For years, Christians have complained that academia has been an unwelcoming place for them. They're probably right. While the evidence about whether colleges and universities are encouraging Christians to lose their faith is mixed, the anti-Christian humanist bias within academia is relatively clear—both to the disproportionately low number of Christians within the academy and to researchers, like me, who've taken the time to study them.
Given the hostility towards Christians, we're left asking how Christians should approach higher education. Do they belong in academia at all?
As a Christian academic, I affirm our place in colleges and universities. The anti-Christian hostility we see comes partly from scholars' lack of contact with Christians. When more Christians enter into academia, they challenge the anti-Christian stereotypes and myths of some academics. A history of anti-intellectualism within Christianity has long fed into the mistrust of some scholars. At times Christians have been our own worst enemies and have held unwarranted mistrust toward academics and scientists. We should not be surprised when that resentment is shoved back at us.
Furthermore, the differing epistemological assumptions of academia's secular humanism and traditional Christian ideas form an ideological divide. That divide gets deepened when so few Christians participate in the social circles of academics. Some scholars' mistrust keeps them from respecting the perspectives Christians bring to issues within their specific field or to general social, political, and religious concerns.
Having more Christians in academia will also help introduce scholarly topics otherwise ignored. For example, my work on anti-Christian bias in academia would be unlikely to occur in a secular scholarly atmosphere that overlooks unfamiliar individuals toward whom there is little sympathy. Christian academics can both help alter the attitudes of academics and influence the sciences so that a wider range of viewpoints and perspectives can be taken into account.
This does not mean that all Christians should go into academia. Obviously, it takes a certain degree of cognitive ability, personal perseverance, and discipline to obtain a doctorate. Some Christians are not called to handle the unique challenges demanded of them in graduate school; but God has blessed others with certain rudimentary intelligence, stubbornness, a willingness to explore controversial ideas, creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, and other qualities well-suited for academia. A Christian academic has to be able to stand by ideas not accepted or popular among his colleagues—something I have learned to do.
Christians who want to go into academia must undergo a frank assessment of whether they are ready for the challenges academia has to offer. How can they plan for such a career in a way that glorifies God and makes a unique contribution to academia?
First, it is important to acknowledge the intellectual challenge in this career choice—not merely in one's studies but also to one's faith. Before I went to graduate school I immersed myself in the best apologetic material I could find. I anticipated learning new modes of thinking when I went to graduate school and wanted to be well versed in what I believed.
Many academics have accepted a certain level of anti-Christian animosity that is present in our larger society. This is not surprising, since antipathy towards conservative Christians is linked to higher educational attainment. By definition, scholars are highly educated, and they are more likely to be part of highly educated subcultures that include anti-Christian hostility. The animosity within academic circles may merely reflect larger anti-Christian antagonism in some segments in the United States.
Starting in grad school, I often found myself the lone dissenter among highly educated, well-spoken likeable people, only able to maintain my beliefs because I had previously established an intellectual foundation for them. I anticipated changing some previous theological and epistemological ideas due to my graduate school training, but engaging in deep thinking about my Christian faith before graduate school made sure that these changes were well thought-out.
The anti-Christian discrimination we see in the academy does not give Christians an excuse to give up on the pursuits of scholarship, research, and higher education. It becomes too easy to look at potential episodes of prejudice as a reason for our failures. As an African-American, I have seen this attitude in some blacks, and as a Christian academic, I can see it in some Christians. We do better to assume that most people want to be fair. I honestly believe this to be true. Academics tend to advocate religious neutrality. This stated value makes it more difficult for those with anti-Christian animosity to overtly act on that animosity. This is not to say that religious prejudice and discrimination will not take place, but appeals to religious neutrality usually keep much of this discrimination in check. Keep plugging away and strive to succeed even if you suspect anti-Christian prejudice. A fatalistic attitude because of potential prejudice can hijack your career before it gets started.
Expect that you will have to perform better than non-Christians if you want to succeed. Research that does not fit in with the general social values of secularism will have a more difficult time getting published. I've done work in the area of race, which fit into the general social and political paradigm of my field, and on anti-Christian hostility, which did not fit into that paradigm. It's been much harder to publish on the latter. There is a general expectation of excellence in the academia. As Christians, especially when working with unpopular topics, we must strive to be even more excellent than our peers. Meeting this higher standard can help Christians have an impact in academia.
Finding social support is critical for Christians in academia—particularly when in graduate school. Many of your fellow graduate students will not understand your faith, and most Christians will not understand your academic and unique social challenges. If possible, find a local community of Christian academics and graduate students. If there is not such a local group, contact Grad Resources, which can supply material and possibly help you find mentors. If you know of a Christian in your field and admire her work, do not be shy about reaching out. Part of a scholar's job is to mentor younger scholars, and a Christian scholar should be especially willing to share her time. Selection of your advisor in graduate school is also important. It is great when a Christian can find a Christian professor to be his advisor, but that is not always possible. However, it is wise to steer clear of an advisor who shows a high level of anti-Christian animosity. A bad advisor can rather easily sabotage a student's career.
Lastly, if possible, develop a strong idea of what you want to study in your field before going to graduate school. This is a good idea for anyone going to graduate school, but it is especially important for Christians. Once you have thought deeply and deliberately about your area of interest, it will be harder for your professor to move you to a research area that does not fit your calling. Graduate school is a social area where many scholars have social and religious perspectives based on secular values. A Christian who has not fully thought out what to study in the framework of Christianity within his chosen field of research may wind up conducting research that does not comport with Christian values. It is difficult to fully know what to study before even taking a graduate class, but the more Christian students contemplate their potential research question the easier it will be to maintain the integrity of why they decided to attend graduate school to begin with.
Even though some information about Christians in graduate school can be discouraging, I offer these suggestions as encouragement. If God has called you into graduate school then nothing can stop you from achieving the goals he has for you except for unwillingness to do the work necessary to succeed. With that in mind, the most important step is to make sure you understand his call.
George Yancey is a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He is author of Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education (Baylor University Press) and co-author (with David Williamson) of What Motivates Cultural Progressives (Baylor University Press). He is currently doing research on Christianophobia in the United States and his work can be found at www.georgeyancey.com.