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June 9, 2018+Seth D. Kaplan
+Faith & Religion+Viewpoint Diversity

Religion: A Viewpoint Diversity Blind Spot?

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:10.

Heterodox Academy (HxA) attempts to foster viewpoint diversity on university and college campuses and has defended a number of people — including Amy Wax, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and Bret Weinstein — who have adopted unpopular yet legitimate opinions (unpopular in the sense that they ran against the grain of many students, professors or even university administrators).

HxA has done a good deal of research spotlighting the lack of political diversity in institutions of higher learning. However, the organization has done far less work analyzing the dearth of religious perspectives within the academy, or emphasizing the value of those perspectives.

That is, while the organization’s membership may be politically diverse, few seem interested in directly challenging, or even problematizing, the prevailing secular mindset of the academy.

Yet, religious commitments are arguably more essential to ideological viewpoint diversity than political affiliation. After all, religious belief is likely to be a more integral part of one’s identity, worldview, and community than politics. For many, religious belief grounds their existence in something higher than politics or even country. Religious students, professors, and administrators do not just hold subjective ideas in their heads – these core commitments help orient every facet other of life. One cannot, therefore, regard those beliefs as something they ought to compartmentalize when approaching research or teaching. Indeed, the impulse to do so is a very recent development.

Tradition as Taboo

Discrimination against religion is becoming more overt in academia than discrimination based on political convictions. Whereas the latter is typically dished out informally (i.e. through recruiting and promotion practices, the selective enforcement of rules, the discouragement of dissonant discourse, and social pressure) — the former has in some cases been formally mandated. Not only are religious, especially Judeo-Christian, perspectives downplayed or even suppressed — and overt religious behavior frowned upon — but, in some cases, religious organizations are being expelled from campus life for simply organizing themselves around or expressing beliefs derived from their sacred texts. (It must be noted that these are voluntary organizations; students and others are not compelled to join or attend.)

Shifting views on sexuality and gender identity have brought simmering tensions between the secular academy and religious belief into plain view, as traditional Jewish, Christian, and Muslim positions are increasingly viewed by students and administrators as bigoted and offensive. Students want to be cossetted from views that may discomfort them; administrators want to avoid taking a stand that will be attacked by students, the media, and, possibly, government officials.

As a result, student religious organizations, such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, are being expelled for refusing to alter the requirement that leaders commit to Christian beliefs. This has happened at Vanderbilt University, Rollins College, Grinnell College, and, for a period of time, at the 23 campuses of Cal State University. A national religious organization that trains youth is relocating a summer program from a university in California because pending state legislation poses legal risks related to the organization’s teaching. Scholarly associations are apologizing for organizing an event at a religious university before moving it off campus, as happened with the Society for Political Methodology’s annual meeting at Brigham Young University.

In California, bill AB 2943 threatens to penalize any institution, including a college or university, which promotes traditional Biblical views on gender, sexual orientation, and marriage. Nationally, Christian colleges and universities are faced with the possibility that their federal funding will be withdrawn at some point – for instance, if Title IX is expanded to include LGBT persons, as the Obama administration tried to do. This would block students’ access to Perkins loans and Pell grants, and it would likely have implications for accreditation as well. More broadly, it would demonstrate the government’s power to circumscribe the realm of religion —limiting it to private worship and prohibiting public witness.

Measuring the Problem

Anecdotal evidence of anti-religious bias in academia is not hard to find. However, surprisingly little research has been undertaken to quantify it.

Among the scarce resources on the Heterodox Academy website on this topic is an interview with University of North Texas sociologist George Yancey — one of the few scholars who has made this issue central to their professional calling.

He has shown that while professors are unlikely to know much about evangelical beliefs or to associate with evangelicals, they nonetheless tend to hold very strong negative opinions about them. Indeed, professors are, on average, more biased against Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals than they are against Republicans. He reports, “Almost half of all academics were less willing to hire a candidate for an academic job if they learned that the person was a conservative Protestant.”

Meanwhile, John Gartner has shown that acceptance into clinical psychology graduate programs is negatively affected if the applicant is a conservative Christian. The idea that religious believers cannot think rationally seems to pervade academia even though there is no evidence to support what is, essentially, an irrational belief.

This bias impacts more than hiring decisions; it taints research outcomes too. Brent Slife and Jeffrey Reber have shown how prejudice against theism undermines psychological research. There are studies examining anti-religion bias in anthropology and social work as well.

As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, “Morality binds and blinds. Many [secular] scientists misunderstand religion because they ignore this principle and examine only what is most visible.” Consequently, they risk missing major issues or factors influencing outcomes in their field of studies that religious scholars might not.

Disregard for religion impoverishes fields such as sociology, psychology, medicine, and even economics, where belief, religious practice, and community can play an underappreciated yet important role shaping how individuals behave, communities evolve, and even societies develop. It can, for example, explain why some places (e.g., Utah) have much better social outcomes than their neighbors (e.g., Nevada). Research undertaken by Robert Putnam and David Campbell for American Grace shows how religion impacts a wide range of individual behaviors and social outcomes.

This blind spot on religion has real-world implications too. It weakens American understanding of global affairs, where religion plays a prominent role. Few foresaw the religious revival that has characterized much of the world in recent decades. Few paid heed to the rise of Islamists in the Middle East before 9/11, and few today are well-versed in the religious beliefs and groups that shape societies from Africa to the Middle East to South Asia and beyond.

HxA, Viewpoint Diversity and Religion

Nick Phillips’ recent essay on the limits of viewpoint diversity helpfully notes that the boundary between which ideas are “settled,” and which are not, is more fluid than it might initially seem. “Wicked problems” often turn largely on moral disputes. An understanding of religion can equip us to bridge these divides.

Resolving moral problems requires asking hard questions about what is good, what is right, and what really makes a person better off. How can we, for example, reach consensus about the right balance between retributive justice and reconciliation without including religious voices (given the large share of Americans who are religious)?

Indeed, American history boasts numerous examples—from the fight to end slavery to reducing government corruption in the 19th century to ensuring the civil rights of African Americans—where religion played a crucial role in tackling what were once viewed as wicked problems. We might be missing important religious contributions to “settled” problems in our world today—not because those contributions aren’t important or present, but because we aren’t looking for them.

How could Heterodox Academy address this lacuna? It could, for example, promote the use of surveys or studies to better understand the religious makeup of faculty, administrators, and students — and how they are affected by the lack of viewpoint diversity, the narrowing space for legitimate debate, unfair recruitment and promotion practices, and intolerance of religion on campus. It could highlight the issues affecting religious groups and individuals working or studying in universities and colleges more in its blog posts, weekly updates, and podcasts. It could make a greater effort to involve academics from theology or religious studies fields. It could publish articles parsing the differences between political conservatives and religious academics—not all of the latter are members of the former (and vice versa) —and explore how these differences affect research methods, interests and findings.

Despite the myriad challenges to protecting political viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech in academia today, HxA has boldly undertaken the challenge. Yet, it must now go one step further and also explore the limits and potential of religious belief on campus as well.

Editor’s note: Baylor Professor of Humanities Alan Jacobs published an excellent extension of this post here. Highly recommended reading for those who found this essay compelling, or would like to further explore this issue.


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