What does it mean to be a “secular” university? Despite the name, it clearly does not mean a lack of religion on campus.
A recent essay by David Vosburg on the BioLogos Forum discusses some of what it can be like to share religious and creationist ideas in a “secular” university. Vosburg is a chemist at the decidedly non-religious Harvey Mudd College in California. He earned his PhD at the similarly non-religious Scripps Research Institute. He is also an evangelical Christian and an admirer of Darrel Falk’s evolutionary creationism.
So what does being at a “secular” college mean for Vosburg’s faith? As he notes, “Christian faculty at secular colleges and universities often do not feel safe publicly revealing their faith (due to a real or imagined hostile campus climate) or feel ill-equipped to tackle intimidating and controversial topics.” Yet he also has found a variety of ways to remain actively involved in students’ faith lives. As a pilot program, he directed a program for students in which they viewed the BioLogos film From the Dust. Vosburg asked them to pair this viewing with readings from Genesis. How did they react? According to Vosburg,
“My students, several of whom I did not know prior to our science & faith study, were from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. Many had not deeply engaged the intersection of science and faith previously, but were dissatisfied with what they had been taught at church or at Christian primary or secondary schools. While individual responses at each session varied, the group was overwhelmingly positive about the content and the process of our study together. Many of the questions we discussed were difficult and emotional, and having the space to wrestle with the ideas together in a supportive group was incredibly helpful.”
When Vosburg calls his school “secular,” he means it in the sense that the school is not explicitly religious. But clearly his own activism demonstrates that students do not study in an environment free from religion.
As David E. Long has argued in his book Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, “secular” college campuses are usually teeming with religion. Protestant Fundamentalist evangelists were a common feature on the campus he studied. Students crossing the quad were often warned, “all sinners are going to hell” (97).
More intriguing, Long described a number of creationist faculty at several “secular” public universities, including his alma mater University of Kentucky.
Clearly, when we talk about a “secular” university, public or private, we don’t mean it lacks religion. Anyone who has spent any time at a “secular” school can attest to the lively religion among both students and faculty. The difference, clearly, is that “secular” schools do not sponsor any particular religion, but promise to welcome all voices within their quads.
In this sense, the “secular” part of life at a non-religious university seems perfectly to embody Charles Taylor’s “secularity 3.” In A Secular Age (2007), Taylor pointed out that our secular society actually teems with vibrant religion. Unlike earlier societies in which religion formed part of state and society, in “secularity 3,” society “contains different milieux, within each of which the default option may be different from others, although the dwellers within each are very aware of the options favored by the others, and cannot just dismiss them as inexplicable exotic error” (21).
For Vosburg at Harvey Mudd, or Long’s creationist faculty at the University Kentucky, or the innumerable evangelists who spread the gospel on college quads nationwide, Taylor’s definition fits to a T. A “secular” university is not free of religion. But each of the enthusiastic religious groups and individuals on campus are keenly aware that they are one voice among many. Like Vosburg, they can lead discussions that hope to persuade students to see their points of view. Like Long’s creationist faculty at public universities, they can propound their religious views outside of the classroom. But they cannot rest on institutional support, nor can they dismiss other worldviews simply as “inexplicable exotic error.”