Close Down Religious Colleges!

Can someone learn to examine ideas critically at a religious college?  To reason and think deliberately and without coerced conclusions?  And if not, should those schools receive federal tax-funded support?  Peter Conn of the University of Pennsylvania says no.

In a recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Conn calls attention to the way religious schools receive accreditation.  The problem, Conn believes, is that accrediting bodies scrupulously avoid judging the religious content of some colleges.  As a result, religious schools such as Wheaton and Bryan receive regional accreditation.  Their students are then eligible for federal financial aid.

There lies the problem, according to Conn.  Schools such as Bryan and Wheaton require their faculties to sign statements of belief.  At such colleges, Conn argues, “the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.”

The problem is not that “religious fundamentalists” convene colleges. The “scandal,” Conn writes, is that accrediting bodies legitimize such anti-intellectual organizations. Further, once such schools are accredited, tax dollars go to support their students.

I hate to speak so harshly, but Conn’s argument seems pigeon-headed to me. I’m not religious; I don’t work at a religious college. But my research has centered on the ways conservative Protestant schools have worked to construct a sub-cultural identity as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists.” And unless I’m missing some nuance of Conn’s essay, he seems to have very little idea what he’s talking about.

In my 1920s book, I looked at the ways the first generation of self-labeled fundamentalists founded and operated schools such as Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary. In my current research, I’m looking more broadly at the twentieth-century history of evangelical higher education.

To suggest that such schools ought not be accredited due to mandatory faculty creeds seems ridiculous.  After all, as a faculty member at a large public university, I have to sign a loyalty oath.  Does that make me unfit to teach young minds?  Does that make my research anti-intellectual, bound by previous ideological commitments?

More profoundly, the notion that people who agree to a religious creed cannot conduct rigorous research seems a woeful misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief.  In particular, it demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the history of religious colleges in the US.

I know some readers feel more strongly about the pernicious nature of fundamentalism.  Does anyone agree with Conn’s conclusion?  He writes,

The retrograde battle that religious fundamentalists are waging against science has become a melancholy fact of our contemporary cultural life. Legislators around the country conspire to find academic room for the oxymoronic charade called “creation science.” According to Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican who sits on the House science committee, evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.” By effectively endorsing such blinkered sentiments through its accreditation process, American higher education is betraying itself, and providing aid and comfort to those who would replace reason with theology.


Leave a comment


  1. So, the answer is to stomp out obnoxious points of view? Is this still America? What drives me nuts about so many liberals is the lack of tolerance for opposite points of view. These POV, even if bone-headed, are still to be included in the arena of public debate. I find Cobb to be a bit too histrionic in his assessments.

  2. I share Conn’s concern about the role of religion. But I do not agree with his conclusions.

    As far as I know, Wheaton students can get a pretty good education. And students at secular colleges can pick “blow off” majors and get a poor education.

    As far as I can tell, the market place of ideas is working tolerably well. Nobody has illusions that a degree from Bob Jones U. is the equivalent of a degree from Harvard or Stanford.

    And sorry to disagree, sheila0405, but I suspect that most liberals are pretty tolerant of different points of view. That they publicly criticize does not imply that they are intolerant of what they criticize.

    • Sheila Warner

       /  July 2, 2014

      I said SOME liberals, Not all, I’m fairly liberal mydelf,

    • Not only do Wheaton students have the opportunity for an excellent education, IMHO, but the environment on campus seems open to vigorous debate on both cultural and theological issues. I’m curious why Professor Conn chose to spotlight Wheaton and Bryan, when he could have looked at far more authoritarian intellectual environments. Pensacola Christian College, for instance, claims accreditation (, though they do not accept federal or state aid for students. The atmosphere on that campus comes closer to the sort of top-down fundamentalism Professor Conn wants to criticize. Compared to PCC, Wheaton has a very open and liberal campus. I can’t help but wonder if Professor Conn is simply unaware of the vast differences among religious schools.

  3. I didn’t say most liberals. I said so many, i am a liberal in some issues, too. But I want all POV out there. I don’t like it when speakers are protested out of an invitation to speak or get awards due to their philosophies.

    • Agellius

       /  July 2, 2014

      It’s one thing to criticize points of view. It’s another to try to have them excluded. This looks like an attempt to eliminate colleges that are overtly committed to religion, by undermining their efforts to maintain their mission, which they do by ensuring that faculty are on board with that mission. It’s just one example of the many ways in which liberals have tried to marginalize religion and make it unwelcome in the public square.

    • I don’t like it when speakers are protested out of an invitation to speak or get awards due to their philosophies.

      I agree with you on that.

  4. Tim

     /  July 2, 2014

    I agree. They should learn to not fit new data to existing preconceptions. Like say when we find soft tissue and red blood cells in dinosaur fossils… or when we find human artifacts in coal deposits… or when we find only evidence of degeneration in genetics… or when we find carbon still existing in diamonds… or when we find young comets but no evidence of a comet maker, etc.

  5. Agellius

     /  July 2, 2014

    However I am happy to hear that accrediting bodies “scrupulously avoid judging the religious content of some colleges”. That explains how my son’s college stays accredited. : )

  6. Warren Johnson

     /  July 15, 2014

    Hi Adam,

    Do they teach that Young Earth Creationism as consistent with the (modern) natural sciences?

    If so, their science courses should not be accredited. As an astrophysicist, I have read what Answers in Genesis thinks is tenable YEC astronomy, physics, geology, and biology, and it is all beyond the pale; fairy tales, suitable only for the seriously ignorant or the clinically delusional. By any measure of the methods and content of the natural sciences, YEC has absolutely antithetical to all sciences.

    The case against teaching Intelligent Design is also strong, but requires a little more argumentation.

    Do you have arguments against such a policy?

    • Warren, I certainly do have arguments against it. Accreditation does not mean agreement with ideas taught at universities or colleges. Accreditation means affirming that faculty are qualified, that students are really required to do some recognizable sorts of academic work, and that administration is not simply fleecing gullible students out of tuition dollars without offering any education. If we insist that only solid scientific institutions can be accredited, we will be forced to police and prohibit a stunning array of institutions. So, for instance, if schools that teach false science should not be accredited, ALL Catholic colleges would lose their accreditation. After all, Catholic doctrine teaches that a wafer and a glass of wine that have been mumbled over and waved at by an ordained priest are no longer wafer and wine but flesh and blood. That flies in the face of the most basic knowledge of chemistry, and, indeed, of physical reality.
      That may seem an absurd case, but it is not absurd if we begin to argue that only institutions that teach ideas with which we agree can be accredited. In short, though I firmly agree that YEC is not good science, but rather religious dogma masquerading in the trappings of dead science, I do not think that schools teaching YEC should ipso facto lose their accreditation. To repeat: accreditation does not mean approval of ideas. It implies certification that a school is actually trying to teach its students, not just bilking them.

  1. Christians CAN Think | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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