Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College's motto, "Christo et Regno Ejus."  (click for credit)

This sign contains the English translation of Wheaton College’s motto, “Christo et Regno Ejus.”
(click for credit)

On June 30, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn entitled, “The Great Accreditation Farce.” In that article, which Binghamton University history professor Adam Laats calls a “hatchet job,” Dr. Conn tries to argue that Christian colleges which require their faculty to sign a statement of faith should not be given accreditation. After all, he says:

Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.

Now I have to admit I have some sympathy for that argument. In a post I wrote nearly three years ago, I highlighted one Christian university that does not make its faculty sign a detailed statement of faith: Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. In that post, I said Anderson University “gets it” when it comes to what a university is all about – honest, open inquiry. In my view, a detailed statement of faith restricts the search for truth, and that’s not what a Christian university should be about. Certainly, a Christian university should be staffed by Christian faculty, but it should not restrict that faculty’s fields of inquiry with a detailed statement of faith.

Even though I have some sympathy for Dr. Conn’s argument, it is wrong on at least two counts. First, while I would never teach at a university that requires a detailed statement of faith, that doesn’t mean such a university shouldn’t receive accreditation. After all, the purpose of accreditation is not to make sure the university is a bastion of skeptical and free inquiry. Instead, according to The U.S. Department of Education:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

This has little to do with how much skeptical and unfettered inquiry is going on at the institution. Instead, it has everything to do with the quality of the classes, the depth of the material covered, and the standards to which the institution holds its students.

The other reason Dr. Conn’s argument fails is more important: Using his argument, very few (if any) secular colleges could be given accreditation, because they don’t allow skeptical and unfettered inquiry, either.

I know this from personal experience. Before I started writing science textbooks, I was on the faculty at Ball State University. I had the second-largest research grant in the chemistry department, a long list of publications in the peer-reviewed literature of my field, and was a finalist for the university-wide Excellence in Teaching Award. However, I was denied the opportunity to seek tenure. Why? I don’t know exactly, but one of my colleagues (who was a supporter of mine and was part of the group that made the decision) indicated to me that it was because of my religious views and how they affected my research and teaching.

That didn’t surprise me at all. As we know from recent events, Ball State University is definitely not a bastion of skeptical and unfettered inquiry (see here and here). It was no different when I was there. While many fields of inquiry were welcomed at Ball State University, many other fields (such creation science) were strictly VERBOTEN.

Well, it turns out that I am not the only one who has experienced this lack of skeptical and unfettered inquiry at secular universities. In an article that rebuts Dr. Conn’s article, Stanton L. Jones, the Provost of Wheaton college, states:

Interestingly, when we hire colleagues away from nonreligious institutions, we often hear they feel intellectually and academically free here for the first time in their professional careers, because they are finally in a place where they can teach from and explore the connections between their intellectual disciplines and their religious convictions.

Wheaton College history professor Robert Tracy McKenzie provides a specific example of this. In a blog post about this issue, Dr. McKenzie says that he spent the first 22 years of his career at The University of Washington in Seattle. About that institution, he writes:

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum.

That is exactly what I experienced at Ball State University. After a while, this became too much for Dr. McKenzie, and he decided to accept a position at Wheaton College. Here is how he describes the way that change affected him on a professional level:

Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

While I have never taught at a Christian college, this doesn’t surprise me. There is probably no college on earth that supports truly skeptical and unfettered inquiry. This includes both secular and Christian colleges. However, I suspect that most Christian professors find their inquiry efforts significantly more unfettered at a Christian college than at a secular one.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Jay,

    The University of Washington is a wonderful institution: I got my teaching credentials from UW. However, they have a very low tolerance for faith-based inquiry. I was actually asked to leave the Masters of Education, Science Education, program after a wrote a paper defending Creation science. I also have run into the opposite from religious education organizations. I was once accused of being “led by Satan” because I refused to cancel a long-planned family vacation to attend a spontaneous prayer meeting. I believe both ends of the spectrum have their issues with questioning and honest inquiry.

    1. jlwile says:

      I am sorry to hear about both of those experiences, Steve. You are right – both ends of the spectrum have their problems with unfettered inquiry.

