Religion in Education, Student Affairs, and Skepticism

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A recent study looked at religious trends among various undergraduate majors (hat tip: Hemant Mehta).  The results were somewhat interesting, somewhat not, and I would need to read the full study to better understand.

What the study made me think about was how the measure was of how religious a person was or was not, not how skeptical a person was or was not.  Because of this dichotomous view, the study seems pretty surface level.  At least according to the Inside Higher Ed article, there does not seem to be any exploration of why certain majors exhibit certain tendencies toward or away from religious importance and attendance.

Before I get to my main point, I want to make a sidenote about the finding that majoring in  business positively affects religiosity.  I think that power (which in our country also means money) is at the root of all forms of religion and the forms of discrimination that our society has manifested.  Religion promises power and uses power to recruit its followers in much the same way as the American business model.  For many, religion becomes about how godly one can be instead of how good one can be, just as business often becomes about how much money you can make instead of what difference you can make.  I am sure there would also be parallel findings that business majors tend to be more conservative, as conservative values support the rich getting richer.  This is a tangent I could pursue much further, but suffice it to say, I am not surprised by a connection between business majors and religious practice.

What does concern me is education, and this is why I think the concept of skepticism is important.  What is academia about?  It should be about a quest for knowledge, a commitment to being curious and investigative.  It’s no surprise that social scientists decrease in religiosity, because the very nature of that learning demands skepticism of human ways of thinking.  A person cannot explore psychology, sociology, or anthropology without suspending a belief in God’s intervention; they are studies of why humans think and do what we think and do.

Education, likewise, should be the same kind of social science.  It’s the study of how people learn, and it should be geared towards expanding learning in future generations.  That is the core of education, the core of academia: expanding learning.  Unfortunately, it seems that those who are being trained to be teachers are not being instructed in that way.  This study shows that more religious people turn to education as a major.  I think I could safely speculate that this is the result of  a culture of education that suggests it’s only about transferring what we do know and leaving exploration to the scientists.

I find this disheartening, and in some ways scary.  How to teach is important, but so too is a continued exploration of the knowledge being taught.  In what ways are we encouraging undergraduates to use the full capacity of their intellect?  That is the heart of skepticism and higher thinking: questioning and challenging everything.  If you truly question and challenge everything, then you realize that the concept of faith is hollow and that “meaning” is self-defined, not predestined.  What does it say that our teachers are more willing to accept what has been taught to them and in fact, perhaps, find teaching to be a safe place for them to maintain those beliefs?

This struggle is quite apparent in my own field: Student Affairs.  There should be no doubt that student affairs professionals are educators.  We might not teach in the classroom or use a textbook, but we operate with clear learning outcomes and measure the results of our efforts.  At the same time, we are social scientists.  We explore cognitive development, moral development, and identity development.  In fact, our research into these aspects of humanity is what continues to inform our work!  Yet, I see many in my own field who are perhaps caught up in this same culture of education, where being an educator is a human service and demands no critical thinking or skepticism.  It should be the opposite.

I have raised controversy quite a bit by my challenges to spirituality and religion in higher education.  I have only begun to scratch the surface of my true intent to uncover the religious privilege inherent in our studies of “spirituality” and the bias against nonbelief and skepticism that results.  As in the mainstream, I have been met with opposition.  Colleagues have found my challenges “offensive,” merely because I have questioned the value of certain research.  But do I not have a duty to question research and demand it be verified and examined?  Shouldn’t we all be challenging notions and exploring new ideas?

“Spirituality” is a very feel-good, though ambiguous, concept. How can we help undergraduates feel more in touch with their inner selves? But just as we know that Baxter-Magolda and Belenky showed us that Perry’s research on cognitive development was not inclusive, so too should I be able to show that the work of Fowler, Parks, and even Astin and Chickering also have biases!

I pursued education because I wanted to expand human learning and make a difference in the world.  I respect those of greater religiosity who pursue it for the same reason.  What troubles me is that education is not considered a social science and that teachers are not encouraged to be skeptics.  Passing on what we have learned like a nurse dispensing a drug is not good enough.  We owe it to ourselves to make education a field of critical inquiry so that we can inspire and develop the same higher thinking skills in our students.

I sincerely hope in future studies, researchers consider not just how religious a person is, but how skeptical.  I dream of a world where all students are encouraged to pursue learning with the same inquisitive critical thinking skills, and an educator is only defined as someone who encourages it.

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