The Difficulty of Being an Atheist College Administrator

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by “Madalyn Dawkins” (a pseudonym combining Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Richard Dawkins) discusses the relative ease of being an atheist professor but the difficulty of being an atheist administrator:

Donors will give your school money… but only if it’s not led by an atheist, says ‘Dawkins’

Faculty members regularly announce themselves to be godless without consequence, but for an administrator — especially a high-ranking one — such an announcement could amount to professional suicide.

My spouse has had a succession of administrative posts over the last few decades, and my experience is that in academe there is a kind of God Squad that monitors and polices administrators’ beliefs and attitudes toward religion. The real danger for campus officials who reveal themselves as agnostic or atheist is retaliation from powerful donors, board members, alumni, or other administrators in the institutional hierarchy.

The main reason, she says, is that the job is political, and we know politics is not a safe space for atheism. I don’t have personal experience with academia at that level, but the explanation would make sense. University administrators are, in large part, fundraisers. They need donors of all stripes to give the school some money and controversial opinions of any sort, really, don’t help.

Her advice is for administrators to avoid the topic and not show their cards. I don’t know how realistic that really is. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out a significant percentage of college presidents were atheists… and if you were a donor, wouldn’t you go into a discussion with an administrator assuming that the person was an atheist?

In any case, it’s a sad state of affairs when the people who run our institutions of higher education are advised to avoid serious discussions about controversial topics because it might hurt their bottom line.

Jack Vance has a few rebuttals to the article worth checking out.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    I’ve never been an administrator, but I have pretty much practised what Madalyn Dawkins suggests. If asked about religion, my standard reply has been that it is a personal issue. I never discussed religion in class.

    It was my sense that it was best to avoid anything that some would think controversial.

    And yes, I sense that it is harder for an administrator. I expect that an administrator would have to attend church with some frequency, to keep up appearances. Thankfully, that was never a problem for me as a faculty member.

    It would not surprise me if 30% or more of congress members are atheists, but are hiding that fact because their political careers depends on keeping up the pretense.

    The Internet seems to be changing this, so I’m hopeful that we are approaching a time when such a pretense is no longer required.

    • Keyra

      That’s quite an assertion

    • g75401

      Maybe even more-politicians use religion as a prop for fundraising.

  • Beth

    I don’t tell people I’m an atheist bc I have to testify in court from time to time. Way too many fundies in this area and I wouldn’t want the prosecutor’s office (or defense) to have to deal with some jerk on the jury, or an asshole judge.

    • Keyra

      So you’d…lie? Doesn’t seem very moral, does it? But I don’t blame you, pride as an atheist isn’t really worth it

      • Drew M.

        Where’s the lie? The “so help me god” part doesn’t really affect the “I swear to tell the truth” part.

        ETA: Assuming that’s what you were referring to.

      • TheG

        It is a lie needed because of the proven nastiness of the religious majority.

        It isn’t as shameful as a hypocritical Christian who is lying by pretending to engage in a conversation on an atheist site, but never actually responding to anyone when the Christian is called out on anything.

      • DavidMHart

        “Not telling people X” is not the same as “lying about X”. But if Beth does have to pretend not to be an atheist for professional reasons, it’s bigoted religionists who make that pretense necessary.

        Do you agree that an atheist should be able to be out about their atheism and face no adverse social consequences, nobody presupposing that they have no moral compass, or that they can’t have meaningful lives, or that they are just as good as everyone else? In which case, fine, you are a decent human being, and I’d hope that any atheist would extend the same courtesy to you if the boot were on the other foot.

        But if you do perpetuate those false stereotypes, then you are responsible for helping to create an environment where people who don’t share your religion have to be in the closet, and occasionally lie about their non-religion just to enjoy the same rights as everyone else – and if so, then you are not meaningfully different from the sort of school bully who grabs a kids arm and swings it against their face, saying “Stop hitting yourself! Why are you hitting yourself?”

      • Jen

        I’m not in an area with a lot of fundies (to say the least) but on the few occasions when I have been deposed or given testimony in court I have told the person swearing me in that I “have to affirm.” They all understand this to mean that they can’t use the ‘so help me god’ oath. I’ve never been asked why (I think they are probaby not allowed to) and I sometimes offer “I can’t swear on a bible.” I say this knowing that the assumption will be that I’m actually super religious, rather than an atheist, and there’s no need to disabuse them of that notion. And, yes, Keyra, you are blaming Beth. There’s no rule that says you have to announce yourself as an atheist.

  • Drew M.

    Last time someone asked me (a couple of years ago), I said, “I firmly adhere to Matthew 6:5.”

    She never asked me again.

    I’m glad that kind of thing is very rare in my area.

  • pparf

    As a writing teacher, I avoid the subject of my atheism. If asked, I tell them that I won’t discuss religious beliefs because someone in the room will be offended or upset regardless of what I say and may then believe that the grade I gave was based on my beliefs rather than on their writing. The vast majority of the time, that has worked very well. As for what they write, I tell them that my job is not to say who is wrong and who is right, but to help them to improve at presenting ideas backed up by logical reasons in turn backed up by reasonable evidence. When one of them writes a paper espousing religious beliefs, I don’t attack the logical fallacies directly (after all, they’ve been conditioned to believe that their reasons are logical and the evidence sound or even irrefutable). Instead, I ask questions about the reasons and/or evidence to get them to try to consider logical fallacies or the weakness of their positions. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But if I were to be abrupt or dismissive of their stance, I would merely alienate them and lose all chance to still influence their willingness to question and explore their beliefs.

  • cary_w

    While it may seem sad to have to hide your atheism, I sometimes see it a different way. When I tell people I don’t want to discuss religious beliefs, I feel like I am also leading by example. In most business and social situations, talk of religion has no place and you are better off keeping your religion, or lack thereof, to yourself. The world would be a much more peaceful and tolerant place if more people would keep their religions to themselves! So I don’t always see it as hiding my atheism, but more like modeling polite and respectful behavior to someone who is about to do something that is likely to cause hurt feelings, just like you might model saying “please” and “thank you” around people who unintentionally come across as rude for not saying that.

  • AndyTK

    My wife works in the administration of a small private university and is a non-practicing theist. Her home department (she still teaches one class a semester) has a number of evangelical Christians. The dean of her school, and her boss, however is a strong Atheist so it isn’t impossible to be an out Atheist at a college. (and be part of the administration)


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