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Christians in Academia (RJS)

Three articles have been brought to my attention recently that are worth some discussion. The first two from Inside Higher Ed by Timothy Larson of Wheaton and Adam Kotsko at Kalamazoo College. (HT EG) The third article is an interview of Mark Noll, Professor of History at Notre Dame, as part of the Patheos series on The Future of Evangelicalism.


First Timothy Larson’s contribution: No Christianity Please, We’re Academics. Larson relates a couple of anecdotes, one from his own experience and suggests that  while a persecution complex is unhealthy, and one should be critical of one’s own work, discrimination is something that Universities should worry about.

although we hear these stories frequently, Christian academics are the
first ones to respond to them with suspicion. Maybe John got a bad grade
because his work was not very good. Maybe my proposal was written in an
irritating tone that baited some members of the committee to respond
that way.


Nevertheless, scholars ought to be concerned that
Christians often report that the academy is a hostile environment. Are
academics generally glad that such a perception exists? If not, how
might it be dispelled? If it is based on genuine experiences, what can
be done about a climate that tolerates religious discrimination? If the
two stories presented here are merely assailable, anecdotal evidence,
then why not gather information on this issue more systematically? Do
academic institutions ever try to discover if their Christian students
or scholars experience discrimination?

Adam Kotsko’s response was straight back at Larson (after the jump) .


Do you think that there is real discrimination against Christians in academia?

Adam Kotsko in his article Christians in Academe: a Reply suggests that there is discrimination perhaps, but it is not against Christians. Rather it is a problem for conservative protestants – and a problem of our own making. There is no obligation for academia to respect weak and unsupported arguments. Just one paragraph to give a taste – read the whole article:

I would propose instead that we need to acknowledge that conservative
evangelical Christians, as a cultural group, often have difficulty
assimilating to the culture of secular colleges and universities. Such
difficulties are faced by many groups, including first-generation
college students, lower- and working-class students, and members of
underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. It seems to me, however, that
conservative evangelical Christians represent a special case in this
regard. In the other cases, we are dealing with people who have
historically been excluded from academe and are therefore simply
unfamiliar with its culture and expectations — a relatively
straightforward problem to solve, though not always an easy one. In the
case of conservative evangelical Christianity, however, we are dealing
with a group whose leaders have encouraged its members to define
themselves over against the secular world and particularly secular


Kotsko is not into bashing Christians – rather he speaks from his own experience raised in a conservative Christian family and church facing challenges in college and beyond. At one point he notes “I should say immediately that not all conservative evangelicals take
such extreme views seriously. My own parents, pastors, and youth
leaders, for example, had fairly sensible views — certainly they were
more conservative than I have wound up being, but they were
fundamentally reasonable
.” He makes some positive suggestions for ways to move forward.

And this brings us to the interview with Mark Noll on The Future of Evangelicals in Academia. About fifteen years ago Noll published a much read book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that set forth what he saw then as problems – profound problems – with evangelical thinking. It was impossible, or well nigh impossible, he claimed to be an evangelical scholar with intellectual integrity. But things are changing. Toward the end of the interview Timothy Dalrymple poses a question from his own experience as a graduate student.


In my own graduate education, I sometimes heard believing
professors and historians say that, “As a historian I believe X, because
I am required to operate according to a certain methodology. But as an
individual believer, I believe Y.” The question is: Is that a stable
arrangement? … Is it practical to
bifurcate ourselves as scholars into one part that draws conclusions
according to rigorous methodological criteria and another part that
confesses a different set of beliefs?

Mark Noll responded:

That’s a very
good question. I actually think it’s fatal for long-term Christian
thinking and fatal for the long-term health of Christianity per se
to live under different basic commitments in professional life and
church life. To say that I adopt the rules of
the game for academic life Monday to Friday, and the rules of church
life on Sunday, that’s a real problem.


However, what’s required for many domains of learning, and I would
include biblical studies, is the serious use of the mind while the
spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation.

