Elaine Howard Ecklund has a confusing post up at HuffPo. It is confusing because it is very unclear what exactly she wants.
There is strong evidence that religion is resurging among students on America’s top university campuses. Yet, a large number of academic scientists firmly feel that they should not discuss religion in their classrooms. I have spent the last five years surveying nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists working at elite U.S. universities — talking with 275 of them in-depth — in an effort to understand their religious beliefs and practices, or lack thereof. As I traveled the country, I asked scientists about the role of religion within the university. Many scientists believe that religion has no legitimate place in the modern American academy; 54 percent mentioned the dangers that religion could bring to universities (and in particular to science) when it goes wrong. About 36 percent of scientists I talked with said they have a model of university life that does not allow any positive role for religious people, institutions and ideas. And they have few models for how scientists (with or without faith) might sustain productive interaction with or respond to religious people and ideas. In their models of the university, such people and ideas exist primarily as a threat to science.
I have no idea what it would mean to bring religion into a science classroom. The whole idea sounds completely inappropriate to me. The fact is that most of what goes on in science classes simply has nothing to do with religion one way or another. There are a few places, especially in the life sciences, where it becomes relevant, but even there I don’t see it as the professor’s job to address the religious concerns of their students.
In my own case, it is no secret that I write about these issues from an atheist’s perspective, and on a handful of occasions I have had students discuss such things with me during office hours. In some cases I’ve even had students openly try to convert me. Usually an interesting and cordial conversation ensues. That seems perfectly appropriate to me. But bringing it into the classroom just seems wrong.
As for the legitimate role for religion in the academy, why is that a difficult question? Many students like to participate in religious activities, and that is why universities routinely have numerous religious student groups. That’s the appropriate place for religion on college campuses. But you leave that behind when you enter the classroom, because that is not the place for addressing spiritual or emotional concerns.
After granting that scientists do have some justification for their antipathy towards religion Ecklund writes:
But religion appears to be advancing on university campuses. There has been a rise in the number of religious studies departments, societies for the scholarly study of religion (in a variety of disciplines), and institutes devoted to dialogue between religion and science. Yet, perhaps because of how busy their research keeps them (the working hours per week for research university professors has steadily increased over the past 40 years) or their inherent lack of interest in religion, many elite scientists do not know about such efforts.
Why should scientists take an interest in the increase in religious studies departments or societies devoted to the scholarly study of religion? As for institutes promoting dialogue between science and religion, a lot of us are aware of them, we just wish they would go away. As far as I can tell most of the output of these institutes is the worst sort of agenda-driven psuedo-scholarship. If they have anything to contribute beyond seething contempt for Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper, a burning desire to recast the Galileo affair as anything other than a conflict between science and religion, and rapt self-admiration for their finding that the science/religion relationship is just so gosh darn complex, then I have never encountered it.
It is important to understand how scientists at the country’s top schools view the place of religion in the academy because these schools form what scholars call an “organizational field” — a group of organizations that influence one another in terms of ideologies, structure and practices. These schools accept and produce similar types of students and knowledge; the way in which scientists at these schools perceive the proper model of the university is consequential for the broader institution of American higher education and the place of science (and religion) within it. If the scientists at elite universities fail to successfully engage with religion on their campuses, other American universities might follow suit. And if the current resurgence of religion on college campuses collides with persistently antireligious models of university life, might a collision or an explosion of some sort be inevitable?
I suppose I’m going to have egg on my face when the explosion occurs, but I have no idea what Ecklund is talking about. Do students have a burning desire to have their science professors discuss religion in class? Usually they’re more concerned with what will be on the next test. I don’t understand where this explosion is supposed to be coming from. I have never met a scientist who objects to students pursuing on their own time whatever religious activities amuse them. Most of us think it’s just fine for religious student groups to organize on campus. We just don’t see what relevance that has for our professional work.
Anyway, there’s a bit more to Eck;und’s essay than I have quoted here, so go have a look.