Religious Students, Secular Schools


Thanks to all those who came out Wednesday to participate in my talk at Binghamton University about fundamentalist colleges in the 1930s.  Not only was a good time had by all, but the conversation made clear that even at this, our most “secular” of colleges, religion is thriving.  Despite the ignorant nostrums of elite secular academics and fuming fundamentalists, conservative religious students and faculty seem to thrive at pluralist schools like ours.

Don't hate me  because I'm beautiful...

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…

For those who are just tuning in, this talk was part of our series in “Religion in the Modern University.”  I shared my current research into conservative evangelical colleges.  The conversation after the formal talk revealed that both students and faculty at our beloved public university come from all sorts of religious backgrounds, including conservative evangelical Protestantism.

Unlike the schools I’m studying, our “secular” college does not actively encourage any specific sort of religious belief.  Nevertheless, our school proves a congenial home for students and faculty who hold conservative evangelical beliefs.

This flies in the face of some common assumptions about secularism and higher education.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her study of elite secular academics, many of them have absolutely no idea of the high level of religious belief at their own non-religious elite universities.

Fundamentalists, too, have long assumed that “secular” colleges were hostile to their sort of religious belief.  As fundamentalist college founder Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying in the 1920s, he would

just about as lief [sic] send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions.

At Bob Jones University, as at other fundamentalist universities, this notion that only a truly fundamentalist school can protect students’ faith remained central throughout the twentieth century, as this 1956 advertisement demonstrated.

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

Fundamentalist students, fundamentalist schools

More recently, too, creationist leader Ken Ham took me to task for questioning his insistence that creationist families must send their children to young-earth-friendly colleges.  As Ham concludes,

at the very minimum I do urge parents to ensure they do all they can to equip their children to be able to defend the Christian faith against the attacks of our day, and to stand uncompromisingly on the authority of the Word of God.

Does that mean that religious students need to go to schools that share their faith?  I don’t think so.

I certainly understand the many differences between a pluralist school like our beloved Binghamton University and schools with a unified religious message.  But we need to remember that so-called “secular” colleges like ours are often very friendly places to creationists and fundamentalists.

Leave a comment


  1. Agellius

     /  February 27, 2015

    “Friendly” is a relative term.

  2. How many accredited “young-earth-friendly colleges” are there? My sense is that you’d get a small index of failing schools few people have ever heard of even on the protestant right if you held a national conference for practicing young earth creationists with academic posts in the sciences.

    “Creationism” in a more general sense will remain popular among scientists, other well educated people, and the less well educated with or without Hamm and colleges friendly to his views. Most humans value survival higher than truth and meaningful existence higher than survival. So when a truth seems to come at the expense of meaning it is a deep existential threat. YEC is a very poor reaction to that threat, but considered seriously it is a real problem that no one has recently addressed adequately from any standpoint, religious or otherwise. George Steiner comes to mind — his great quot about Bertrand Russell being “a man who loves truth or the lucid statement of a possible truth better than he does individual human beings.”

  3. This is an interesting point. It sounds like you found an awesome college. I like a lot of Ken Ham’s stuff, but I think he might be way off with this one. Community is a LOT more important than a belief statement, in my opinion, and that seems to be what you’re saying here.
    I attended a traditional private Christian college, and I found many professors to be openly hostile against the ideas of creationism! It was sad and odd at the same time. I also found it ironic that more professors in the theology building advocated evolution than professors in the science building.
    So, in a way, it would have been easier for me to attend a school that was ambivalent towards Christianity, rather than one that had screwed up ideas about indoctrinating young people (which, in my college’s attempt to be open-minded, became ridiculous).

    • That sounds pretty typical, and I would say it’s a good thing. The reason why Christian colleges have had more theological (and humanities) faculty on board with evolution than in the sciences is that it’s been easy (more so in the past) to avoid evolution if you’re in biology, and the sciences in general rarely include people with a solid humanistic education who really grasp what modern historical-critical study and the sociology of knowledge means for pre-modern religious mentalities. (This is the stuff religious conservatives decry as “relativism” and “skepticism.”) On the other hand, it is very hard in theology or any kind of historically based discipline to avoid dealing with these things and coming to terms with them. Religious conservatives oppose evolution and modern notions of gender and sexuality because (on the Protestant side) they disrupt their literal and impressionistic readings of the Pentateuch.

      • (I meant to say “it’s been easy (more so in the past) to avoid evolution if you’re NOT in biology.”)

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