This is a nice turn of phrase – serious use of the mind, rigorous and critical thinking, while the spirit is fully cast in a Christian foundation. We need to find a way forward that preserves intellectual integrity and remains Christian. Not an easy thing in an environment where secular materialism is in the air we breathe. We need to break out of what I have called “evangelical ghetto thinking” but do so while remaining committed to Christ and his church.


Noll also sees some encouraging trends – prominent evangelical and confessional Protestant philosophers (RJS: side note of my own – if only they would listen to scientists about science); significant work by sociologists (eg. Christian Smith, James Hunter and more); Francis Collins and BioLogos; and, he notes, “a better way
of negotiating the major universities like Chicago and Michigan and the
Ivy League schools, as more faculty and more students are willing to
identify as evangelical Christians and confessional Christians.
” The efforts at Baylor to become a true
research university while retaining a commitment to evangelical principles is also a positive sign.


And this brings me back to the question I posed above:

Do you think that there is real discrimination against Christians in academia? If so is it justified? What can we do to move forward?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

Comments read comments(21)
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Ben Wheaton

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I think that Adam Kotsko’s article has a great deal of truth to it, and I particularly like his point at the end of keeping the high moral high ground. Courteous behaviour on the part of evangelical students would help a lot in reducing hostility. Doing good work and having an eager and positive attitude towards one’s studies is also a good idea, and will win friends among your professors.
However, I do want to speak from my own experience in secular academia (both undergraduate and graduate) in mild support of the idea that there is actual hostility towards conservative evangelical students. I never experienced direct persecution (the one incident where my evangelical beliefs caused trouble I was most at fault, acting in some ways like a stereotype of Kostsko’s defensive con-evo), but there was an undercurrent of hostility. Parenthetical remarks of professors and fellow students, unspoken assumptions that underlay certain jokes, etc., all contributed to an uncomfortable atmosphere for me. The university is as susceptible to group-think as the church, and its group-think is in many ways incompatible with the Christian faith. Being surrounded by this group-think and its self-assured adherents can be supremely irritating and depressing.
Of course the obvious solution to this problem is to get involved in the university life and to prove their false stereotypes wrong and to challenge the group-think when appropriate. It may be difficult to swim against the (in reality fairly mild) tide, but doing it is the only way to make the atmosphere more tolerable. Avoiding the universities will only make things worse, and be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a side note, I also think that it is important that evangelicals in academia not attempt to ingratiate themselves with their non-conservative-evangelical peers by mocking their own tribe, and attempting to disassociate themselves from “those” evangelicals. Never mind the fact that it won’t work if you truly remain a con-evo, but it will only serve to strengthen the mainstream evangelical stereotype of arrogant academics who love the approval of their peers more than the Church.

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Kenny Johnson

posted August 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm

My Christianity almost never came up in my undergrad classes in History and Political Science. I don’t know how many of my professors knew I was a professing Christian. Whether they did or didn’t I don’t think it affected my grades either way. I’m in a Master’s program for Library and Info Science — and again, I doubt my professors know my faith, but even if they did, I couldn’t see it being a big deal.
I suspect this is a bigger problem for phd candidates and professors than it is undergrads. And it is probably a bigger issue if you are actually doing work in, for example, Biblical history.
With that said… there are certainly professors out there who do no like being challenged (even on paper). And I’ve heard of people complaining that when they challenged the ideology of the teacher in a paper, they were marked down. I graduated with a 3.6 and generally got A’s and B’s, but got a C in a class where I didn’t agree with the professor’s pretty radical views on Mexican history.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 2:16 pm

This brings to mind Dan Wallace’s recent post (that was also discussed at this site) regarding this issue in theological scholarship. His concern was based on discrimination due to perceptions about certain Christian institutions.
He wrote:
“I tell my students every year, ?I will respect you far more if you pursue truth and change your views than if you protect your presuppositions and don?t.? And they know my mantra, ?Go where the evidence leads.? Sadly, some of the most brilliant scholars in biblical studies have become radically intolerant of conservatives. When conservative professors have that same attitude, they?re usually afraid of having their ideas challenged because they?re insecure in their beliefs. And they?re labeled as fundamentalists.”
Along with the attitude issue that Ben mentioned in #1, I think Wallace’s mantra (that idea of really following the evidence and seeking truth) can really benefit Christians if openly understood.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm

