ACPA Reminds Us There Are No Atheist Students

I just got a reminder from the student affairs folks at ACPA about an exciting conference call happening next week!

It’s called “Encouraging Religious Pluralism & Interfaith Cooperation: A winter holiday conversation.”

That’s right, this student affairs professional organization has a whole commission dedicated to spirituality, faith, religion, and meaning.

And what’s this conference call going to be about?

The end of the fall semester presents an opportunity for university staff to educate students about the many religious celebrations that take place at the end of the calendar year other than Christmas. However, finding ways to have meaningful celebrations that are inclusive of multiple faith traditions, while avoiding overly simplistic gestures can be challenging. This hot topics discussion will provide participants with the opportunity to learn about best practices and conversation on promoting religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation on campus during the winter holiday break.

As long as all faiths are included, no one will feel excluded right?

And who’s leading the call?

The Reverend Gregory W. McGonigle has served as Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL) at Oberlin College since 2008. He received his Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2004, focused on academic chaplaincy, interfaith relations, and American religious history.

A Master of Divinity, of course.

Dear ACPA members,

There are atheist students on your campus. They might call themselves nonbelievers, freethinkers, agnostics, brights, secular, or humanists, or whatever, or nothing at all, but they’re there. They don’t identify with faith. They don’t identify with spirituality. They don’t identify with religion. Some of them have valid challenges to faith, spirituality, and religion to make. Believe it or not, they are capable of making meaning without any of the mystical stuff you keep triumphing. And they already feel ostracized on their campuses. Please stop ignoring them.



The recent issue of the Secular Student Alliance newsletter offers a debate on interfaith movements. I have to say I agree with Ed Clint (and Hemant Mehta) that interfaith movements, by definition, are contrary to the experience of nonbelievers. An interfaith community is one of different faiths, but of faiths, nonetheless. How could it be inclusive of people without faith who are intent on challenging faith?

As long as the focus is on faith, religious privilege will prevail.

Thanks for such a critical, progressive approach to creating inclusive campuses, ACPA.

Psst… Hey Higher Ed, Spirituality Is Still Religion

I saw this cartoon and it reminded me of the hegemonic religious privilege in student affairs:

Spirituality demands belief. It doesn’t apply to nonbelievers.

I still cringe when I see folks wearing those “I believe” wristbands from ACPA last year. For the record, I don’t.

Inside Higher Ed and Sociology Continue To Ignore Nonbelievers

There’s an article this week on Inside Higher Ed called Sociologists Get Religion.

I am again disappointed that the overlapping fields of higher education and sociology continue to ignore nonbelievers and the concept of atheism.

The article is about how religion is becoming a focal point of sociological study, which is fine and all. Here are some of the key points:

• The most important general sociological journals have been publishing a modestly growing number of articles about religion over the period studied.
• The articles show “a strong program” emerging on the role of religion in society. At the beginning of the period studied, religion was rarely the independent variable in the research, but by the end of the period, more than half of the articles had religion as the independent variable.
For most of the period studied, there was an upward trend in positive findings about the role of religion and a downward trend in negative findings. The last five years have seen an increase in negative findings.
American sociology’s study of religion is dominated by religion in the United States and Christianity, with relatively little work on non-Christian religions or the Christian faith of non-Americans.
• Private funding has increased significantly for sociological research on religion, notably from several foundations.
A positive correlation was found between receiving outside funding and positive findings about religion, although to the surprise of the authors, the strongest correlation was not from private sources of funds but from public sources. (The authors do not have a definitive theory on the source of this correlation and suggest it as a topic for further research.)

So, research has looked for and found positive findings for religion. It has generally only been focused on one kind of religion and is oblivious to nonreligion. And funding sources affect more positive results.

Fancy that, people will pay to hear nice things about religion!

What’s worse is the article ends by featuring the Templeton Foundation, known for supporting research (including, quite unsurprisingly, Astin’s research on spirituality in higher education) that has nice things to say about religion:

Christopher Stawski, program officer in human sciences at the Templeton Foundation, explained that group’s goals this way: “The foundation supports a variety of research projects in the social sciences in order to better understand concepts that Sir John Templeton understood to be spiritual, such as forgiveness, generosity, love, purpose, and wisdom. In sponsoring this research, we are committed to rigorous standards of peer review and to asking questions that transcend any particular religious tradition.”

