A Christian in the Secular Academy
When many individuals think of the life of a college professor, the general perception they have formed (fueled by articles such as this) is that we only work for a few days a week and have the entire summer "off." Many misunderstand the nature and extent of this profession and are not aware of the various frustrations that are associated with this career. Some of these frustrations are common to all faculty (such as dealing with unmotivated students, extensive university service activities, administrative politics, the 90-100 hour work week, etc.), but there are some challenges and frustrations that seem to be particularly unique for minority faculty members who are also conservative Christians. As I consider my journey over the past decade into the academic life, I thought it would be useful to the reader to provide insight into the life and misconceptions of life within the academy.
As I entered academia with the aspirations of being a Black scientist, I was warned by other Black scientists that my peers will assume that I'm intellectually inferior and that many will be more interested in hearing my views on race rather than science (for those who are interested, consider this article). For this reason, I've made it my aim not to be another educated Black man who spends all of his time talking about race. Contrary to the expectations of many, I've experienced very little discrimination within academia as a Black man because of these convictions.
From Christians outside of the academy, I was warned that the academy has become so dogmatically secularized across all academic disciplines that Christians are usually seen as unwelcomed. Throughout my matriculation in academia, I have heard a few of my peers ask me privately: "Why would an intelligent man like you associate yourself with ignorant Christians?" After articulating the reasons for my faith and confidence in Christ, usually I receive a condescending nod from the hearer, viewing my religious convictions as a form of folk religion. In spite of these rare experiences, I've found numerous believers within the physical sciences. Furthermore, based upon my conversations with academics in other fields, it appears that you are actually more likely to find Christians and those who are sympathetic to the Christian worldview within the physical sciences than what you will find today in the social sciences and humanities. In other words, the physical sciences are not the bastion of atheism as many believe.
When I entered graduate school about a decade ago, it was God's providence that my research group was probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse group within my institution. Contrary to popular belief, we don't have to look to the 19th century to read about scientists who were devout, orthodox Christians. There are still many today who agree with James Joule that "to engage in science, far from being contrary, is compatible with our seeking after God." In contrast, I have often said that the social sciences and humanities are the last bastions of ideological dogmatism within America. This is no longer considered speculation, but there is now empirical social science research to support this. George Yancey, a black evangelical sociologist who teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical. Within the academy, there are strong biases against evangelicals as well as those who are politically conservative.
The condescension towards evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude towards racial minorities. During off-the-record conversations, the same arguments that I hear humanities professors make about evangelicals sound remarkably familiar to the ways which some people describe Blacks - politically unsophisticated, ignorant, lacking education, intellectual inferior, angry, bitter, emotional, poor, etc. This attitude is easy to enforce within fields in which a Christian worldview shapes the content of one's research, such as the social sciences and humanities. For this reason, young conservative scholars are encouraged to "stay in the closet" until they have obtained tenure. However, since I'm not politically conservative and since I'm a researcher on hurricanes and severe convective storms, this attitude has a much smaller bearing on my academic future.
However, the true challenges associated with being a Christian professor in a secular institution are twofold. First, one of my tasks as a Christian scientist is to de-mythologize science. I've found that many have a superstitious reverence towards physical science research. The ethos of our current age is to hold all external authorities in suspicion; however, when scientific authorities and science evangelists make their proclamations, college students (as well as society in general) tend to nod and agree. It is usually my job to remove the veil from the eyes of many so that they become aware of the limitations and boundaries of physical science.
The primary error that is repeated throughout society is to regard science as a method for discovering truth. This was the common belief among scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very few reputable practicing scientists would today assert that science discovers truth. However, this mythological idea continues to be perpetuated and many are intimidated by the modern equivalent of "Thus saith the Lord"--namely, "it has been scientifically proved!" The modern trends in science education has produced a generation that believes that nothing should be publicly accepted unless it has been scientifically proved and nothing has any claim to be called true unless science acknowledges that claim. To de-mythologize science is to teach others of the inherent uncertainty of scientific conclusions and to learn how to make proper inferences from this uncertainty.
The second challenge of being a Christian professor is to be aware of what some have called "the vulgar arrogance of intellectuals." This means that being a Christian professor is no more virtuous a calling than any other. This is a perpetual temptation because there are many academics and intellectuals who use their career as an opportunity to seem greater, better, or smarter than others. As a Christian professor, my calling should be viewed as one that enables me to serve my students more, not to lord it over them. Connected to this temptation is the belief that our calling is more important than others. There are many within the academy who believe that their primary responsibility is to shape the future of the current generation of students. This concept has evolved to the extent that many professors have taken it upon themselves to transmit their own intellectual biases and dogmatism to the next generation (since all other authorities are considered ignorant). This temptation calls me to true humility - not to think of myself more highly than I ought and not to speak confidently about matters in which I am ignorant.
The task of being a Christian professor is marked with numerous difficulties and challenges, but none are insurmountable. The basic disciplines of the Christian life (i.e. such as attending church, reading scripture, prayer, etc.) are incredibly important and useful in avoiding these various pitfalls.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.