There is definitely an undercurrent of hostility. You hit it right on — parenthetical remarks, unspoken assumptions, jokes (especially jokes). This can make for an uncomfortable atmosphere.
As a personal reflection – one of the things I struggled with for a long time was that I didn’t actually understand what I believed well enough to stand up for it in this atmosphere, even after becoming a professor. Wishy washy arguments and thinking simply won’t cut it. I was not about to risk my reputation supporting positions I didn’t really believe and wasn’t comfortable with.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 3:16 pm

So to continue with my last comment – and bring the point around to the interview with Mark Noll…
Dr. Noll is optimistic because of what he sees as a growth in Christian scholars and Christian scholarship – particularly evangelical scholars and scholarship. I am as well – but only cautiously. One serious problem we have is an ability to educate our students well enough that they can take a stand with intellectual integrity.
I included the parenthetical note – that I wish the leading evangelical philosophers would talk with and listen to scientists because some of this evangelical scholarship weak on the issues of science and faith and the evidence for evolution.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm

“In my own graduate education, I sometimes heard believing professors and historians say that, “As a historian I believe X, because I am required to operate according to a certain methodology. But as an individual believer, I believe Y.” The question is: Is that a stable arrangement? … Is it practical to bifurcate ourselves as scholars into one part that draws conclusions according to rigorous methodological criteria and another part that confesses a different set of beliefs?”
Unfortunately, this happens in the Church too. Your church or a majority of the congregants may believe or profess one thing and as a leader you quietly assent, while individually you may believe differently. However, expressing those beliefs can bring you scorn and accusations of heresy.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm

My wife has a phd in math and in graduate school she faced occasional ridicule from fellow students at times. Comments like ‘I thought you were smart’ etc. Her experience was that those who had a problem with her faith weren’t genuinely interested in knowing why she believed as she did. For the most part it was a non-issue, though. It was only the occasional comment.
She’s at a Christian university that’s a teaching school so her contact with non-Christians in her field is much more limited now.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I’m not an academic but I felt some of what is described here last week when we went with some in-laws to dinner. I’m kind of an amateur archaeologist, so my brother-in-law asks me how old some arrowheads were, and I tell him about 9000 years old. That’s more or less in direct contradiction of his YE understanding of scripture, and it made for a very awkward moment. If it were academia, it might be hard for us to work together. I’d be questioning his motives and he’d be questioning my faith.

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like a child

posted August 11, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I did not see any outright discrimination against Christians in my 9 years spent in my secular liberal arts undergrad + secular grad school in the sciences. The most difficult thing for me, being raised in a fundamentalist S. Baptist church, was that everything I was learning would have been labeled heresy by my childhood church, and I had no Christian faculty to come for advice or support. There were a few instances where I was challenged directly, like when my general biology professor taught evolution with the conviction that it disproved the existence of God. But mostly the difficulties were veiled in the literature I was reading, particularly in an English course on the Bible as Literature (i.e. total myth) and some honors classes on philosophy of science where I read books that claimed that neurobiology has refuted the existence of the Christian concept of soul. It was pretty obvious that my professors were not Christians. In grad school, there was little to challenge directly, but I could tell that there were few Christian faculty. There were lots of international students and post-docs, and I think my Christianity was viewed as an perplexing oddity to them….only one post-doc was verbally hostile to the concept of God.
I agree with Kotsko that the problem is of our own making. I didn’t bother me to be the only Christian, particularly from a social/moral/lifestyle perspective. But intellectually, I was having issues with Christianity myself, and if everyone around me was non-Christian, maybe the Bible really was just a myth and Christ was not resurrected. I think that if I didn’t feel so alone for so much of my education in my 20s, it might have saved me from a faith-crisis in my 30s.