This is just wrong. There is no credible basis for the assumption that forgiveness, generosity, love, purpose, and wisdom are spiritual. It’s nice that Sir John believed that, but it’s flawed reasoning. I’m not spiritual, and I can experience all of those concepts in profound ways, and so can many others.

If we look for them in the spiritual lens and only in the spiritual lens, we’ll only see them in the spiritual lens and it’ll reinforce our support of the spiritual lens. That’s circular reasoning and religious privilege, and it disgusts me.

HELLO!!!! I’m an atheist in higher education!!! Is anyone else out there?

Religious Universities: “Seeing the Light” Means Turning a Blind Eye

As I have written about before, I have three major complaints about religiously-affiliated universities (though they’re arguably more complex than how I’ll present them here):

» Handicapping of critical thinking by comparing religious “truth” to scientific “truth” (like Liberty University’s Noah’s Ark expedition, for example.)

» Social restrictions that hamper student development, as well as academic freedom.

» Self-segregation of worldviews that has a cloistering effect of privilege, severely limiting exposure to new ideas, perspectives, and aspects of diversity.

I think these are serious, valid concerns when it comes to the reputation of higher education in general. While not every religiously-affiliated has all (or in some cases even any) of the above concerns, they are all concerns unique to religiously-affiliated universities. I don’t think they’re simply biased or unwarranted concerns either, particularly when it comes to professional ethics and academic rigor/accreditation.

Apparently, though, Samuel Schuman is out to challenge these prejudices. His new book, Seeing the Light, examines the place of religious colleges and universities in higher education. Of course, he has his own bias, and they were nice enough to identify it right in the product description:

Seeing the Light considers, instead, what can be learned from the viability of these institutions.

That alone makes me lose any interest in reading this book. If it were an investigation into the concerns above, it might be interesting. Instead, Schuman is clearly an apologist just looking to reinforce the privilege of religion in higher education. His recent interview with Inside Higher Ed is illuminating in this regard.

Throughout the interview Schuman seems all too eager to simply dismiss all criticisms of religious institutions:

One uninhibited professor asked, with obvious distaste, if we “really wanted to be associated with those two-bit Bible colleges.” Later, when I asked the objector if she had ever actually been to such a place, her reply was “no, and I don’t need to.” This struck me as the antithesis of the kind of open-minded, truth-seeking perspective those of us who practice liberal learning should embody.

That’s such a religious tactic, isn’t it? When someone says something you don’t like, just lob ad hominem attacks at them behind their back and call them closed-minded. He then tries to boast his objectivity by indicating his subjectivity in the same sentence! It’s quite impressive how he does it:

I thought that perhaps as an objective outsider — my own faith is rooted in the tradition of Judaism — I could share some of what I had learned about the religious colleges and universities, and dispel what I had come to see as the largely unwarranted prejudice against them held by some within the world of secular American higher education.

By my reading of this interview, Schuman does an incredibly good job at reminding us what all the criticisms are, but does absolutely nothing to respond to them. In fact, he shrugs them all off by just pointing fingers. Rather than recognize there are unique criticisms to religious institutions, he just draws comparisons between public/private, northeast/midwest, etc. or points out other university policies that raise eyebrows too. Ooh, good argument pathetic red herring. Then he just chastises us all by saying:

Whatever the causes, though, it is quite remarkable how many of my colleagues outside the faith-based schools know very little or nothing at all about this important segment of our higher education community.

We just don’t know. We aren’t as “objective” as he is, I guess.

Nothing made my blood boil more than this statement:

I, personally, am not particularly troubled by any private school that clings to a belief or maintains a practice with which I disagree, as long other options are equally available to me.

Can you be a bit more insensitive, Mr. Schuman? I’m sorry, but it’s still a problem for me if people are being encouraged to demonize and self-hate, whether it’s at my institution or not. Do we care about the work that we do and the reputation that we have? Are we so self-centered that we don’t actually care about the greater impact on society of the work that we do? Can we so easily turn a blind eye to institutions that restrict freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and basic human respect for core dimensions of identity?

I surely hope not. But that is just what Schuman wants us to do. Just like religious apologists, we are to ignore the bad and just “see the light.” And he supports his argument by citing that wickedly biased study of “spirituality” Alexander Astin’s been working on. Like Astin, Schuman is eager to reinforce belief in God in all students by any means necessary:

So, if you will forgive a rather pig-headed overgeneralization, our students overwhelmingly want something; we have it; we haven’t given it to them; I think we should. But we need to figure out how to do so in a way which is non-sectarian, non-intrusive and non-directive. I think this is something we can do, and I think it would be good to do it.

