Academic Religion: Living in an academic no man’s land.

The difference between faith and reason has never been as clean cut as black and white. Until recently, the relationship between academics and spirituality has been a gradient rather than two sides separated by a fence of exclusivity. Since the enlightenment-era, however, there has been a steady increase in the friction between what it means to be faithful and what it means to be reasonable. The battle between science and religion has become increasingly clear. Prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and Fundamentalist Christians, debate and insult one another in an attempt to promote their conflicting agendas. Every day more and more people fall victim to the misconception that one must pick a side.

This fight should not be summarized as one side being the aggressor and the other being on the defense (though I am sure they may see it that way). It would be unfair to say that religion has sought out the demise of an academia which has tried to avoid conflict. It would be equally unfair to say that science has aimed to undermine a religion which has kept peacefully to itself. Neither statement would be accurate and, as I would hope to make clear, the war between science and religion has been equal parts aggression from either side. Religion has, at times, aimed to stop secularization and scientific advancement. Science has painted a picture in which religion is in direct opposition to humanity’s benefit.

The second point which I want to emphasize, which you will undoubtedly notice as you continue to read on, is that I will be focusing mainly, though perhaps not exclusively, on Christianity. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Christianity is the religion that I most closely identify with. Though I do not agree with all of the doctrines of the Christian Church (in fact there may be fewer of them than you expect), the beliefs which I do support can be most accurately defined as a form of Christianity. Secondly, Christianity has been, and continues to be, the prominent religious affiliation in Western society. While the population of the Islamic tradition is growing rapidly, and it can be argued that there is so much variance between Christian denominations that they can hardly be called the same thing, the pillars of the majority of the Christian Church as a whole remain the most influential. Thus, it is this Christianity that has been most obviously at odds with the scientific advancement and secularization of Western culture.

With these things in mind, we can continue.

Defining Academic Religion

To begin, it is important to clarify what I meant when I said “the beliefs which I do support can be most accurately defined as a form of Christianity”. This is key, and not part of my preliminary warning, because it lays multiple foundations for what we are going to explore.

What I really believe in can be described as a sort of Academic Christianity. This Academic Christianity, or Academic Religion as it may more generally be referred to from now on, is the middle ground which I am currently referring to as “No Man’s Land.”

The simple definition of Academic Religion as I adhere to it is this: The assertion of metaphysical, cosmological, and historical beliefs which do not exceed that which can be reasonably defended.

Put another way, it is the belief in that which I can defend and nothing more. Not to say that there are no subjective preferences or ideas involved, but that the core of what I believe and am willing to try and convince you of, is that which I find to be supported by evidence of a certain caliber. This refers to both spiritual matters like the existence of God, and also to physical matters like the effects of exercise on endocrine function in the body. Really, if we are being honest with ourselves, Academic Religion may be a term defined a reformation to the true spirit of Academia. In order to distinguish from the Academia that is currently in place, which may discredit you for believing certain things about that which is transcendent, I will continue to use the term Academic Religion.

Academic Religion is not exclusive to people that answer questions of existence and spirituality a certain way, but rather exclusive to people that believe these questions of existence and spirituality are important to ask. It does not necessarily follow, then, that being academically religious requires you to believe in a God or Gods. In fact, there are many Atheists which I believe more closely resemble the purpose of Academic Religion than some Theists.

Academic Religion is built on the pretense that not all ideas should be respected as equal. While it may be true that everyone is entitled to their opinion, there are some things which are not limited to subjectivity. For example, you have every right to believe that God does or does not exist, or that Jesus did or did not rise from the dead, but these are also questions which have objective answers. Academic Religion, then, is concerned with these questions whether you answer in the affirmative or not, and the pursuit of a better understanding of these things in the public forum.

To conclude, I will answer that which I promised to answer at the beginning of this section entitled “Defining Academic Religion” regarding my personal beliefs. I believe that a personal God exists (notice that I am careful to say ‘a’ God and not simply God). I believe in the historical Jesus Christ. I believe in the death and resurrection of this historical figure. These are things which I actively engage my academic mind with, and my opinions on the details continuously shift in light of new evidence and philosophy. Clearly these things make it easy to categorize me as a Christian. There are many people, however, that fall under the category of Academic Religion but do not believe these things.

