I Still/No Longer Believe

I Still/No Longer Believe July 13, 2015

Conservative sectarian schools quote

There’s been another interesting convergence of the blogosphere. Brandon Withrow shared his story of losing faith while teaching at seminary, and as a result departing from there. Christopher Skinner blogged about it, and asked what it is that leads to this experience being so common (UPDATE: see also his follow-up post about Jay Oord’s departure from Northwest Nazarene).

Meanwhile, John Byron shared videos related to a book he has put together called I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.

I think we can answer the question of what causes people to lose their faith in contexts supposedly designed to prevent students from losing their faith. Academia is supposed to be about exploration and discovery. At conservative religious institutions, it is typically about stamping down on dissent. And so one learns not to be honest about the questions one has and the ideas one has come up with. This imposed hypocrisy is toxic to faith.

I suspect that we’ll see evidence confirming of this at Bethel College in Indiana, from which Jim Stumps resigned recently as reported by BioLogos, and whose new policy related to Biblical inerrancy was reported on by Inside Higher Ed.

I’ve said more than once that I believe that moving to teach at Butler University probably saved my faith. This non-religious context allowed me to be who I was becoming without apology or deceit – a Christian who finds views like Biblical inerrancy indefensible. The contexts in which I worked before Butler did not provide that freedom.

And so this shows something crucial: Conservative sectarian schools do not exist to help keep people’s faith alive. They exist to enforce conformity in doctrine, and do so in ways that make it extremely likely that honest employees will lose either their faith or their job, if not both.

Of related interest, Stephen Finlan has a new book out: Bullying in the Churches.

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  • Ken Schenck

    I almost blogged on a similar topic on Saturday, but decided not to. I was wondering if the rapid decline in nominal Christianity will result in a phenomenon of the “remnant Christian college,” colleges whose main social function is to reinforce a kind of island perspective. If so, the trickle of fired professors will only increase.

    • arcseconds

      I think so, but it isn’t just the jobs of a few overly-educated middle-class white men (I’m sure there are some that defy that generalisation, but it seems pretty accurate nevertheless).

      They’ve already set up a weird parallel society with its own educational institutes and entertainment industry. As time goes on it’ll be increasingly the case and increasingly clear that this is an island, not a large peninsular at one end of a continuum of a Christian society. This is not going to work out very well. Apart from the difficulties for the individuals living in such a thought-controlled bubble, they will continue to hold a considerable amount of political influence, especially in certain areas, for some time to come.

    • ccws

      There’s an Assembly of God “Christian college” near where I live. We refer to it as “grades 13-16 for homeschoolers.” It’s barely accredited and has recently taken to calling itself a “university.” My former roommate decided a few years back to take advantage of their “one free course per semester if you bring a letter from your pastor” deal. She signed up for a drama course but dropped it in disgust when It turned out to be “how to do skits for Jesus.”

      Before that I’d been toying with the idea of getting a pastor to vouch for me and signing up for Hebrew, but then I realized I’d probably get kicked out for raising too many pesky questions. Besides, I own the textbook/workbook they use (which actually looks half-decent), so I could do it on my own if I REALLY felt motivated…

      • Anonymous

        I think the Hebrew course might be fine even if it’s a conservative institution – just make sure to give yourself access to other scholars in case they are mis-teaching the background and connotations of the language.

  • Sara

    My Grandmother was an Italian who was raised in the Roman Catholic church. Despite the huge influence Christianity had in her society, she actually became an atheist. This was because she saw that many church members (espicially the relgious leaders) were being hypocrites.
    I believe in God. But I don’t think He’s the same God students are taught about in conservative sectarian schools. I was taught that God refused to impose on the free will on humanity because it was unethical and that we should think for ourselves instead of listening to everything we hear without questioning it. These schools teach the opposite – and that’s why they’ve caused so many people to lose their faith.

  • Gupta Nijay

    The main thing that I think about in this area is the need for good administrative leadership in higher education, in this case in particular Christian higher education. I have seen too many “leaders” operating out of a sense of omnipotence and (sometimes at the same time) fear. I am so happy that I have served under extraordinary deans who all have a robust commitment to academic freedom.

  • When belief is made inflexible, it cannot bend, it can only break.

    • Andy

      That’s a brilliant way of putting it.

      • I think I have to be quoting or paraphrasing someone, but thank you.

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      it’s the same with the human heart.

  • “Conservative sectarian schools do not exist to help keep people’s faith
    alive. They exist to enforce conformity in doctrine, and do so in ways
    that make it extremely likely that honest employees will lose either
    their faith or their job, if not both.”
    -They exist to help keep people’s faith alive by enforcing conformity in doctrine by keeping out honest and just plain nonconformist employees. Sounds like a plan that can only work with severe barriers to information. Used to work pretty well in the Middle Ages, I tell you.

  • The point has been made on this blog before. Academic freedom cannot exist at an institution that enforces a faith requirement on it’s faculty. I can only hope that we will begin to see such institutions lose their accreditation.

  • Brian Kellogg

    I think this is absolutely a reflection of the idolatry of certainty that is promulgated in fundamentalist and evangelical circles. They are setting the inquisitive up for failure and often very painful emotional/social consequences.

    • louismoreaugottschalk

      I think it’s an industry. many peoples paychecks depend upon it. (caveat emptor!) I think campuses are like Indian reservations: students paying their tuition are the resource.

  • Joe Wallack

    Right, they lost their faith because of the Institution. God forbid it could be because of the Bible itself. Well at least they still believe in HJ (they do still believe in HJ don’t they?).

  • Pat68

    It’s the same in churches that do not welcome or encourage questions, doubt or exploration.