He’s basically saying that he doesn’t want to offend anyone, but he wants to do something that’s inherently offensive to some people. Yeah, I’m sure we’ll find a way to do it, and it’s exactly how we should be spending our time.

Oh wait, we have atheist students? Oh, they don’t count. We don’t need to do anything for them.

I am totally unimpressed by Samuel Schuman and I highly discourage people from buying his book. If we are truly going to move forward in serving the development of our students, we need to recognize the incredible biases we already have catering to religious belief in our institutions, religious and otherwise. Continuing to ignore and dismiss valid criticisms is just letting privilege tread water.

The ZackFord Blogs Top 10 of 2009

Wow, what an interesting year it has been!

Next week I’ll celebrate ZackFord Blog’s first birthday, probably by writing a long reflection about that first year of blogging (because reflecting is what we student affairs professionals do).

For now, I thought I’d highlight posts from the past year that I hope are still worth reading! I would have just listed the posts that got read the most, but the stats are kind of messed up because of the site changeover in October, so I had to take a different approach to the Top 10 list. This site has had a mix of posts on different topics, and while many are tied to current events, I think (hope) some of my more original posts remain relevant even as time goes on. Below are 10 highlights from the past year I think are worth revisiting!

10. Challenging Paradigms In Higher Ed Simply By Speaking Out

I’ve meditated throughout the year about how my blog might affect my job search and the way I’m perceived as a professional in the field of student affairs. I know I have colleagues out there who do not always like what I offer on this blog, and that’s okay; it wouldn’t be very worthwhile if everybody just “liked” it. The trick is whether they appreciate it. I like to think what I’m writing isn’t absolute crap, but more importantly, I hope that others see the value of the questions I raise and ideas I offer and respond in kind. To that end, I wrote a post called Does Higher Education Understand The Culture of Blogging? It’s a question that I’m not sure has yet been adequately addressed.

» Does Higher Education Understand The Culture of Blogging? (October 17th)

9. When You Wake Up With New Rights One Day, You Make Sure People Understand Why

I was still living in Iowa for the first half of 2009, and that included April 3, when we woke up and turned on the news to hear what the Iowa State Supreme Court had to say about same-sex marriage. Overwhelmed by the joy of liberation and the awareness of history being made, I was determined to make sure that the power of that decision was understood widely. I immediately read the full 69-page opinion of Varnum v. Brien and by mid-morning had posted an annotated analysis of the opinion, titled simply Marriage Equality in Iowa. That was the first time I realized the power I had to reach others with my blog, as I got many more hits that day than I ever had in the three months of blogging prior.

» Marriage Equality in Iowa (April 3rd)

8. Beyond Entertainment, Films Give Us Something To Think About

I really enjoy movies. I love the experience of having a shared experience that demands your complete attention. Most movies speak for themselves. I could have written this year about how Star Trek reminds us that sometimes we have to break the rules to make good choices or I could have drawn parallels between the plight of the Na’vi of Avatar and Native Americans, but both would have been too obvious. There were two films though that I really enjoyed digging into and blogging about, so much so that I think they’re worth revisiting. The film Brüno raised a lot of questions and controversy in the gay community about stereotypes while The Invention of Lying largely went unnoticed despite its profound illustrations of atheism and religion. I think these two films are worth watching again on DVD and exploring further what we can learn from their commentaries on society.

» Brüno: It Takes Silly Absurdities to Reveal Harsh Realities (July 10th)
» Reflections on “The Invention of Lying” (October 4th)

7. Seriously, Don’t; If You Want To Do Something On My Behalf, Do Something Productive

I have written many posts addressing myths about atheism and the challenge of living openly as an atheist in a very religious society. Some of those other posts are listed below, but I think one particular post deserve to be highlighted separately: I Don’t Want You To Pray For Me. In this post, I offered my own personal thoughts about when others offer to pray for me. Why would I refuse such a thoughtful gift? Because I don’t think it’s a very thoughtful gift to be giving.

