Losing Faith in Religious Higher Education

Jul 14, 2015

by Brandon G. Withrow

Raised in an evangelical home. Published by evangelical publishers. Employed by an evangelical seminary and divinity school. That was my life until last year when — at the end of a long and difficult intellectual journey — I concluded I was actually a secular humanist and part of the growing demographic of Americans unaffiliated with a particular faith or church.

Being a person of faith is an academic credential in the evangelical world, so when it was clear that I no longer possessed that faith, I made the difficult decision to leave behind my full-time (nontenured) faculty position.

I’m far from being the only American who has parted ways with his family religion. The recent, and highly discussed, Pew Research study on the changing religious landscape in America found a noticeable decline in the number of Christians in the United States and a rise in the number of those who are religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular”). In 2007 the proportion of Americans who fell into the unaffiliated cohort was about 16 percent, but by 2014 that proportion had climbed to nearly 23 percent. That figure makes the unaffiliated the second largest group in America, just behind evangelicals.

Until now, I have discussed my “deconversion” only privately with a few people, undoubtedly leaving more than a few family and friends perplexed as to why I left my job. Many of those I have told are outside the academic-seminary world and have responded with one of two questions: Why didn’t I leave earlier? Or, Why did I leave at all? Some wondered why I couldn’t just fake my faith.

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2 comments on “Losing Faith in Religious Higher Education

  • Welcome out of the mental cradle into adulthood, or at least intellectual adolescence. But “unaffiliated” is such a weasel word. Of course there are thousands of people who never think about god at all and have no opinion but, by definition, that cannot apply to a professor of religion. You’d think that someone who’d gotten a Ph.D would have some reasoning power, and would be able to articulate an actual position, which “unaffiliated” is not. Does he believe in God or not? Or is he unsure? There are perfectly good words for those categories of thought. You can be a frothing fanatic living in a cave and sacrificing chickens to your personal deity, and still be “unaffiliated.”

    And it seems to me that a Ph.D in Theology is worth about the same as a PhD in Magic and the institution that gives it is no better (and way less fun) than Hogwarts.

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  • I’ve always wondered what kind of dissertation a PhD theologian candidate would write. You can’t do anything empirical through statistical reasoning and analytical calculations. I guess you write some kind of mushy qualitative work. Anyway, from the start of this page I kind of take exception to the word non-belief. I think an atheist has as much belief as the most rigid fundamentalist, only its a belief over science, logic, and known facts. Pretty powerful belief. And I too believe in things more powerful than myself (e.g., gravity, quantum mechanics, etc.) As for the seminary professor’s dilemma, I do understand his conundrum. We all know how difficult it is to “come out” in a world lit mainly by religion. That’s why I admire my soft spoken southern wife so much. People gravitate to her and here in the middle of the Bible-belt she is frequently met with prying questions (Where did you say you went to church?) She smiles and says, “Oh, we don’t go to church. We’re atheists.) The jaws drop and the faces look like she just ate a snake in front of them. Then the conversation abruptly comes to a halt as excuses for needing to be somewhere else come out of the woodwork. You gotta love it.

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