  2. have one says:

    Concerning the bias against Creation Science:

    Well since creation science has yet to prove the god hypothesis, its not considered a real science. Pretty much like Homeopathy still has to prove better results than the normal placebo to be considered real medicine. I think its a classical case of put up or shut up? While on this topic, i have yet to see a faith based sciencepaper that actualy makes use of its hypothesis that a supernatural being exists (Except in the field of Theology of course) . So far it all amounted to: Mainstream sience is wrong god did it. Even Evolution had its use in order to improve Artificial Evolution for us to make better food; Create new Dog/Cow/Chicken-Species etc. I fail to see where it helps (in the sense for example make Mars a Habital place.) to asume that there is a god.

    On academic freedom on christian colleges: Well that a christian PhD feels more welcomed in a college that supports his worldview shouldnt suprise anyone. Where as one that cant afford to support a worldview over another has to remain Neutral.Especialy since theres little sense in supporting a religion only because you feel its the right one (from a viewpoint of the institution University)i.e. “why does the Islamic-Course need rooms they are wrong anyways?” or “So you are that brilliant Hindu mathmatician, sorry that you are still stuck in Hinduism and cant sign this statment of faith that Christianity is right, maybe you have luck in another university”. Why not leave everyone there believes as long as they can leave them outside? So to speak: Atheism as middleground between all worldviews where a god can change the results of your experiments in order for his masterplan to work or because he/she feels like it?

    1. jlwile says:

      Have one, you seem to have a couple of misconceptions about how science is done. Let me see if I can clear them up for you. First, science cannot prove anything. Thus, no scientific theory can prove its underlying hypotheses. That is beyond the realm of science. Second, a scientific theory need not even provide evidence for its underlying hypotheses. String Theory, for example, cannot provide any evidence for its underlying hypothesis of multiple dimensions. Nevertheless, String Theory is considered a scientific theory. Other theories are still considered science even when their underlying hypotheses have evidence stacked up against them. For example, one of the underlying hypotheses of the Big Bang is the Cosmological Principle, for which there is strong evidence against. Despite this evidence against its underlying hypothesis, the Big Bang is considered a scientific theory.

      If you haven’t seen a faith-based science paper that actually makes use of its hypothesis that a supernatural being exists, then you haven’t read many scientific papers. There are many such papers. They make serious predictions that tend to be confirmed by subsequent data (see here, here, here, here and here, for example). Of course, the history of science is rife with examples of scientists using their concept of God to advance science. Copernicus, for example, promoted the heliocentric system specifically because it was more orderly, and he thought God was “the best and most orderly workman of all.”

      On the question of academic freedom, the issue is not whether the professor feels “welcome.” Indeed, if you read Dr. McKenzie’s post, there is every indication that he felt welcome at The University of Washington. The problem was that he didn’t experience academic freedom there. He did not experience academic freedom until he went to Wheaton.

      You are certainly incorrect that atheism is a “middleground [sic] between all worldviews.” In fact, it is diametrically opposed to most worldviews. The true middle ground would be agnosticism, the idea that truth claims regarding the existence or non-existence of a supernatural being are unknown or unknowable. Of course, if a university used that worldview, it would support all inquiry (inquiry based on the existence of a supernatural being and inquiry based on the nonexistence of a supernatural being). That would produce truly skeptical and unfettered inquiry. However, I don’t know of any university like that.

      Finally, you seem to have a misconception about how scientists who believe in God understand the way that He works. Let me see if I can clear that up as well. Scientists who believe in God do not think that He interferes with the day-to-day events in nature, which is what experiments probe. God is a Masterful Engineer, and He created a universe that runs on its own. I don’t know of a single creation scientist, for example, who thinks that God changes the results of experiments. Creation scientists believe that miracles can happen, but they are exceptions to the general rules of nature and are usually associated with individuals (healing, the resurrection of Jesus, supernatural intervention to prevent an accident, etc.), not the day-to-day events in nature. They don’t happen very often, so they are not expected to interfere with experiments. Even if a miracle were to interfere with an experiment, further experiments would demonstrate the anomalous nature of that one event.

  3. Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D. says:

    A complete Conn-job. Many universities would never have started if functional atheism were required. The first universities were founded in Europe in the Middle Ages, modeled on the theological colleges. In those days, they correctly believed that the God of the Bible was rational and personal, and had made us in His image, so reason was one of God’s gifts to man.

