October 2018

Religion in the Academy

With the world more globalized and fields more interconnected than ever before, there is room for a détente between religion and academia. However, in my experience that has not been the case. In the two countries where I have interacted with and been a part of the academy, it is sometimes very clear that most academics, at least in the social sciences and humanities, tend to view religion with suspicion.

If you have ever studied or taught World History, one of the most common themes of studying the Renaissance is the struggle between the Catholic Church and science. Famously, Galileo was tried by the Church for daring to speak out and say that the Church’s beliefs could be undone by science. Kept mum, and under house arrest, it would take time for his findings to become undisputed facts, but when they did it opened the Western world to a whole new process of learning and researching that continues to this day. Modern academia is an example of how far the world has come in the fields of science, both natural and social. Looking at this example, it is clear why academia might be hostile to organized religion, for it has rarely done it any favors. But this happened 500 years ago, so maybe the two opponents should have moved on by now and let each other be.

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Courtesy of inamoeller.wordpress.com.

It may be surprising to some then that that is not the case. With the world more globalized and fields more interconnected than ever before, there is room for a détente between religion and academia. However, in my experience that has not been the case. In the two countries where I have interacted with and been a part of the academy, it is sometimes very clear that most academics, at least in the social sciences and humanities, tend to view religion with suspicion.

There are two main avenues of this implicit bias against religiosity in academia. First, the presence of left-leaning individuals who make up most of social science academia. There is an underlying belief within these circles that a person who is religious, or believes in religion, is not as rational as they are, perhaps stemming from US academics seeing themselves as heirs to the principles and practices of the European Enlightenment. My main argument here, however, is that religion and rationality or religion and left-leaning politics do not have to be mutually exclusive. Liberal and conservative are terms often thrown around, often derogatorily by each side to the other, but this issue is about more than just that. Social and political leanings towards either side is a reality that we cannot ignore, but in academia, it takes a different meaning depending on the setting you are in. In fields such as history, which tend to be dominated by left-leaning thinkers, the presence of a religious person is seen as an outlier. It is important to note that such discrimination is rarely explicit. It is the discomfort of being in the company of individuals who will doubt your rationality in academia based on your religious faith. The argument here is that it is entirely plausible to be a practicing Christian, Jew or Muslim, and still have enough rational thought to not let it cloud your academic work or your ability to debate on key issues. If the academy is as open to debate as we have all been taught to believe, it should try harder to not become an echo chamber. In subjects like history where nuance is given such credence, and where rigid and narrow explanations about the past are deemed unacceptable, how can historians welcome this approach in their attitudes to life outside literature and research? As a discipline that involves open thought, broad interpretations, and even multiculturalism, it is at times disheartening to observe how academics in person are so different from their personas in books.

There is an underlying belief within [the academy] that a person who is religious, or believes in religion, is not as rational as they are.

Second is the issue of how the structure of academia itself limits a person’s room to be religious. Take the example of a Marxist historian, for instance. I do not claim to be an expert in the approach, or have any level of in-depth understanding of Marxism, but what I have learned from my experiences is how religion is anathema to a person approaching his field through a Marxist lens. This is even more notable given how even members of the Church, specifically for instance, in Latin America, have merged facets of Marxism with Christian theology, emphasizing the need for political liberation of the oppressed in something that came to be known as liberation theory. However, In my personal experience, when left-leaning academics approach a subject per their political and social views, it leaves less room for religion to be a factor in such debates. Why should a person’s religious beliefs cloud his ability to understand things from a leftist perspective, any more than a non-subaltern person’s status alters his understanding of the subaltern and oppressed? Because at the end of the day, who can decide who is better – a Muslim Marxist or a rich Marxist.

In fields such as history, which tend to be dominated by left-leaning thinkers, the presence of a religious person is seen as an outlier. It is important to note that such discrimination is rarely explicit. It is the discomfort of being in the company of individuals who will doubt your rationality in academia based on your religious faith.

In an era of political correctness, where people make an effort to not offend others’ sensitivities, it is true that there is no overt bias against people who believe in organized religion. However, what this correctness masks is an implicit bias that can come across as both institutional and social, in which people of different faiths might find it hard to find their voice. For a field that prides itself on inclusion and multiculturalism, there are still introspections the academy can make to become more open and inclusive for all its members.

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Rohail Salman is a PhD student in history at the George Washington University. His research interests include the international Cold War, the socio-political structure of the postcolonial states in the subcontinent, and the intersection of decolonization and the Cold War in British colonies and frontier regions. He received a BSc. from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, before teaching high school history in Islamabad, Pakistan. Born and raised in Pakistan, he is still trying to figure out why American fast food tastes better in Pakistan than in the US.

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