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Ethan Magness

posted August 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm

“As a historian I believe X, because I am required to operate according to a certain methodology. But as an individual believer, I believe Y.”
I am not sure how concerned to be with this statement. It seems to me that it depends largely on context.
I had a physics professor who was very much not a believer who taught us, “As physicists you can only know what you can measure. Everything else is beyond the realm of physics and cannot be known. However I am still pretty sure that I love my wife and anyone who tells you differently is a liar.”
His short version for this statement was, “If I can’t measure it, it isn’t true.” That is a pretty dramatic statement but given his context it made sense and did not nullify his commitment to his wife, nor do I suspect that would it necessarily have nullified his faith(of course that is conjecture). Certainly while I was in his classes I was very content to limit myself to this one kind of repeatable testable knowledge and I felt like I could do that even though in other context I valued and trusted lots of other kinds of knowledge(and I would say truth) and I saw no conflict between these two choices.
In the same way i am very comfortable saying, “as a historian…” if by that I mean, “Using the disciplines of historical inquiry, I can validate this…” and still believe many things that move beyond the realm of history.
Now maybe in your example X and Y are functioning in the same domain of thought and they contradict. That would be a problem. But I don’t see any immediate problem with a Christian deciding to work within the limits of a problem for a specified period of time. In the same way if I visited a Christian surgeon, I would be happy for them to pray for me, but when it came time to decide what to cut I would want them to limit their knowledge base to commonly agreed medical standards and their concrete medical experience not appeal to any other sources of knowledge.

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posted August 11, 2010 at 9:15 pm

My initial tendency is to agree with Kotsko — much of the problem is of our own making. But I’ve also had the sorts of experiences Larsen describes — starting in 10th grade, where the hostility of an English teacher to Christian views caused me to question whether all Christian viewpoints were uneducated silliness; to comments in undegrad and grad school; and even today, many years later in my profession, where my boss often talks in jest about evangelicals. All of this stuff makes it difficult to have faith in some circles — which is particularly troubling to me when it is affects younger generations.
On the other hand, I often see christians take this too far, and buy into a victim mentality, but that’s not productive. And Christians certainly bear significant parts of the blame, as Kotsko says (and as Noll wrote in Scandal of the Ev. Mind). I think the best way forward is for leaders in various disciplines to continue to model Christian thinking that isn’t anti-realist (e.g., in the sciences), or culture-war based (as in Christian approaches to law). It is interesting that Noll in the interview says that he thinks the “scandal of the evangelical mind” still exists, despite efforts in these areas.

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Garrett League

posted August 11, 2010 at 10:26 pm

“Do you think that there is real discrimination against Christians in academia?”
Yes, but not where I go: sic ’em bears!!!

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posted August 12, 2010 at 9:11 am

What is “real discrimination?”
I have experienced a hostile environment towards Christianity in academic circles which leads to self-censorship and silence.
I’m sure prejudice towards Christianity could unconsciously make it more difficult for an open Christian to get tenure.
But is this “real discrimination?”

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posted August 12, 2010 at 12:39 pm

This is going to sound awful, but I’m not sure I want someone who grounds their science on the Bible teaching my child. One of my daughter’s friends does not believe in dinosaurs. How is that going to work when the kid hits college? One more ex-Christian, coming up.

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Bob Porter

posted August 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I appreciate a number of the comments that have been made.
I haven?t been able to determine where Dallas Willard stands with the JesusCreed crowd, but in his book, Knowing Christ Today, he is fairly critical of the academy in several important areas. Because he is a tenured professor in a secular institution, I tend to give him a careful hearing. As I remember it, getting peer review support for technical journals was one of several areas of likely discrimination.
BTW ? Willard is one of my personal favorites.