    A.N. Whitehead, co-author of Principia Mathematica with staunchly christophobic Bertrand Russell, argued that science itself began with the medieval insistence on the rationality of God: personal, active, and rational. Non-Christian faiths have deities that are too impersonal and too irrational. So any natural phenomenon could be the act of “an irrational despot” god or by “some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things.” A good book just out is Rodney Stark, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity.

    Evidently that English professor hasn’t a clue about that, and resorts to a typical atheopathic caricature of faith as turning off the mind, where as the Bible doesn’t contrast faith with reason but with sight.

    In America, Puritans founded Harvard, named after Rev. John Harvard. This is what was expected from its first students: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, (John 17:3), and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”

    Yale was founded by Congregationalist ministers. Its motto is still אורים ותמים (Urim and Thumim from the Hebrew Bible) and Lux et veritas (Latin: light and truth, a clear reference to Christ). Princeton was founded by Presbyterians, and its first President was Jonathan Dickinson, a leader in the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. The College of William and Mary was founded by Anglicans, Brown Univesity was founded by Baptists in 1764, and Rutgers by the Dutch Reformed Church. Conn’s own University of Pennsylvania’s first provost was Episcopalian priestWilliam Smith.

    1. jlwile says:

      Excellent points, Dr. Sarfati. Thank you for sharing them. Another excellent resource that shows modern science began with the medieval Christian church is The Genesis of Science by Oxford- and Cambridge-trained historian and scientist Dr. James Hannam.

  4. Kendall says:

    How stinky of Ball Sate U. not to offer you tenure! Turned out for the better though, now we have you delightful textbooks:-)

    I’m curious about what Christian colleges teach in their science departments. I imagine that they vary as much as Christians do! Are there any universities that teach young earth? Are there places that present ALL the different viewpoints on creation?

    Personally, I’m a fan of being presented with all the different views that are out there.

    Out of curiosity, what do you think about the verses in 2 Timothy 2:23-26 in regards to learning about all the various views that are out there? Someone was advising me not to study certain topics as a person who is already a Christian. My automatic emotional response to this was to rebel against the idea, but I couldn’t really come up with a good reason on the spot to counter their point.

    1. jlwile says:

      Kendall, Scripture tells us, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28). That’s what He did for me. He took the clearly wrong actions of Ball State University and worked them together for good.

      You are correct about Christian colleges. They vary a lot in what they teach regarding origins. Many (like Cedarville University) teach a young earth. Others (like Wheaton college) teach an old earth. Others (like Messiah College) teach evolution that was guided by God. Still others (like Anderson University) have professors from all sides, so I think they present a more balanced message.

      I don’t think 2 Timothy 2:23-26 tells us not to look at other views. It says to “refuse foolish and ignorant speculations.” To me, that means don’t bother to deal with arguments that are foolish. There are plenty of non-foolish arguments that evolutionists and old-earth creationists use. I think 1 Thessalonians 5:21 tells us what to do. It says, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” So you have to look at all sides, examine them, avoid the foolish nonsense, and hold fast to what is good.

  5. Keith says:

    Have one, you said that you don’t see “how it helps” science to believe in God. However, it’s not very difficult to see how it helps. A theistic scientist is going to have different assumptions about the world than an atheistic one, and if God exists, then the theist’s assumptions are correct, and the atheistic ones are wrong. Evolutionary biology is a prime example of course.

    Look at the issue of vestigial organs. Years ago, it was taught by evolutionists that human beings had lots of vestigial organs- parts that were left over from previous evolutions, but serve no function now. This was an assumption that more or less rested on atheism- if all organs are the result of random mutations, then of course there will be some useless ones kicking around. Christian scientists on the other hand, started with the assumption that all organs were the result of a designing God. Thus, even if their function was unknown, they assumed that these organs were put there for a reason.

    Today, modern medicine has supported the assumption of the Christian scientists- organs such as the appendix, spleen, and the thyroid gland are not vestigial, but in fact serve vital roles in the human body.

    So how does it help to believe in God? By believing in a designing God, the Christian scientists were able to make a correct prediction about the human body.

  6. Josiah says:

    Kendall, interesting question about Timothy.

