Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Godless Professors and the Subversion of American Youth

Did you know that universities are subverting the minds of America's young people by turning them into godless socialists? Dr. Mike S. Adams, a professor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is dispensing advice at Townhall to a father who is distraught about his daughter coming home with scary new leftist ideas. Jeff Fecke (h/t) has already taken down Dr. Mike bit-by-wingnutty-bit - including his coinage of the oh-so-clever acronym STD for "Socialist Teaching Disorder." I just want to zoom in on one little piece of Dr. Mike's take on university life:
First of all, I want you to understand that many of the crazy ideas you hear your daughter espousing are commonplace on college campuses. Nonetheless, it must have been shocking for you to hear that she supported Barack Obama in the last election principally because of his ideas about “the redistribution of wealth.” I know you were also disappointed to hear of her sudden opposition to the War on Terror and her sudden embrace of the United Nations. Most of all, I know you are disappointed that she has stopped going to church altogether.

Now that your daughter is not going to church it will be easier to get her to accept other policies based on economic and cultural Marxism. Socialist professors like the fact that average church attendance drops dramatically after just one year of college. God and socialism are simply incompatible. One cannot worship both Jesus Christ and Karl Marx.

(If you must, you can read the rest here.)
Although I'm not a real socialist - just a fan of redistribution, thanks to my pastor when I was 14! - I am one of those freethinking university professors. Scandalously, I think it's a good thing when my students start to examine their beliefs and preconceptions.

I just finished teaching a class on religion, gender, and sexuality that might well enrage Dr. Mike. I framed patriarchy in materialist terms and lectured on how poverty multiplies the odds that a woman will terminate a pregnancy. (Socialism!) We discussed the Gnostic Gospels and the struggle between heterodoxy and orthodoxy in Christianity. (Heresy!) We delved into the roots of the Christian valorization of virginity. (Sluttishness!)

At the end of the quarter, students were asked to write a short essay in which they discussed how their views had changed over the past ten weeks. Many of them said that the class upset their certainties. Some of them questioned their faith. How, after all, can you trust the Bible's authority if a politicized Church hierarchy - not divine revelation - determined which books became canonical?

So yeah. Dr. Mike would hate this class. So did one student (out of 85), judging from the final exam. She objected to the feminist framing of the material. She would have preferred ten weeks of Catholic dogma. She transparently didn't bother to engage with the material in any serious way.

The rest of the students - including many current and former Catholics - realized that they didn't have to follow any party line. Not mine; not any religion's. One young Catholic woman had a real crisis of faith mid-quarter. By the end of the quarter, she felt stronger in her beliefs than before. Another young woman who's planning to become a minister wrote of her past and present struggles with her faith.

Did I turn those students godless? Not by any stretch. And that was never my intent. If a person is going to embrace faith as an adult, they're going to have to find it themselves. They can't just continue believing a Sunday School version of it with colorful, sanitized pictures of Daniel in the lion's den and Jesus surrounded by fluffy lambs. They'll have to navigate their way from dogma to actual faith. That's exactly how some of my religious students used the class. They started questions and haven't stopped. And they have matured in their beliefs. (Interestingly, a number of them declare some affinity for Buddhist ideas, even as they remain in their own faith tradition.)

A substantially minority of my students wrote that they consider themselves agnostics or atheists. So did I convert them to godlessness? A few of them did begin to call themselves agnostics during the class, but most of them came into it already rejecting or questioning religion. Many of them felt liberated at being able to "come out" about their unbelief in their discussion groups - something they often had felt unable to do, until now.

These students took my class for one of two reasons. Some had grown up without any religion and felt they needed to close a gap in their education. Others were questioning their religious upbringing or had rejected it altogether, often in the wake of a loved one's death. (It's ironic and sad that religion seems so often to fail people at the very moment when it's supposed to provide the most comfort.) Disproportionately, the students in this second group had been raised Catholic. For most of them, the Church's condemnation of homosexuality was a serious dealbreaker, with its position on abortion and contraception coming in a close second.

This is why the Pope's statement on gender last Christmas made me crazy. There was some controversy at the time about what the English word "gender" connotes when used in Italian (as in the Pope's address), and I can't speak to that as an expert. I know about a dozen words of Italian and I wasn't raised Catholic. But the context - as well as some of the smarter commentary on this - convinced me that he was affirming the church's teachings on the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles.

More importantly, the Pope was trying to shut down all discussion of all gender issues within the Catholic Church. This is exactly what's driving young people out of the Church. They see the condemnation of homosexuality and the hierarchy's refusal to even discuss it as contemptuous and inhumane.

Dr. Mike, his letter-writer, and (I'm betting) a lot of conservative parents want to short-circuit that discussion too. It's a terrible loss, because their kids want to have it. They need to have it. That goes for everyone from the young fundamentalist to the hard-core nihilist. (And yes, the range in my class was that wide.)

If Dr. Mike were paying attention to his students, he'd realize that whatever their professors do or say, they are at an age where they're bound to question their upbringing. A good university education should help them learn to think for themselves in a more thorough, systematic, and deeper way. It should prod them to question received wisdom and authority. It should expose them to a variety of viewpoints. (Yes, even Dr. Mike's.)

If that's subverting young people, then I'm blessed to be a part of it. One student sent me an email at the end of the quarter saying the class had changed her life; another said the same as she turned in her exam. I don't personally take too much credit, because the potentially life-changing work happened in the discussion groups, not in my lectures. But even so, staying on the job full-time this quarter through weeks of illness and fear was probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'd worried that my students got cheated. I blubbed in gratitude when I read that email.

Oh, and as far as I know, I didn't convert a single student to Marxism. Nary a Trotskyist. Not even a mild-mannered socialist-feminist. I guess I'd better try harder.


Mark said...

I was privileged to have studied religion under the great historian of religion, JZ Smith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jz_smith). He made the fascinating point that the history of all the many religions he has studied have the same pattern: they adapt old words to new meanings. Any religion that is too dogmatic, too rigid, too fosilized, is bound to fail as it becomes more and more irrelevant to the world around it. The post WWII Pacific Cargo Cults are a classic example (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult).

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all continually re-invented the meaning of the words of their sacred texts. It is why they have been able to survive and stay relevant thousands of years after they first developed.

The point is, for religions to survive -- never mind to remain vibrant and to continue to thrive -- it needs to adapt and reinvent itself in a coherent, meaningful, cogent way.

Religious institutions need the questioning, the challenging, and the striving to find deeper meanings that fresh young thinkers can provide.

Religion is not threatened by liberal arts education. Religion, ultimately, needs the renewal brought about by the liberally educated in order to survive.

Reinvention is what has kept the often arcane precepts of desert nomads relevant to the 20th century world. And history tells us that more reinvention is the only thing that will keep it relevant in the 21st century.

Mark said...

...thinking about it, perhaps these "godless professors" are doing more for the future of religion than anyone ever realized!