The only thing that must be agreed on is that these questions of existence are worth asking.

Theistic Evolution

I could write for a long time on how Academic Religion blends the gap between science and religion. I could write a book. However, for the sake of time let me highlight one of the ways in which Academic Religion has created this harmony in my own beliefs. As the sub-title has already given away, I want to touch on the idea of Theistic Evolution.

This term has become, for the most part, exclusive to Christians who believe in evolution, but I want to emphasize that I believe the foundation of this idea is available to people from any background.

Theistic Evolution, in many ways, acts as the middle ground between Young Earth Creation, and Naturalistic Evolution. If I were to describe my position as simply as I could, it would be that I believe that God created the earth, and I also believe in Evolution. While you may feel that these things conflict with one another, I do not believe that is the case.

There are some clever ways that Christians have tried to do this in the past, and I want to clarify that I am not in certain boats. The idea that “the Bible says seven days, but also that a day is like a thousand years, therefore it may have actually been X amount of years” is not something I entertain. Many other people try to compromise and say something like “I believe in Microevolution but not Macroevolution.” This is also not something that I am picky about. Theistic evolution, to me, is the belief that the earth has been evolving for a very long time, continues to evolve, and that it began with the universe coming into existence through the Big Bang. It also asserts, however, that God began this process.


Perhaps you are still hesitant to believe in a personal God. I would urge you to review the Cosmological Argument to perhaps reach so far as to say that this Natural World was caused by something supernatural (whatever that may be). By supernatural I mean only that which exists outside of the natural world (Spacetime). A belief in something like the Multiverse would perhaps qualify (though recent research has led me to believe even the Multiverse would have to have a beginning and therefore a cause).

As I have said already, Academic Religion is based on the assertion of only that which can be reasonably defended. I cannot hope to offer you answers as to what extent God is currently involved in this evolutionary process. I have not yet researched the topic enough to give you my beliefs on the matter, though perhaps there are those which can. I do not believe that this lack of knowledge, however, discredits that which I have asserted.

In summary, Theistic Evolution is the belief that there is a supernatural cause to the process of evolution. The details may vary as to what is meant by a supernatural cause, and even atheistic biologists vary in their understanding of evolutionary processes. The key, though, is that Theistic Evolution is not afraid to let science shape the understanding of the process. If a published article suggests that evolution happens on a micro and macro level (which many have), there is no need to fear that an acceptance of such research undermines your religiosity.

It is in this belief that accepting one eliminates the other that problems arise.

No Man’s Land

If you are on either side of the fence which I describe at the beginning of my article, then you have either reached this point with many things to say on the matter or not reached it at all. That friction is what I want to focus on next.

Academic Religion, as an ideology (remember that it is not exclusive to one set of beliefs but rather one set of interests), comes at a high cost. In a recent discussion with a colleague, we reached the realization that those who identify with Theistic Evolution and Academic Religion on a whole are often faced with isolation and criticism from their peers. They are pushed into hiding out of fear of what may happen if they were to assert what they believe in.

First, to believe in Academic Religion is to step away from the absolute statement that there is/are no God/Gods. This, then, is to separate oneself from what I want to call Progressive Atheism. This form of atheism is such that things like religion and spirituality are associated with ignorance, judgmental behaviour, and herd-like mentality. It is a firm affirmation of the scientific method, but also contains much of the faith-based fundamentalism that is found in Religion. To step away from this absolute resolve, and to say that you are interested in the idea that there may be more to study, can be seen as a step away from science. A compromise of academic integrity. In fact, the problem that many believers in Theistic Evolution face, as an example, is a loss in their credibility. This is even true if their field has nothing to do with biology. Why? Because religion is associated with faith, and faith is associated with ignorance.

