Religion in Class? Teach It, Don’t Preach It

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby,’ “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”


After a year and a half, I’m finally writing my long-intended response to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column about academe’s bias against Christians. A liberal not afraid to reflect on liberal bias, Kristof quotes a sociologist who says, “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”

Okay, let’s give some credit to academia that more isn’t made of this man’s since that’s not true of  society at large. I get his point, however. I only wish that I had had him in my classes because I talk about Christianity fairly frequently. After all, how can one teach Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as I did Friday, without discussing the mariner’s confession to the hermit upon reaching land? In fact, I called upon the Catholics in the class (I myself am Episcopalian) to walk us through how their faith regards confession and penance.

But here’s the thing. I have to talk about Christianity in ways that don’t exclude the non-Christians in the room. If professors are to talk about their faith, it must be a tolerant faith, one that is open to the claims of other religions. Can you be accepting of your non-Christian students if you think they’re all going to hell?

My own view of religion is my view of literature. That is to say, I see both as elaborate symbol systems designed to put us in touch with things that are beyond us. Although religious rituals can only get us so far–an observation that applies also to language–we turn to ritual and to language because they are what we have. Any final articulation will always be beyond us because God is always beyond us.

Many of my students—not all of them—are in spiritual search. In Wednesday’s class, many of them grappled with Wordsworth’s notion of a universal soul in Intimations of Immortality, which got Wordsworth himself in trouble with orthodox Christians of his day. Before Wordsworth, we discussed how Blake could be anti-church but pro-Jesus. (Being college students, many are questioning the faiths they were raised in—many will return eventually—and drew a distinction between religion and spirituality.) Before that, we talked about Christian Camelot’s encounter with Celtic earth religion in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And before that we discussed a religion that, because no one practices it anymore, we now call mythology (Dionysus worship in The Bacchae). Given that most English-language literature before the 20th century emerges out of a Christian context, it would be malpractice on our part to ignore it.

Discussing religion is not the same as preaching it, however. That’s where I draw the line. And for the record, I am against preaching secular materialism as well. Above all, our first duty is to respect our students.

This respect must extend to conservatives and evangelical Christians. Kristof is absolutely right there. It should also extend to people of color, to LBGTQ students, to women who believe in their right to control their reproductive decisions, to people with neurological and physical challenges, and to DACA kids. We try not to hire people for whom ideology is more important than the complex beings that are their students.

Kristof observes that universities are more welcoming to liberals than to conservatives and there are reasons for that. Western academe has been most influenced by the empirical and non-Christian Aristotle and then by the deist Enlightenment (hello, Thomas Jefferson). How could it not have a liberal bias, defining liberal in its most expansive sense? Academics must be committed to the truth, even when it challenges traditions and shakes up old certainties. In that way, it’s not a natural fit for conservatives. Maybe that one reason most faculty are liberal.

I’ll agree with Kristof, however, that when liberals become orthodox and rigid, they cease to honor the academic ideal. In such instances, they cannot truly call themselves liberal. I will admit that, being human, sometimes we academic liberals fall prey to our biases. But we have an ideal that informs us that this is not good, which makes us more likely to self-correct when people call us out. Many of us take Kristof’s column seriously.

For all our faults, the faculty that I know strive to respect their conservative students no less than their liberal students. They are also more open to, say, Nazis speaking on campus (as long as they don’t threaten violence) than certain conservatives are to black athletes kneeling at football games. Unlike our president, we don’t believe that people should be fired and that newspapers should lose their licenses for disagreeing with him.

The one thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance. Take away free and open dialogue and the university dies.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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