“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

Admittedly, my former colleague is an extreme case, but I have more frequently encountered less intense versions of what I will call “Theophobia” – the academic’s irrational fear of, or intense discomfort around, theist and, in particular, Christian, beliefs. Theophobia does not have a DSM designation (yet), but I tend to think that it mimics many of the characteristics of paranoia about gay and lesbian couples: It seems to driven by unfamiliarity with anything except the crudest caricature of the object of horror, derived from distant rumors of bizarre and violent behavior in a strange faraway place (for homophobes, say, the Castro; for theophobes, perhaps Lubbock, TX or Colorado Springs, CO). Secular academics typically do not know many religious believers — especially not many overly devout Christians — and their isolation leads to the most naively lurid fantasies about what religious belief entails.

Myself, I tend to think that there is some warrant to this view. A lot of secular do have misconceptions about religious belief, and do react with a whole host of knee-jerk presumptions when they hear that someone is a believer. On the other hand, not all do, and some even have opinions of religious belief that have arisen precisely because they had so much contact with religious believers… and a lot of it very negative (for instance, growing up a non-Christian in a small, conservative town). These views may likewise be based on unrepresentative experiences and unfair to most believers, but it’s not fair to say that they came about because of “isolation.”

Hill’s friend is largely mistaken about his fears of sudden gunfights or tongue-twisting. There is a difference between a belief being, in terms of its logical justification, no different that “attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it” and it being different in terms of social and cultural likelihood. Beliefs are generally bounded by culture, and those that are taken on faith are rarely truly out of the blue. They are fairly predictable when it comes to what sorts of behavior they might inspire.

If someone tells me that they have faith in Jesus, for instance, that faith may seem itself wholly unjustified, but it does not tell me that they are just as likely as not to tell me the next minute that they believe in Keebler elves. In fact, I can pretty well predict not only what they will still believe in tomorrow (Jesus), but what sorts of things they aren’t likely to believe in (i.e. a whole host of kooky beliefs that this or that sect of Christianity actively looks down upon, including gunfights and in many cases unapproved tongue-speaking). So fears about them doing something kooky don’t really seem rationally justified.

There may be some small correlation between being likely to believe in one improbable thing and others, but this effect is generally far stronger with beliefs that also lie outside of the general culture to begin with (i.e. UFO-ologists being more likely to believe that Bigfoot exists).

Thus, I think most non-believers should be skeptical of overblown fears about the harms of religion, at least in our modernized societies. Religious believers really aren’t likely to suddenly start doing anything other than what they’ve already been doing. There may be plenty to criticize in that, but sudden attempts to walk on water and other such scenarios are few and far between.

It’s not all wine and roses for Hill’s views though, which quickly turn into something of a tiresome diatribe. Both Eugene Volokh and Ilya Somin think that Hill is missing out on a lot of other plausible reasons why academics might find strong theism strange or surprising.

Volokh points out that surprise doesn’t necessarily really imply fear of moral chaos (though it might in this one case). Rather, just as Christians might find it strange that a colleague believes in some supernatural creature that they don’t find any rational warrant for, non-theists might just as legitimately feel the same way to find that someone they thought might agree with them on the lack of rational support for religion does not.

Somin points out that the association between conservative politics and religion probably plays a big role. He points out that while religion doesn’t seem to have hurt liberal academic’s opinions of Obama, liberation theology, and so on, his own conservative atheism doesn’t seem to have won him any extra friends.

And he points out that Hills’ wide-ranging disgust seems rather lacking in perspective:

Certainly, such generalized “theophobia” among academics is far less common than is generalized hostility to atheism in the general public. For example, as I discussed in this article, some 51% of the general public believe that “[i]t is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values” and 50% would refuse to vote for a “well-qualified” candidate for president nominated by their party if he were an atheist. By contrast, I doubt that more than a tiny fraction of academics believe that you have to be an atheist or agnostic to “be moral” or would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate of their party merely because he was a religious believer. Indeed, the vast majority of academics are going to support Obama this year, apparently unconcerned by his religious beliefs.

Until religious believers are willing to vote for atheists at the same rates as we are willing to vote for them, I think a lot of the noise about atheists being biased against nice, reasonable religious people is as overblown as the overwrought concerns of Hill’s pal.

Update: Now Todd Zywicki, also at Volokh, thinks he’s got some important points to add to the debate. And con’sarn it, he does! Wait, why aren’t you reading the Volokh blog daily yet?

