Philosophical Advice On Being An Activist As A Young Academic

A grad student writes:

Hi Dr. Fincke,

I am a PhD student in behavioral neuroscience. I’ve recently become involved with the secular movement and am very passionate about doing more and more as an activist in this area. I was a strong Christian all through high school, but started to become skeptical during college. I was a psychology major, but philosophy and Nietzsche and atheist writings were a catalyst for my deconversion. My undergrad was a Christian college and I come from a strongly religious and conservative family so despite deconverting being a struggle, it just makes me want to do more for other people in my situation.

I did my undergraduate work in Ohio in reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh so I found it really interesting that you went to Grove City!!! My school was very similar to Grove City, but we may have been more liberal since we could walk on the grass haha.

Anyway, I wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog posts and other writings!! I was wondering if you had any advice for a future academic (I am just finishing my first semester of grad school) who also wants to become more involved in the secular movement. I’ve been to several conferences and I’m also going to be on the executive board for my college’s secular group. I am very passionate about this movement and want to become as involved as possible so I was wondering if you had any suggestions/guidance for me as I am still involved in academia. I’m also hoping to do my dissertation on something religion and behavioral neuroscience related, but I know that’s down the road :)

Thank you for reading and I look forward to your reply!!!


It’s great to hear from you. Coincidentally I was just actually having a dream a couple hours ago where I was under pressure to write a blog post on the topic of being an activist academic.

I think I would recommend you plan on doing a dissertation that deals with a difficult issue in your academic field that is related to religion. I would look into very practical sorts of controversial questions where atheists or theists are making competing common sense inferences about how religious thinking works but no one has rigorously enough tested either side’s claims. Or see if you can do research that has the potential to throw into doubt inferences of psychologists about how great religion is.

I would recommend that you fuel your specifically activist energies into your non-academic activities. Run your secular group, network on Facebook and in real life with people involved in the major atheist organizations, study the stuff that the Harvard Humanists are doing to think in a forward way about secular community, etc. But you probably shouldn’t write activist-oriented things, not under your own name, unless you want to risk two things: (1) being stigmatized as an ideologue and not a legit scientist or (2) giving the impression you won’t devote the bulk of your professional energies to scholarship but will instead devote it to blogging. And I’m leery also of recommending a pseudonym. If you use a pseudonym, write prepared for it all to become publicly associated with you at any moment if you either get outed or if one day you want to claim credit for all that work once it’s safe to be openly an activist. Do not take pseudonymity as a license to be reckless. Don’t use it as a place to disparage people in ways you don’t want your name to be associated with. Don’t use it as a place to make sloppier arguments than you one day want to be associated with. Write it as though you’re using your own name, with an eye on the day your name will be ready to be tied to it.

Don’t use me as a role model. Don’t write indifferent to what academics might think, as I often do. I don’t think what I am personally doing by blogging my ideas instead of packaging them for peer review instead is wise from an academic standpoint. I do it because it simply fits my temperament and serves my passions and priorities. I am more comfortable and prolific as a blogger. I respond to the unique pressures and liberties it gives. I am motivated to write much more as a blogger than I would otherwise because the instant gratification of a wide audience of immediate readers creates a positive feedback loop for me. I also care about being part of public discourse and love contributing what I have to offer to a constructive movement and to individuals, and in doing so being of immediate use with my philosophizing.

But I wouldn’t recommend this to others as this is the hard way to be successful in academia. The smart way to be successful is to publish peer reviewed stuff early and often in graduate school and in your first couple years out. Finish your dissertation within 5 or 6 years of your enrollment in your PhD program, and get tenure six years after that. Basically, by the time you’re my age (35) you should have tenure and a peer review publishing record that gives you credibility. Then, if you’ve been doing the right kind of research you can make your break to try to reintroduce yourself to the secular community as a scholar. You can write a book that draws on your own academic work and other research and try to make the mainstream crossover. Having tenure when you do this would be fantastic. Doing what I am doing, writing primarily in a medium without peer review checks, looks bad to a lot of academics.

To be shrewd, you have to be as professionally focused as you can on playing the academic game until you have tenure. You can do stuff that does a nice job of undermining religion but you probably have to do it without simultaneously writing ideological stuff publicly before you have tenure. I fully recommend, again, being as active as possible as an activist outside academia in the meantime. But from what I am told outspoken blogs are only used as something to hurt a candidate they don’t like, they rarely help. (Though I also have heard from a friend in Arab studies though that someone working on Medieval Pakistan did get a plum job based on blogging on contemporary Middle Eastern politics. But I wouldn’t expect that.)

I also should stress that there is value in thinking of your thinking like an academic rather than like an activist because it makes you less biased and more rigorous, creative, unusual, and, hence, interesting. I am personally very grateful that I spent 10 years of my time as an undergraduate and graduate student with a primary focus on philosophical problems for their own sake before I started to let producing pieces that were advocacy oriented influence the shape and character of my writing and, with it, my thinking itself. There is something purifying about the rigorous focus on working out new truths without any mind for their relevance. There is also something to be gained from plumbing for insights that the average activist does not yet know about. Researching what’s not already common knowledge and incorporated into a movement means you have something fresh and distinctive to offer to movements. I find that all that academic sequestering in the past, and my regular returns to it now, means having far more worthwhile and relevant points when I engage in the project of taking sides in public. There is a value in academic detachment. Then there is a value in brass tacks public engagement and all the things that that opens up for you (which is also a ton that academic detachment itself may never bring you). I don’t recommend one over the other. I recommend both in oscillation as the fullest and most robustly informed and relevant intellectual life. My interpretation of Nietzsche’s perspectivism informs, and is itself influenced by, my practices and experiences in these regards.