» I Don’t Want You To Pray For Me (September 2nd)

6. The Truth Hurts, But Not As Bad As The Lies

I have occasionally been told that I go too far with the extent of my commentary on religion, that religion’s not so bad that it needs to be completely deconstructed. I was delightfully surprised to see that there was research confirming exactly the merits of challenging religiosity in society. In the same spirit as the Iowa court decision on marriage equality, I took to reading the full article and finding a way to deliver its results in more reader-friendly ways. (I also enjoyed peppering my analysis with links to relevant past posts!) Like the Iowa post, this post had a uniquely high number of hits, thanks to some social networking. I still look forward to future explorations of this data and its implications for higher education.

» Society Is Better Off Without Religion: The Supporting Research (December 7th)

5. Satirical, Rhetorical Questions That Resulted In My First “Poe”

One of my very first posts was an exercise in satire, adapting The Heterosexual Questionnaire as a Christian Questionnaire. When I look back at the questions, it’s interesting to see how relevant they are to the explorations of religious fundamentalism I’ve written about since. One specific question that is absent is, “How exactly did you come to have the beliefs that you have?” That, I think, is one of the hardest (and perhaps most “offensive”) questions for believers to answer. It’s an exploration of psychology and cognitive development that nobody wants to go near because it’s so “personal.” While I might revisit The Christian Questionnaire with such tweaks in the future, it still stands as a strong challenge to religion and I am proud it was one of my first blog posts. What is also interesting is that at least a few people have missed the satire and interpreted it as a real questionnaire (deeming this post my first “Poe”—evidence of “Poe’s Law”). Their answers are just as interesting to read as the questionnaire itself.

» The Christian Questionnaire (January 8th)

4. It’s Not An Agenda, It’s Our Lives

Without a doubt, 2009 had its ups and downs for the “Gay Agenda.” In some states we got marriage equality, and in others we had marriage equality denied. We inaugurated a President who spoke passionately and inclusively of our community who then disappointed us by doing next to nothing to actually address our inequality. And for better or worse, as our patience for equality has waned, our “movement” has fractured. Nothing was more evident of this fracturing than October’s National Equality March. The true grassroots planning of the NEM with its angrily impatient marchers juxtaposed oddly with the extremely expensive Human Rights Campaign dinner the night before that had nothing but applause for HRC’s “accomplishments.” I used the march as an opportunity to step away from the rhetoric of the issues and highlight the lives affected by them with the Faces For Equality project. I expect to expand on the project in the future, but as it is, it stands as a testament to the amazing individuals out there doing what they can in their own lives to support the queer community.

» Faces For Equality (October 7th-31st)

3. Addressing Assumptions, Myths, Misperceptions, And Miseducation About Atheism

One of the biggest challenges about being a member of the least-trusted minority in the United States is working to explain what exactly that identity is all about to people who don’t want to hear anything about it. No, it’s not a belief. No, I really don’t have faith. I don’t respect beliefs, and here’s why. It’s not always a fun task, but it’s an important one. Dismantling religious belief requires an explanation for why belief doesn’t deserve privilege over nonbelief. The challenge comes from those who think they know everything there is to know about atheism. Even I don’t presume that, but I’ve definitely taken a lot more time to think about it, so I have tried to offer my own tutorials on why it is I resist religious privilege. For some, the explanations might be irrelevant if they can’t get past the “offense” of the idea, but at least I can do my best to try to help them understand if they’re willing to take the time. Here are a smattering of the posts that try to offer just that kind of understanding.

» Why I Do Not Respect Beliefs (June 21st)
» Atheism, Contratheism, and Why I’m An Antitheist (September 10th)
» Five (Whiny) Tips For Atheists I’ll Likely Ignore (September 27th)
» Atheism and Religious Beliefs Are NOT And Never Will Be On The Same Page (September 30th)
» Why Is It “Disrespectful” and “Offensive” To Challenge Religious Beliefs? (December 17th)

2. Making My First Dent In Higher Education’s “Spirituality” Paradigm

One of the reasons I started this blog was to address issues in higher education that are not always easy or popular to discuss. One issue I think needs a lot more attention is the uncritical conversations and studies of “spirituality” that inform our understandings of students and the invisibility of atheist students that results. Student affairs seems all too eager to accept the notion of “spirituality” as a universal quality in our students and a dimension of identity as worthy of developmental support as any other. I offer that the notion of “spirituality” is inextricably tied to belief in a higher power, and studies of “spiritual development” only further marginalize nonreligious and nonbelieving students. The first post listed below is the first of many to come debunking the objectivity of research in “spirituality,” and the last is a synthesis of many of my related posts from throughout the year.

