faith who don't dissent from the universities' orthodoxies. But Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant who does dissent will experience the scorn that such dissent inevitably engenders--not by all, but with exceptional consistency.

Note well that we stand with those faithful dissenters who remind our fellow faithful that we are blessed when persecuted for righteousness, not when persecuted for rudeness. But dissent itself is not rude, or ought not be for people living in a free republic and speaking in what purports to be an open forum.


Chief Grinder said...

Hmmm. Not sure what to make of this as it does not correlate with my experience nor many of my Christian colleagues. Of course I ran into some hostility as a student but that happens when any ideologies collide, and it has never been to the point of being totally excluded. My guess would be there is more hostility on both coasts than in the the middle and south. I hope a study gets done as it would be interesting to see the results.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

It's certainly not universal, though it is common enough. Our experience of such is limited, but we would certainly cite a review of our published thesis that began by offering that everyone knows the kind of thesis produced at THAT university by its fundamentalist students.

The review sounded more learned in its original German.

We wonder whether a Christian of color receives greater deference in the non-Christian academy. There's another hypothesis for some intrepid researcher to explore.

Martin said...

Someone should do the study. But it shouldn't be done by anyone claiming to be a Christian, right? I mean, who in academia would accept such a study from such a person?

CDW said...

As an undergraduate at an elite East Coast school, I saw a great deal of hostility to small "o" orthodox Christianity, but directed at the faith, not its student practitioners. However, I heard several Christian faculty members say that they had to be very careful about making their faith public in their first few years on campus, fearing that their beliefs might negatively sway a tenure committee. The differences in discrimination for people in these two groups should form an important part of the proposed study.

Also worth noting that in my philosophy classes, most students were generally suspicious of truth claims and grand narratives, religious, ethical, political or scientific. In certain corners of academia, people use the same nasty language to describe Christians and physicists.

Chief Grinder said...

SWNID race I think is definitely a variable. The Academy is definitely one place where being non-white is in vogue. One of the leading voices in spirituality in education pastors an African American church. I remember when one of my graduate school professors advised me that I could not cite theologians for a paper in ethics class of all places. I pointed out to her the link between philosophers and theologians and that one of the books in our class was written by a minister (Cornel West). She then relented. I don't know if she would have if I was a WASP male.

Bryan D said...

Interchange I experienced not long ago:

Super—That sounds a bit evangelical, don't you think.

Me—I am an evangelical.

Super—Well, you must be careful about that sort of thing.

Me—(internally) Carefully evangelical, got it.

JB in CA said...

I'm not sure that a social-scientific study of this sort would be all that helpful. Bias—whether intentional or not—can easily enter (and usually does) at any stage of the process, from research design to peer review. I'm not saying it can't be done in a relatively unbiased way, only that there's too much vested interest in the outcome to think that it would be.

Besides, what would such a study consist of? A faculty questionnaire? [Yes or No. I give evangelicals low grades because I think they're stupid.] A student questionnaire? [My professor gave me a low grade because (a) I deserved it, or (b) I am an evangelical.] An ethnographic observation? [She taught a whole hour on The Great Awakening without once comparing Jonathan Edwards to Hitler.] An analysis of grade distributions? [Professor X didn't discriminate against that evangelical. She got lower grades in all her classes.] Or perhaps an examination of university admissions policies? [State U. does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, sexual preferences, sexual practices, sexual fantasies, sexual conquests, or religion (excluding evangelicalism).]

Joking aside, the problem is that discrimination is the result of a kind of bias, and so the very methods used to weed it out could just as easily incorporate it into the study.

The best prospect for a successful study of that sort, I believe, would be to have it done by a research team consisting of both proponents and opponents of the thesis, including both evangelicals and non-evangelicals. In that way, the researchers themselves would provide strong checks and balances against the bias in question.

But good luck with that.