Some might discourage activism of any kind because of the potential “Google problem”. If you are online as a leader of a secular group, maybe even winding up giving interviews to local media, they might fear all of that might come back to haunt you.

Most likely I don’t think it will be a problem that people see you are active in a cause in your personal life. I just think the question is what kind of public writing or interviews are out there. If you are going off intemperately about religion in a way that makes you sound acerbic and ideological, that’s no good. It’s one thing to be engaged in activist events or projects. But when engaging media, even as an activist, I would present myself the way I would want to be seen by other academics—as someone rigorous and restrained and humble, rather than polemical and political. I think academics are going to look for some academic distance, judiciousness, and temperance in anything you say publicly. You are trying to build up legitimacy and credibility. That requires some reserve. Rather than making broad polemical points and sweeping statements talk about the scientific literature you’ve studied and have a good grasp on and can synthesize. Make remarks specifically emphasizing the relative degree of tentativeness or provability your speculations have scientifically.

Only when you have impeccable cache as an honest academic who has brilliant, peer reviewed insights can you start spending that kind of capital and be a Richard Dawkins or Stephen Pinker. You have to earn that by gaining institutional respect. (And even then you will get backlash from the academy, but at least you’ll be big enough for it not to hurt you.) The institution of academia is quite rightly suspicious of rabble rousers who are more interested in pandering in popular media than patiently earning fresh knew knowledge through solid hard work and discipline.

So, in a nutshell, anything you say in media should be with an academic’s hat on. Don’t be a spokesperson in your activism until you have institutional credibility established.

Of course, I sometimes flout this advice personally. But I’m not personally banking on a career in academia. I’ve decided it’s just more important to me to express myself with no fetters than to nail down a permanent career as a professor. I am building a business as a private philosopher hired by laypeople and working out how to write books that are both serious philosophy and popular. I am trying to push the boundaries of how far you can take a philosophy blog on the internet. And I care passionately about providing resources for people to get out of their faiths and to build constructive philosophies for themselves when they get out. I want to be an active agitator for a cultural transformation away from the hindering legacies of regressive and stagnating faith based moralities and philosophies. Those are the things I am passionate about and where I want to focus my philosophical research and creativity. I have resigned myself that because of this I may never go higher than the rank of adjunct assistant professor in academia. Academia is not set up to adequately quantify or evaluate the worth of what I do. So, I am willing to accept the consequences because I care more about the valuable things I am striving to create than I care about remaining in academia. But that’s a decision I make with eyes wide open and would not recommend it to anyone who wants all the benefits and opportunities academia might offer.

Finally, the other way to control the Google problem is to be proactive with what’s on the net from you and about you. The one upside about putting myself on the internet the way I have is that I have controlled to a large extent what people will find about me. I’ve exposed myself by being so frank about what I think and by not pulling punches or writing all the time with academic restraint. But I have also been largely in control of what people will see when they google me since my blog and major posts from it come up first. It’s my own self-presentation that determines most of the links that will come up. It will not be just a random disconnected smattering of mentions of me. I have a full presentation of my writing up on the net, etc. And I’m building a reputation among a growing audience of readers.

So, that’s my solution to the Google problem. The way you can do this while also being more careful about remaining academic (as I haven’t) is that you can (and probably should) get a website up. Just make it an academically respectable one that you write with job search committees in mind. Put up an archive of links to credible academic resources on the neuroscience and social science of religion (pro and con)—links to peer reviewed journal articles and pedagogically valuable videos. Carefully write an academic blog, it does not matter if it’s read by hardly anyone, in which once a month you briefly summarize and comment soberly, critically, and respectfully on a development in the field (mindful that anyone you criticize may be someone you want to work with in the future). Put up posts where you alert others to the existence of conferences, etc. Look at the really academic blogs and put up something that signals to that insular community that you’re serious and for them. Something like that means that when you’re Googled you will have something that showcases that you have an academic’s priorities and an interest in using social media in a 21st Century way. Couple that with a few restrained, academic interviews about the behavioral neuroscience of religion that maybe you score through activist connections, and I think you will look like an interesting professorial candidate–one who will do serious work but also could be internet savvy and media savvy enough to make a name for yourself and your university, but without any of this distracting from your scholarly focus.

So, in short, any time you speak or write in public be covertly sending signals to academics that you adhere to scholarly standards in everything you do publicly. When the microphones are off and the keyboard is closed, be a rough and tumble activist best you can. Should you attain tenure, speak more openly while remembering to respect your responsibilities and the credibility granted to you as an academic. Represent the scholarly community well and do not be merely a flamethrower.

And remember, you’re not really hiding your criticisms of religion by being as grounded in scholarship about them as possible, you’re just making them much more precise. That makes them ultimately much more powerful as targeted, high impact strikes. Scholars whose academically vetted work bolsters movements are special weapons who have the long run potential to affect much more change than the average polemicist can manage. So, don’t feel stifled by this. Even as polemical as I occasionally get, I stay tethered by my sense of academic judiciousness, and I feel like it only helps me.

One last caveat to all of the above, a few academic fields have vibrant traditions of activist academics. People considering such fields, should consult widely within their own fields to see if the advise given there is different than what I have said here.

Your Thoughts?

Also of interest to graduate students: Philosophical Advice for a Procrastinating Graduate Student

I am an American Philosophical Practitioners Association certified philosophical practitioner and I have a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University. If you have a problem you think I can help with write to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com with the subject line “Philosophical Advice” and if I feel comfortable advising you, and can get to it, I will answer it here on the blog. All identities of those writing in for advice are kept strictly confidential. I use pseudonyms for all the letter writers and otherwise alter potentially identifying remarks they make when reprinting their letters, responding to them on the blog, and discussing them generally.

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