» Why Higher Education Should NOT Promote “Spirituality” or “Spiritual Development” (May 20th)
» Higher Ed Struggles to Serve Atheist Students (November 12th)
» How Long Until We Have Campus Atheist Resource Centers? (December 18th)

1. Sorry, That Argument Is No Less Bogus Than It Was The Last Hundred Times I Heard It

As I dug deeper into the intricacies of religious privilege, I started having a lot more conversations with folks about religion and reading a lot more about religious controversies. I started noticing both in my writing and in my discussions that I was arguing the same points quite a bit. This got me thinking about memes, because it seemed that people who defend religion buy into a lot of the same ideas. Because of the “rise” of the “new atheists,” these ideas were becoming memetic—thought to be good ideas merely because they are popular and widely used. As a fan of efficiency, I began to grow tired of always addressing the same arguments. I decided it would be helpful to organize these memes to make them more recognizable and thus easier to shut down. “Oh, you think that’s a good argument, but it’s just a tired old meme.” My first post about some of the faithist memes was so popular (thanks to a highlight on Friendly Atheist) that I expanded the list and created The Meme Collection. I now collect and update various bad arguments used against the progress of social justice and use this clearinghouse of memes to inform my various posts. While simple in principle, this organization of the arguments against progress and critical thinking is without a doubt the highlight of my blogging in 2009.

» Faithist Memes, Religious Privilege, Victimization, and Bad Arguments (May 17)
» The Meme Collection (Ongoing)

If I stopped blogging after this post, I could look back and be very proud of my first year with ZFb. I know, though, that this is only a beginning. I’m sure as my career unfolds, so too will this blog and the complexity of ideas that I explore. I might not ever become a mainstream “big-time” blogger, but I’m okay with that. I have my own little niche to fill, and I think I have put out some quality writing to fill it.

Thanks to everybody who read ZackFord Blogs in 2009, and I’ll see you next year!!

How Long Until We Have Campus Atheist Resource Centers?

In my post yesterday, I argued that challenges to religious beliefs should be pursued despite the emotional defensiveness such challenges often spur. Such self-victimization is really a façade for cognitive dissonance, cognitive dissonance that is never addressed if we allow the defensiveness to sway us. Respecting faith has the consequence of reinforcing dualism and stifling an extremely personal form of cognitive development by allowing beliefs to go unchallenged. Is it possible to honor the racial, ethnic, and cultural intersections of our students’ worldviews while challenging the privilege many have to hold such worldviews unquestioningly? Yes, and I think we have to.

It shouldn’t be too long before the work of evolutionary psychologists like Hank Davis and Gregory Paul are synthesized with our existing models of cognitive and moral development. These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking: Can an individual ever truly appreciate social contracts and individual rights (Kohlberg’s 5th Stage of Moral Development) if that individual still believes that a God who intercedes in the course of events is the ultimate judge of morality? Can our students ever achieve reflective thinking if they still see religious beliefs as being on-par with scientific theories? How can we help students become contextual or even independent knowers if they still believe in divine knowledge bestowed upon the Earth by a deity?

While there is a lot of identity development encapsulated in the culture of religious worldviews, I foresee a day when higher education addresses religious beliefs independently as a matter of critical thinking and cognitive development. Rather than continuing to shelter students and helping them continue on the track they were already on with their beliefs, we ought to be encouraging them to consider not just what they believe, but why they believe it, how they came to believe it, and any implications that result from their believing it.

We’ve seen some very slight movement in this direction with a few (countable on one hand) campuses offering humanist chaplains. This seems like more of a blind accommodation for atheist students because the field of student affairs has done  little to even recognize atheists on campus (ask me for the Goodman & Mueller PDF), let alone research any conception of atheist student development. The focus continues to be on “spirituality” and “spiritual development”, which by word choice alone assumes there is such a thing as spirituality and also assumes that all students experience spiritual development. The latter claim is blatantly wrong, and the former sets a foundation for enshrining religious privilege in a field that so often prides itself on supporting social justice. We have a long way to go in unraveling this mess.

This all leads to the question I ask in the title: How long until we have campus atheist resource centers? Your first reaction to that might be to say it will never happen, because that would be “promoting religion.” Well, no, it would not be. Atheism—or perhaps more accurately skepticism—is not a belief system; it’s an approach to knowledge. Based on my understanding of skepticism juxtaposed with my understanding of student development theory, it’s quite a good approach too. In fact, many academic disciplines (the natural sciences, as an obvious example) already encourage and demand skepticism. It’s the foundation of inquiry! Why shouldn’t we promote it beyond the bounds of specific academic curricula?

