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Christian Smith

Force of Habit

Hostility and condescension toward religion in the university

On the surface, it seems that the university is slowly but surely getting religion. New courses on religion and politics, development, and culture are popping up here and there. Newly proposed programs and institutes in Islamic and Jewish studies are generating faculty discussion. Top university presses are expanding the number of titles they publish on religion. Everywhere one turns, there seems to be a newly funded initiative for scientific research on forgiveness, spiritual progress, public religion, or some such topic. Publishing journal authors who once ignored religion are now entering religion variables in their regression models and often finding significant results. It seems as if there are a few more new jobs in the sociology of religion at decent schools than there used to be. And, in my own experience, senior colleagues are no longer suggesting to me that I should study in a higher-status field than the sociology of religion. Maybe the overtly anti-religious culture that dominated the American university since the late 19th century is slowly but surely dissipating, lo these so many years after the philosophical discrediting of logical positivism. At one level, it appears to be.

Then again, I have found that, just below the surface of this apparent ever-widening openness to and interest in things religious in the academy, there abides a tenacious anti-religious sensibility among many faculty that is, for me, both amusing and wearying. Here I recount only a few examples from my experience lately.

A fellow academic from another department, who had recently attended an explicitly religious wedding service for a mutual acquaintance, stopped me in the hallway to vent his astonishment that some of our colleagues who had also attended the wedding revealed in the way they had participated that they might actually believe in God and heaven. "Here are these well-educated people," he marveled, eyes rolling, "who actually are sitting there talking about 'Lord this, and ...

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