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posted August 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Great line of discussion here. A lot has changed since the publishing of “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and almost all of it has been for the better.
Perhaps part of the discrimination against evangelical Christianity comes from the strange reality that we have system where we elevate individuals based (largely) on appeal over credibility. No offense to those who have passed on, but was a leader like Rev Jerry Falwell the best spokesperson to reply to particular criticisms. Another part of this is that Christianity seems intent on shoving their replies into soundbite theology instead of engaging in the discourse from a realistic position. There are times where we simply cannot boil things down to their uttermost reductions. Arguments and postulates are complex.
I think there is, in some areas of academia, discrimination against evangelical Christians. Too many friends of mine who have entered the research sectors of their studies have encountered this bristling skepticism to their beliefs to deny that it exists. Too many have consistent stories about ridicule and damage from others to ignore the issue.
A final point is that in our media driven age we almost constantly are pointed (by others) to the extremes and fail to recall that the middle ground is occupied by reasonable people who deal with beliefs rationally. It is great television and press to get Richard Dawkins railing against some big personality. Yet that same report always neglects that Dawkins isn’t the norm for philosophers and scientists. As our society has been pushed to the extremes we fail to realize most everyone accounts for the middle ground.
Yet I do consider the wealth of profound evangelical Christian philosophers, scientists, and academic professions that are abounding in our world. I consider how specific evangelicals have profoundly shaped conversations like the problem of evil through legitimate, careful, and robust scholarship. I think we just forget to celebrate that.
Scholarship takes time…this is a good thing. Too many modern people (Christians and non-Christians alike) can’t handle taking time. We all want results now; scholarship doesn’t work that way.
peace, love, and keep Jesus First

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Unaplogetic Catholic

posted August 12, 2010 at 8:03 pm

” included the parenthetical note – that I wish the leading evangelical philosophers would talk with and listen to scientists because some of this evangelical scholarship weak on the issues of science and faith and the evidence for evolution.”
I’m more than happy to relate to fellow Christians but when I hear some of them talk about science, praticularly evolution, it’s like biting into a nice apple and finding half a worm. On the outside, it’s appealing, on the inside disgusting. I don’t really see much of na improvement since “Scandal” was written but I’ve had less involvement with in the past few years so maybe I’ve missed some things–like RJS teaching physics. I hoep my soon PhD-to-be son would get a chande to meet Christians who are scientists.

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posted August 13, 2010 at 8:18 am

This is a shameless plug and I apologize in advance. But I am a Christian sociologist and I have a book coming out on this subject in Januray called Compromising Scholarship by Baylor University Press. In my book I go beyond ancedotal accounts and look at systematic evidence that illustrates the bias against conservative Protestants. Honestly I thought there would be more bias against political conservatives than religious conservatives. But that is not what the evidence shows. Hope you look for the book. I really think it will chance this debate once it comes out.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

I attended a secular university and found that in the social sciences there was paper grading discrimination against the political conservative point of view. It was seen as closed minded. My only recourse was to write essays that included both liberal and conservative points of view, without indicating which I prefered even though many of these essays were supposed to be opinion essays. I would receive high grades for this. Other classmates that only wrote what their conservative opinions were generally received lower grades. I found that in the business school the views were more conservative and facts were always given with examples as to why more liberal views on business aften didn’t work in practice. For the physical sciences you just placed answers on tests or in essays in accordance with what was taught in class, whether you believed it to be true or not. This was the only way to pass the classes.

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posted August 17, 2010 at 9:23 am

For Gloworm, that’s very odd that a self-proclaimed supposedly Bible reading Christian would not believe in dinosaurs. Obviously this person hasn’t ever read the book of Job.

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Greg Garrett

posted August 18, 2010 at 4:50 pm

At Baylor, we face a couple of interesting tensions where religion and scholarship are concerned. Since we were threatened with takeover by Southern Baptist fundamentalists in the late 80s and early 90s, in the memory of many people still teaching, there is still substantial suspicion of ardent faith by many senior faculty members. On the other hand, many junior (and some advanced name-brand) scholars came to Baylor under the 2012 initiative that claimed our desire to be seriously faithful and seriously academic. So there has been open warfare, fear, assumptions of superiority by both more secular and more religious faculty members–and half a dozen presidents since we fought off any takeover.
But, of course, when we step out in the outer world, the problem shifts. People make immediate assumptions about me and my work based on my Baylor affiliation. I do feel I have to be twice as smart as someone else (or appear to be) to be taken as seriously. Sometimes people at a speaking event will tell me afterwards that they almost didn’t come because they saw I was from Baylor. Or if I impress them, they’ll double-check to make sure they understood my affiliation. I am not a conservative evangelical, but if my experience is any judge, perhaps all Christian scholars end up being treated as though they are.
Thanks for this thread–

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