Maybe the word “atheist” is making you uncomfortable. Check your religious privilege! A 2006 study from the University of Minnesota (ask me for the PDF) found that “atheists are more distrusted and despised than any other minority.” Just this past week, a new city councilor in North Carolina is trying to be removed from office just for being an atheist, because North Carolina is one of many states with laws still on the books prohibiting atheists from elected office. Clearly there is a case to be made that atheist students could use some support on campus. But, to be pragmatic, let’s call it a Skepticism Resource Center for now.

A model already exists for a Skepticism Resource Center. The parallels it would have with an LGBT Resource Center are uncanny. It would need to provide support for coming out (though it would probably help if we did some research on the atheist coming out process first). It would need to provide a library of resources. It would need to provide social opportunities. It would need to function as a safe space (for challenging questions!). It would need to providing enriching development opportunities for students who identify as nonbelievers (once we actually collect some research on atheist development). There would also be a need to educate the greater campus about these identities and why it’s important to respect skepticism and understand what we can all learn from it. Education and advocacy—yeah, we should know how to do that.

The only obstacle is our own unease with these issues. Education has lost its critical edge, with a recent study showing that undergrads majoring in education tend to be more religious. While the field of student affairs seems more and more eager to blindly subscribe to spiritual development, higher education takes a hands-off approach to religion in general. (The exception, of course, is religiously-affiliated universities who bend over backwards—even to the point of compromising ethical standards and academic credibility—to cater to religion.) Important opportunities for cognitive growth are lost and our own field flounders to truly understand the students we are serving and how to appropriately raise the level of challenge.

What will it take for us to recognize that atheism, skepticism, critical thinking, and cognitive development are all linked? What will it take for us to welcome such conversations at our conventions or on our campuses? Can we start to uncover the religious privilege we maintain by our silence or subscription to spirituality so that we can truly serve all of our students and maximize their potential?

How long until we have campus atheist resource centers?

Higher Ed Struggles to Serve Atheist Students

I don’t think Higher Education really knows what to do with students who identity as some form of nonbeliever. I worry to what extent higher education cares about nonbelievers’ nonbelief, but it definitely seems like we’re starting to make a little bit of progress.

I was delighted to see an article on Inside HigherEd today about humanist chaplains. There are currently three humanist chaplains employed in Higher Ed (Harvard, Rutgers, and Adelphi) and nonbelieving students at Tufts are now clamoring for theirs.

I personally think higher education is quite cowardly in its approach to students’ worldviews. There is no willingness, that I see, to challenge students on their beliefs. Rather, the goal has been to cater to what students already believe and allow them to grow in their own faith. I argue that this is a compromise of critical thinking and doesn’t really further understandings between religious groups while beliefs are allowed to persist as shallow subscriptions to dogma.

Providing humanist chaplains is a nice band-aid (and an important accommodation to maintain fairness if other chaplains are provided), but it doesn’t address the real challenge. Consider the freedom of thought that nonbelieving students have. Some might still be looking for something to believe in, while others struggle with the multiple paths they have to take as open nonbelievers. Do they keep their nonbelief to themselves? Do they maintain a semblance of faith by identifying as Agnostic and participating in a Unitarian Universalist community? Do they disavow all beliefs and start writing a blog about religious privilege? The options for those identities are infinite.

At the same time, many believers might have their own questions. Maybe they’re unsure of whether they’re on the right path. There are plenty of opportunities for that individual to explore other belief systems, but student affairs offers no support for reconciling those questions. For a field that prides itself on studying and supporting identity development, there is little recognition for the needs to explore worldviews beyond previous indoctrination.

Part of the problem is that our research and vocabulary has focused on spirituality. Spirituality is not inclusive. I pointed out earlier this year that Alexander Astin’s big study on “spirituality” was horribly (and irreconcilably) biased towards a belief in God. Unsurprisingly, he was called upon to comment on this issue of humanist chaplains:

They may not be alone, according to Alexander W. Astin, founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied the issue. “Most students — religious and non-religious — have an interest in what we consider to be spiritual issues: the meaning of life, their most deeply felt values, why they’re in college, what kinds of lives they want to lead, how connected they feel to others, etc.,” Astin wrote in an e-mail.

