A reader responds:
Your recent remarks about anti-Christian bias in graduate school (here, here, and here) are only too true. In case you haven’t seen it already, you may be interested in So Many Christians, So Few Lions, by sociologists George Yancey and David Williamson, which confirms this fact in great detail.
What they find – I have read the book, but I am quoting from a newspaper interview with one of the authors -- is that an elite subculture of persons who are highly educated, white, wealthy, not highly religious, and self-identified as moral “progressives” views Christians as “ignorant, intolerant and stupid individuals who are unable to think for themselves ... a backward, non-critical thinking, child-like people who do not like science and want to interfere with the lives of everyone else.”
The book also validates the experience of Christians who encounter anti-religious bigotry. There is a tendency, even among Christians, to minimize reports of those who do experience hostility. I recall one Christian commenting on a movie which follows the experience of a college freshman who encounters blatant and dogmatic attacks on his faith from his philosophy professor. Her comment was, “The premise is so lame. That does not happen.” It really does happen, and is not merely accidental to academic life.
It happened to me during my own graduate studies. I remember the day when I was shocked speechless by hostile, off-the-wall remarks directed my way by my anthropology professor. Fortunately, the teaching assistant, who was Jewish, took up for me and redeemed the day.
In your reply to my previous letter, you asked what triggered the attack. I am not really sure, but I had suggested in class that the methodology of “thick description,” promoted by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, would allow consideration of the influence of religion on culture. The professor ranted that she would not allow religion to be brought into the classroom – as though I had been preaching.
I checked my perceptions with another grad student who affirmed, "Yeah, she was picking on you." She was more aggressive toward me than toward any other student the whole semester. Even so, after a year of study, she seemed glad to see me around and always greeted me in the anthropology office. So, after some initial hazing, I may have earned respect.
I hear about hazing from quite a few Christian grad students. Sometimes it comes only at the beginning, sometimes it continues. You earned respect because you were courteous but didn’t back down, even though, on that first occasion, you were too stunned to reply.
Students who think they are being hazed should do just as you did, checking their perceptions with others in the class. Professors are supposed to be tough, and sometimes students may think they are being hazed when they aren’t.
Not only religious students, but also anti-religious students may acquire that false perception. In my own experience, Christian students are more likely than atheists to keep silent for fear of being attacked by the professor – but atheists are more thin-skinned, even when the criticism is fair and well-intended, because they are not used to having their assumptions challenged.
A group of former grad students I know used to run intellectual relays. Each time one of them began to tire under their professor’s relentless criticisms, another would take the baton and run with it. They came to enjoy the game, and so did the other students. The professor, who called them the “amen corner,” would actually invite them to speak up in seminar, because they were always prepared, their reasoning was always careful, and they always had interesting things to say.
That’s the way to capture strongholds.