    It seems to me, from the context at least, that what Paul is warning against is the quarrels; that is a foolish and stupid argument is one that sinks into endless bickering.

    I would actually argue that the same issue can in one context be a very worthwhile matter and in another be a foolish dispute.
    For example communion (or the same rose by another name) is clearly something very important. Something instructed by Jesus tends to be. How marvellous are the words “this is my body, broken for you” when they fall upon a Christian’s ears! What denomination said Christian belongs to is completely immaterial.
    Yet the same words have been pressed into more quarrels than should be counted, and many a church schism has resulted from arguing about whether the bread becomes literal human flesh. Instead of the power of Christ building up the church in unity as they share in one loaf, fights break out! I would say without hesitation that if someone is using those words to cause conflict among believers, they’re sinning!

    In the same way, something like the age of the Earth can become a foolish matter that we should just shut up about. I help keep an eye on an apologetics group on facebook, and we had to impose an outright ban on the topic after person after person brought it up to mock and accuse people they’d never met of being ignorant of basic science, ignorant of the basics of the Bible, or worse.
    On the other hand it clearly can be an issue that’s worth looking into, both for scientific interest and for defending the faith. I think Dr. Wile does an exceptionally good job of showing it done properly, because it is constantly clear that being gracious and seeking the truth are of critical importance to him. That means he’s willing to question arguments “on his side” or defend the merit where there is merit in those for the other side. Indeed, one very good reason for looking into such a dispute is so that you can understand both sides and perhaps be a peacemaker, a big part of which is getting both sides to recognize that they actually have a lot in common (say, being Christian) and the matter at hand might not be quite so clear cut as they suppose anyway.

    My perspective, therefore, is that anything you learn to puff yourself up or for the purpose of hitting another man over the brain with it is unhelpful no matter the contents, while anything you learn for a purpose that is loving, peaceful, gentle or good is probably worthwhile.

  7. Kendall says:

    Josiah,

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the honesty in your comment. Your insight has come at the right time:-) Especially the reminder to be loving. I find myself often going down the patch of learning for…my own purposes. I want desperately to be able to answer people’s questions. And yet I never seem to adequately “know” enough for my own satisfaction.

    You’re right about Christians arguing and hurting each other over doctrinal points. It’s really sad, and a BIG obstacle for certain unbelievers.

    Lately I’ve felt like I have to avoid many topics, even with other Christians, to step out of the way of conflict. I’m beginning to think that Jesus Christ is the only safe topic! Not that that is necessarily a bad thing:-) Since he is the center and core of Christianity, I think that all topics should lead to Him, or begin with Him.

  8. Mark says:

    Slightly unrelated but I am a high school student-athlete who is looking to potentially sign with a Christian College in Florida. Problem is, although I was born into a Catholic family and have had almost 12 years of religious education, I am an atheist. I also live internationally so I’m not sure what the Christian culture is like in the southern United States but I’ve heard it’s a lot different to where I’m from. I get the feeling that I’ll be constantly discriminated against, preached to and forced into hiding my beliefs because I’ll obviously be in the minority. If someone could please give me an idea if it’s as bad as I think it is or if I’ll be better off as an undercover-atheist, that would be great. Anyone?

    1. jlwile says:

      I am glad you asked that question, Mark. How comfortable you feel on a Christian campus will depend entirely on which College in Florida you attend. In some Christian colleges in Florida, I doubt that you would be discriminated against, but you will be preached to and will probably be more comfortable hiding your beliefs. Unfortunately, many of the students at these schools have been given a warped view of what it means to be an atheist, and as a result, they don’t treat atheists very well. It’s sad, but unfortunately, it’s the reality. If you attend other Christian colleges in Florida, however, you will have a completely different experience. On those campuses, students tend to be more open and accepting. A lot of it depends on the culture that has developed on the individual campuses.

      Now, of course, you will be in the minority on any Christian campus, so people will want to share their faith with you. After all, they (and I) believe that you need it to be truly happy here on earth and throughout eternity. You will also most likely have to go to chapel services once or twice a week. These things might become annoying to you.

      If you feel like discussing this further, please contact me through my website so we can talk privately. If you tell me the school you are thinking of attending, I could perhaps give you a bit more information, since I have several colleagues in Florida, and I know many students who have attended Christian colleges in Florida.