He’s so eager to rope everyone into spirituality, even though all of the issues he listed require no spirituality to explore. I was delighted to see someone else in the article call him out. Unfortunately, it was someone who seemed to think that nonbelievers could not benefit at all from that which is called “spirituality”:

“Perhaps there is some validity there,” said Don Brewington, president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. However, Brewington added that spiritual guidance may require “a little more than humanism will and can provide.”

“Using the word ‘spiritual’ — that seems to be somewhat contradictory,” he said.

The humanist rabbi they interviewed, Greg Epstein, does a much better job of painting the picture, though I still think he’s off:

“Right now, higher education is failing miserably to provide a place on campus where non-religious students can find purpose, compassion, and community,” Epstein says.

“A lot of students come to campus knowing they’re not religious, but also not knowing what they do believe,” says. The opportunities for discussion, meditation, and service that grow out a chaplaincy “help them learn more about the positive aspects of their identity,” he says, “not just what they don’t believe in.”

This continues the assumption that all students have to believe something, without stopping to critically consider what it means to believe. It’s not just the difference between being religious and nonreligious; it has to do with the very way people think about the world in which they live. (That’s why “worldview” is a more appropriate term than “belief system.”)

Higher education needs a jolt of critical thinking before it falls behind. We know that the “nones,” (those who do not identify with a religion—not necessarily atheist) is the largest growing population in our nation. There are huge chunks of nonbelieving students on our college campuses already that have no support and might feel unwelcome raising challenging questions about religion.

Beliefs are ideas like any other ideas. If an institution of higher education isn’t an open marketplace of ideas, then what is it?

Christian Universities Struggle With Teaching Legitimate Science

With all the hubbub about Comfort’s upcoming distribution of his version of The Origin of Species on college campuses, Inside Higher Ed has an in-depth piece this week on the teaching of evolution at Christian universities across our country.

It makes me sick.

Some professors, with support from prominent scientists, are trying to defend the teaching of evolution and to make it safe for those who teach biology and the Bible to talk about ways in which belief in evolution need not represent an abandonment of faith. Many Christian colleges have statements of faith — which in some cases must be followed by all students and faculty members — that endorse the literal truth of the Bible or of specific parts of the Bible (six literal days of creation, for example, or that Adam and Eve are the parents of all humans). So teaching evolution as scientific fact, which would just be taken for granted at many non-Christian colleges and universities, raises all kinds of delicate issues.

I hate hate hate how this article, perhaps in an attempt to be respectful of religion, presents evolution as a belief. It’s not a belief. It’s not something you can even believe in. You either understand it or you don’t. That’s it. That’s how it works.

This article, to its credit, does manage to capture one of my biggest frustrations in higher education. Without actually calling it what it is, this piece reveals to us just how dogmatic these “universities” are in their beliefs and the extent to which that compromises the education they are able to provide.

Richard Colling, who experienced controversy over teaching evolution during his tenure at Olivet Nazarene University, offers the following:

“If the colleges don’t change, no one will take us seriously. If we require students to check their intellect at the door of our churches and colleges, they will not come in.”

Well no shit! How is it that an institution that calls itself a university and commits itself to the pursuit of knowledge and intellect could favor unprovable, unfounded beliefs over science, knowledge, and the progress of human intellect? And we just smile and say, “Oh, how nice that they have a university of their own!” It angers me so much that a degree from such a place might be worth as much as the degrees I have earned.

The story wouldn’t be complete without Francis Collins and his promotion of “spirituality.”

Much of the push for change is coming through the BioLogos Foundation, a group founded by Francis Collins to promote “the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms seeking harmony between these different perspectives.”

Tell me, please, how anyone searches for truth in the spiritual realm. What are the parameters? How is it measured? How is it tested? This is faulty thinking for a scientist to allow and promote. It makes the initial assumption that there even could be truth in the spiritual realm, in addition to the assumption that there even could be a spiritual realm to begin with. I think it’s disgraceful and insulting to the field of higher education.

“We want to help the church and colleges come to terms with Darwin’s theory and not feel threatened by it,” said Karl Giberson, president of BioLogos, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College, and director of the Forum on Faith and Science, at Gordon.

I don’t get this at all. Why do we care whether they feel “threatened”? This isn’t how knowledge works. We take what we have learned and incorporate it into what we already know. Anyone who refuses to do that is the threat. Universities that have dictated that they refuse to teach what we know to be essentially scientific fact are the real threat to our society. Why do we accredit them as degree-granting institutions and then be very cautious about holding them to the most basic standards of learning?