In response to Zywicki, I still think Hill is quite wrong to credit these prejudices purely to isolation. That’s definately true in some cases. But in plenty of other cases, it’s exactly the opposite. I mean, some set of bad experiences is likely to have set the whole thing off and then spread to the ignorant by in-group loyalty, no?

I think part of the problem is that both academics AND evangelicals have high levels of distrust for each other, levels that are not borne merely out of ignorance, but some actual experience as well. Evangelicals, in real life, are hostile to non-believers in ways that they may not be to other evangelicals. And non-believers respond by being hostile back.

This, frankly, helps explain the numbers even better: if evangelicals are hostile to non-theist liberals, and non-theist liberals are hostile back, then pretty much everyone’s views are based on experience, not ignorance, including all the regular people who are not hostile to evangelicals. The issue is that certain groups of people are hostile or not depending on who the target is, not just hostile to everyone equally.

Thus, I bet if you surveyed evangelicals on their opinions of “liberal professors” you’d find quite a high level of hostility there as well.


One Response to “Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

  1. Xu Yi says:

    I believe that you do too much to discount the role of isolation in the formation of “theophobia.” (‘Fear of God,’ incidentally, is something believers sometimes encourage, so this may not be the best term. Though I do understand that if you think that God only exists in the imaginations of believers, then the neologism does make sense, albeit in a way that kinda begs the question.) Just because a poll that states that there are people who believe that atheists cannot be moral does not mean that there are people with personal experience of hostility. I’m willing to bet that there are few “liberal professors” who have had hostility directed at them personally by a believing person because of their belief. The potential for such an event exists, but where would such an interaction take place? If such groups of people interacted so much as to make these experiences regular, hopefully, such hostility would be moderated. However, polls such as the one Hills cites may create a sense that “they hate us” indirectly. However, reading such data does not constitute a meaningful interaction with an actual person.

    On the other hand, as a believer myself, I and many of my believing friends in academics can cite many instances where we were specifically denigrated and outright discriminated against the moment our religious beliefs became clear. In clear violation of a prohibition against asking questions about religion in job interviews, I have had three separate instances where professors have questioned my motives for volunteer work and for my entire profession. Needless to say, I did not attain a position at those institutions, but I admittedly did gain some suspicion towards those who judged me without knowing me. How, though, do people come to believe that they can treat a colleague like that, especially a junior colleague? Perhaps they believe that such prohibitions only exist to protect religions other than Christianity. Perhaps if I were a Buddhist like my grandmother, a certain professor wouldn’t have just assumed that my homeless ministry was just me inflicting proselytism on helpless people (sounds kinda like some classrooms I’ve been in, though). Such actions, I hope, can only be explained by isolation and perhaps the experience of regularly evaluating people that must agree with you to attain a decent grade.

    My experience makes me bristle at your notion that believers (who you strangely conflate with evangelicals when you may actually mean fundamentalists) are the instigators in this mutual hostility. I know Christians who admire greatly the intelligence and accomplishments of academics, even if they disagree with their vision of where society should be headed. I know few academics who honestly praise the many praiseworthy things that religion has brought to Western Civilization. Even fewer have anything good to say about any believer who is actually alive today. Is it because we really are all so odious and useless, or is it because someone isn’t really looking hard enough? Academics have a particular duty to evaluate claims like “Christians are bad” rigorously and honestly because the moral weight behind their opinions is derived from an assumption of intellectual integrity and academic rigor.

    Perhaps this assumption breaks down when people discuss something they view as “political” as you note. In our society, the only people we are allowed to hate with burning passion are members of the opposite political faction. We call it citizenship and participation in the process and therefore justify it as edifying to a democratic society. This is probably how the “evangelicals are all right-wingers” meme ends up identifying believers as people it’s okay to hate.

    ‘Thus, I bet if you surveyed evangelicals on their opinions of “liberal professors” you’d find quite a high level of hostility there as well.’ I bet you’d lose your bet. You’d find plenty of disagreement, hostility at a low level, and probably more respect than you think. Listen, I know many liberal professors who have not treated me poorly when they learn my religion. I understand that my unfortunate experiences do not necessarily mean that all liberals hate me. I am sympathetic to and espouse some principles of postmodern liberalism. In fact, this ability to be honest, reserve judgment, and forgive exist due to my faith, not in spite of it. Sadly, I have met no professors, however, who are genuinely interested in how my religion influences my worldview and shapes my professional goals. Do you know any who might be?

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