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Keeping Theism out of the Classroom

April 17, 2010

There was a post recently over at Sociological Images about what percentage of American professors believe in gods or not. What really interested me is the fact that a number of the comments debate whether or not a professor’s theism inflects (or should not inflect) her teaching in the college classroom. It seems that there are two sets of outdated assumptions employed by some in that debate:

  1. Assumptions about the ideal of objectivity—as if classic critiques of objectivity (which are over 100 years old now!) had not registered
  2. Assumptions about the normative privacy of religion—according to which one’s religious affiliation should have no influence on one’s public life, research, teaching, or whatever

If we had a statistic that said a percentage of professors were African-American, or feminist, or homosexual, or whatever, would we respond by insisting that these identities (and their coordinate life experiences) should in no way inform those professors’ research or teaching? Because research and teaching should be objective, unbiased things, uninflected by subjective (i.e., non-universal) experiences, identities, interests, etc.?

Now, I’m obviously not in favor of theism informing academic research—but not because I’m a positivist.

Why is it that whenever anything related to religion is brought up, otherwise sophisticated people start trotting out 200 year-old rhetoric?

You can talk to people like this about Said’s Orientalism, the ways in which east/west distinctions are hackneyed, and they can show all sorts of sophistication about the matter—but then they’ll go on in the next sentence to employ the faith/reason binary, or talk about “religion” as a “private matter,” rather than a “public” one.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2010 1:56 pm

    Now, I’m obviously not in favor of theism informing academic research—but not because I’m a positivist.

    A good distinction to make. One of the reasons I have fun reading blogs like yours is that it’s clear you have an agenda, just like I do. Folks these days are often too squeamish about going out and saying that they sit in a certain corner, and it usually leads to hiding behind certain epistemological beliefs that are whitewashed as supposedly above the fray. But how boring is that?

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 17, 2010 1:58 pm

    Yea, the common critique that “they” are biased usually assumes “we” are neutral (this is usually implicit rather than explicit) drives me up a wall.

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 17, 2010 1:59 pm

    I mean “and that drives me up a wall”

  4. April 21, 2010 4:14 am

    In your last sentence you mean “public”, right? Beware the sticky L key.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 21, 2010 7:58 am

    Haha, yes! Gotta fix that; thanks for the help!

    On a side note, I saw this exact same error in the title of a journal essay one time. I felt bad for whoever let that one slip.

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