It is “difficult to the point of impossible, said Giberson, to look at the scientific evidence, and believe that creation of the Earth and its creatures took place in six days. The difficulty for many Christian colleges, he said, is that they have statements of faith that require such a belief.

Welcome to what we’ve known for a good 150 years. Why is it more important to uphold “statements of faith” than to teach legitimate science?

Giberson said that the statements of faith of many colleges pose a real challenge for those wanting to teach evolution. Many colleges, he said, “would not create a mission statement that would make a fundamentalist feel unwelcome,” and so may end up making scientists feel unwelcome. As a result, he said, there are plenty of scientists who teach at such institutions who teach evolution, but quietly.

This kind of educational culture is a desecration on the institution of academia.

The article goes on for a while and describes some specific examples of schools “struggling” with teaching evolution. I want to share one more quote from the president of Gordon College. I find this extremely disturbing as an educator.

R. Judson Carlberg, Gordon’s president, said that the first question he received this year when he spoke to the parents of new students was from a woman who wanted to know if her daughter would get an F in classwork “if she holds to a late creation theory of literal fixed days.” Carlberg said he answered by saying that the college “isn’t in the business of indoctrination,” and that such a student has no assurance of an F or an A. “I said she’s not going to get an F if she can mount a strong argument in favor of it, but if she mounts a weak argument, she will be forced to go back.”

Let’s be perfectly clear: there is no scientific argument for any creation theory and more importantly, any suggestion of “literal fixed days” would be totally bogus. I don’t know if Carlberg is trying to just appease some of the fundamentalist clientele, but I find it extremely disconcerting that he would even consider that a student might be able to make a grade-earning argument for something that has no scientific legitimacy. What does that say about Gordon College? What does that say about the standard of education at Gordon College? I know people who went to Gordon College who are bright and capable, but I seriously question the credibility (and accredibility) of institutions with such lax educational standards.

As I have said before, the institution has to choose a priority: education or beliefs. If the required beliefs of an institution compromise the institution’s ability to provide an education, then I don’t think it’s fair to call them “religiously-affiliated schools.” They are “education-affiliated churches” and do not deserve the same respect or credibility as schools who maintain a consistently high standard for scientific education.

Religion in Education, Student Affairs, and Skepticism

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.

NPR: The Science of Spirituality

This week on NPR, they have a feature on The Science of Spirituality.  Each day, Barbara Bradley Hagerty is exploring different research that is being done on the brain and human body to explore what is happening at a biological, biochemical level when people experience spirituality.

The studies are quite interesting.  Can we biochemically simulate spiritual experiences with psychedelic drugs (The God Chemical)?  Are spiritual visions actually the result of epileptic seizures (The God Spot)?  Do prayer, meditation, and other forms of intense concentration physically sculpt the brain (Spiritual Virtuosos)?  Is there a connection between prayer and healing (The Biology of Belief)?  Friday we’ll see if consciousness can persist without the material brain (Near-Death Experiences).

So, I’ll say it again: the studies are interesting.  For the most part, the researchers that Hagerty interviews are approaching the studies quite skeptically.  They are not studying spiritual experiences, they are studying “spiritual” experiences.  They do not assume there is anything actually supernatural at work.

The problem is, Hagerty does not share their objectivity, and it shows in her reporting.  As an NPR reporter, I am sure there is a consideration for neutrality, but I think her perspective is a bit more of the FOX News “balanced” variety.  She is clearly a subscriber to the “Stalemate” meme.  In each story there are moments where the scientists say “this is what science is telling us!” and she’ll throw in her own editorial quip about how it’s still just as likely spiritual.

Hagerty’s bias is evident from the name of her new book which informs the series: Fingerprints of God.  Here is a telling excerpt from the book’s description on Amazon:

An insightful examination of what science is learning about how and why we believe, Fingerprints of God is also a moving story of one person’s search for a communion with a higher power and what she discovered on that journey.

Unsurprisingly, she wrote for The Christian Science Monitor for 11 years.  Like so many indoctrinated believers, she is clearly biased towards finding “truth” that supports the beliefs she already holds as opposed to seeking objective, rational truth and understanding.

So, I would recommend taking the time to listen, because the research is interesting, but be prepared for a religious bias.  It’s disappointing, but perhaps not surprising.