Second, to believe in Academic Religion is to step away from the absolute statements of major religious affiliations. In the same way that believing in Theistic Evolution has effected Academic-Credibility, it has also affected what I would call Church-Credibility. It is no secret that things like the Christian Church revolve on systems of hierarchy and mentoring. The term “Spiritual Leader” is popular. To believe in evolution is to lose that credibility and respect as someone that knows the topic at hand. For example, my belief in evolution may not affect my understanding of Biblical Morality, but there will be much fewer people coming to me to understand the theology behind right and wrong.

In both cases, this conflict and distancing is created by the belief that to compromise is to lose. It is as if there is a contract negotiation going on, and both sides are afraid to budge. In the case of Christianity, for example, someone believing in Theistic Evolution must not believe in Biblical Literalism. It is a slippery slope from that to the refusal of Biblical Inerrancy. Without Biblical Inerrancy, to a Church which believes the Bible to be the infallible word of God, there is no more structure to belief. It is easy to see why this process occurs, whether or not you agree with it. It is also easy to see why people may try and stop this process before it starts. Perhaps this may explain the shift towards Biblical Literalism in recent years, and why many young people are choosing traditional and fundamentalist churches over progressive congregations.

If you are to believe in an Academic Religion, you will also find yourself stepping out into the world alone for perhaps the first time in a long time. You may find that your Christian parents don’t understand you the first time you tell them you believe in evolution in all its glory. Your atheist friends may distance themselves from you and discredit you the first time you are reading the works of C.S. Lewis or Augustine. There is a war between science and religion going on right now, and this can be seen as nothing less than a step into no man’s land.

Conclusion

Things are never so simple as a lonely end.

It seems obvious to me that, if you are reading this and find yourself in the category of Academically Religious and I am also in this category, then we cannot possibly conclude that we are alone. In the same discussion with a colleague in which I realized the causes which pushed those people standing on the middle-ground into hiding, I realized that there must be more people walking the halls of Universities that are in this category of people. There are people that are in this community of people that have never even realized it. So, for those of you in hiding, I want to leave you with a few things to think about:

1. It is okay to question. This applies to you regardless of what side of the fence you are on. It is okay to question which parts of the Bible, or other texts, can be relied on (how do you think the Canon was even decided on? Can you imagine if they had included every Christian-text of the day based on divine authority?). It is also okay to be an atheist and question whether or not there is credibility to any of this ‘religion thing’. The entire system of Academia is based on questioning and, more importantly, wondering.

2. You can be Academically Religious and still identify with that which you are comfortable with. I still identify with Christianity because I believe in their core doctrines. You can be Academically Religious and still declare yourself as an Atheist. This thing which we have defined and talked about is an umbrella. An ideology. A lot of different people can fit underneath it.

3. It is okay to not know all of the answers. If you decide that God exists, it does not mean you need to have an answer for the Problem of Evil. Do not be afraid to say that you don’t know. This doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. It means you aren’t omniscient. All it means to be Academically Religious is that you are interested in these sorts of questions and answers.

*On that note, don’t be afraid to change your mind, either. New knowledge can lead to new conclusions. Whether it is a new study published in an academic journal or a new passage you read out of the New Testament, do not be afraid to let the incoming knowledge affect your outgoing beliefs. That doesn’t mean you have no faith, or that you are indecisive, it means you are willing to pursue an understanding of the world no matter where that may lead you. If a doctor believes that a certain prescription is the miracle cure that he/she needs, even if new research says that it doesn’t work, and continues to use it, he/she is a bad doctor. We must not be stubborn. We must aim ourselves at a better understanding of existence and all that comes with it.

If you find yourself in this category, or you have any questions/comments, feel free to start an active dialogue with me. I may not have all the answers, but I am constantly pushing myself towards a better comprehension of the world. Most importantly, if you are in this category, know that you are not alone in standing on the middle ground.

Follow Me on Twitter:
@olmsteadth

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One thought on “Academic Religion: Living in an academic no man’s land.

  1. Pingback: Barriers | janetkwest

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