Monday, May 07, 2007

Religion and the Ivory Tower

There have been two articles recently about religion in academic life.

The first one was in the NY Times on May 2nd, and was about how religion got more widespread among students.

Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus

More students are enrolling in religion courses, even majoring in religion; more are living in dormitories or houses where matters of faith and spirituality are a part of daily conversation; and discussion groups are being created for students to grapple with questions like what happens after death, dozens of university officials said in interviews.

A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Compared with 10 or 15 years ago, “there is a greater interest in religion on campus, both intellectually and spiritually,” said Charles L. Cohen, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who for a number of years ran an interdisciplinary major in religious studies. The program was created seven years ago and has 70 to 75 majors each year.

Given the fact that there hasn't been any such surveys before, it cannot be said for sure that this is true. Sure, it's the impression that Cohen has gotten (like several other people quoted in the article), but there is actually no evidence for such absolute claims. It would have been nice if the article reflected this, instead of just accepting such claims.
The claims might be right, but there is absolutely no way to know, and it's damn annoying when journalists just reprint unverified claims (no matter the subject).

Having said that, let's see who the quoted people feel are the new religious people.

University officials explained the surge of interest in religion as partly a result of the rise of the religious right in politics, which they said has made questions of faith more talked about generally. In addition, they said, the attacks of Sept. 11 underscored for many the influence of religion on world affairs. And an influx of evangelical students at secular universities, along with an increasing number of international students, means students arrive with a broader array of religious experiences.

Interesting that they would include international students, many of which certainly comes from less religious countries than the US. Or from countries that are not Christian. Somehow, I don't think they are such a major factor as the university officials seems to think.

And notice how they think that the religious right are causing the increase in religious talk - could it be that US students are as religious as they've always been, but because of the religious climate, it has become more legitimate to push your relgion on others? Thus making the religious nature of (some) people more obvious?

Now, besides being a bit skeptical of the overall message in the article, I also find it problematic that the article doesn't at all address the negative consequences of the increased, public, religious nature of students. They don't look at how the increase of evangelical students can have a negative influence on science teaching, or how religious minorities, atheists, gays, and other groups of students, can feel marginalized by such an outright religious environment.

Instead the described trend is only mentioned as something positive.

Three days after the NY Times article, the Washington Post had an article about a similar subject, but with a different twist.

Is There Disdain For Evangelicals In the Classroom?

"On many campuses, if you're an evangelical Christian, you're going to have to go through classes in which you're told that much of what you believe religiously is not just wrong, but worthy of mockery," said David French, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, which sued Missouri State on Brooker's behalf.

Such accusations have been leveled for years at the Ivy League and other elite private universities. But they are gaining new attention from politicians and educators because of the Brooker case, which took place at a public school in the Bible Belt, and because of two recent, nationwide surveys of professors' views on religion.

The first, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that college professors are less religious than the general public but are far from the godless horde that is sometimes imagined. Even at the country's 50 top research universities, a minority of the faculty is atheist or agnostic, Gross and Simmons found.

What did they expect? Most top colleges have a theology/relgious studies department, and at least one preacher connected to it. Hardly an environment for godless hordes.

The only reason why anyone would think that universities are so opposed to religion is because they have bought into the lies of the religious right, who claims that all liberals (which they of course claims all, or nearly all, university professors are) and scientists are godless monsters, trying to turn the students "away from God" (or similar such nonsense).

The other survey, by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, confirmed those findings but also found what the institute's director and chief pollster, Gary A. Tobin, called an "explosive" statistic: 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have "unfavorable" feelings toward evangelical Christians.

Tobin asked professors at all kinds of colleges -- public and private, secular and religious, two-year and four-year -- to rate their feelings toward various religious groups, from very warm or favorable to very cool or unfavorable. He said he designed the question primarily to gauge anti-Semitism but found that professors expressed positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholics and most other religious groups.

I must admit that I would refuse to answer any questions about how I feel about a group of people solely based upon their religious affiliation. I would be willing to comment on my feelings on the religious affiliations (all negative, but in varying degrees), but those feelings don't map to the people who associate with them (except in extreme cases like people who self-identify as Christian Indentity).

My guess is that the professors who answered were actually answering how they felt about the religious affiliations, rather than the people belonging to them. And it seems that I am not the only one who thinks this.

"When we ask questions like this, we're asking the respondent to say how they feel about an entire group of people, and whatever image they have of that entire group comes through," Tobin said. "There is no question this is revealing bias and prejudice."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed. What the poll reflects, he said, is "a political and cultural resistance, not a form of religious bias."

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians probably have two causes: "the particular kind of Republican Party activism that some evangelicals have engaged in over the years, as well as what faculty perceive as the opposition to scientific objectivity among some evangelicals."

As I said, it's not the people who believe in the religion, but what the religion represents. An example - it's prefectly possible to like individual Catholics, but loathe the Catholic church because of their stance on such issues as abortion and preservations. Much like it is possible to like people who self-identify as Communists, even if you are against everything Communism stands for.

Of course, the pollster doesn't get it.

Tobin, the pollster, acknowledged that his survey did not measure how professors act, only how they feel. But he said the levels of disapproval are high enough to raise questions about how evangelical Christians are treated.

"If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews or Latinos or African Americans, there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings. No one would say, 'The reason they feel this way is because they don't like the politics of blacks or the politics of Jews.' That would be unthinkable," Tobin said.

I would guess that quite a few don't feel warmly about the Muslim faith, but don't have a problem with the individual Muslim. When talking about Jews, there are historical reasons why one would (and should) be extremely careful in expressing dislike towards both the religion and the group of people, especially when viewed as an ethnic group, rather than as people belonging to a specific religion. Latinos and African Americans are of course ethnic groups, and cannot be used on an equal level as a religious group, where it is possible to differ between the stance (the religion) and the people believing in it.

Of the two articles, the Washington Post article is definitely the more nuanced, but I would like if either of them had looked into the appropriateness of having religion intruding on academic life (and the effects this has). Personally, I don't care what neither my co-students nor my professors believe, but I certainly feel that religion should be left at the door. Churches, and other places of worship, are more appropriate for that.



Blogger Reed E said...

Newspaper articles that claim surges in religious belief on campuses are as routine as the seasons. As you point out, there are no ongoing studies and thus all 'evidence' of the surge is anecdotal and reflects the wishful thinking (or incompetence) of the reporter.

May 07, 2007 10:47 PM  
Blogger Riva said...

The increase in religious sentiment could also very well have to do with the increase in geographical and socioeconomic diversity of those who are attending college.

May 14, 2007 8:29 AM  

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