U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Another Day in the Life

As part of his fascinating keynote address at the S-USIH conference last Saturday, David Hollinger argued that there is an inverse relationship between levels of higher education – particularly higher education at secular institutions – and beliefs in the supernatural.  This secularizing effect of university education does not necessarily crudely translate into “disbelief.” Nevertheless, those religious adherents with a university education – even at a sectarian school – are less likely to insist, for example, on supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.  But this broadening (or, perhaps from a religious point of view, diminishing) of epistemic horizons is not evenly distributed among various faith communities, because some are more likely to pursue a college education than others. 

At one point in his lecture, Hollinger provided some statistics regarding education levels for various Christian denominations and sects.  I didn’t write down the numbers, and I don’t want to rely on my memory to make specific statistical claims.  But I do recall being unsurprised not just by the numbers, but also by the order in which he gave them, from most educated to least educated.  Episcopalians and Unitarians were up at the top, while Baptists and Pentecostals were near the bottom.  The group with the fewest college-educated members was Jehovah’s Witnesses – if I recall correctly, about ten percent of JWs have a college education.

What I found interesting, as Hollinger laid out this data, was the response of the audience in the lecture hall.  As the percentages got lower, I could hear a smattering of gasps and occasional laughter.  I don’t think it was the laughter of mockery; I think it was either the laughter of astonishment or the laughter of recognition.  I think some folks in the room must have been genuinely surprised at the relatively low education levels of several of these groups.  And I think others might have been laughing to have their own experiences in the academy confirmed by empirical data.

Much like David Hollinger, several folks in the room probably had their own version of a personal secularization story to tell.  (I know I do – though don’t expect to hear it any time soon.)  But it’s possible that most folks in the room were always already secular.   And if some of them laughed, perhaps it was simply because this whole business of believing getting in the way of knowing was just so foreign to their own experience – though perhaps confirmed in their experience of teaching students from these backgrounds.

In any case, the laughter wasn’t extensive, or sustained.  But it was noticeable – especially in response to the stat about Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that JW proselytism relies so heavily upon purportedly historical and philological arguments, sophistical hermeneutics, and so forth.  There is in their training and presentation a pretense to erudition of an academic kind, but it comes with the ready-made apologia that the university as an institution has been so corrupted by false teaching over the centuries that no scholarship emanating from it – scholarship that easily refutes JW arguments — can be trusted.  If anyone has ever had that fruitless conversation at the front door on an otherwise quiet Saturday morning, I can understand a chuckle of wry recognition.

I don’t suppose most academics recognize themselves in the proselytizer on their doorstep.  But I hope that they would at least put themselves through the mental exercise of trying to imagine what it is like to be raised to be suspicious of education.  Judging from Hollinger’s larger argument about education and secularization, those suspicions on the part of the faithful of whatever sect or creed are in some sense well founded – the university will challenge and change not just what you know, but your very ways of knowing.  That’s powerful stuff.

During the Q&A following the keynote, someone asked a question about what relationship there might be between higher education levels, secularization, and greater openness to social justice movements.  In the course of his response, Hollinger suggested that an interest in social justice hardly requires a secular world view, and that many social justice movements are built upon Christian principles.  “You know,” he added, “on Galatians 3:28, and so forth.”  And on he went.

As soon as Hollinger said it, I wondered how many people in that room were saying to themselves, “What the hell is Galatians 3:28?  Am I supposed to know this?” But nobody raised a hand to ask. I’m sure everybody got that it was a Bible verse, and perhaps a fair number knew it’s from the Pauline epistles.  Those who had closely read Luther, or William Lloyd Garrison, had probably come across the verse or the logic behind it.  But my surmise is that only a small minority of folks in that packed lecture hall immediately caught the reference and called the verse to mind.

For those of you who were wondering, here’s what it says:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I don’t think knowing Bible verses off the top of your head is a requirement for being an intellectual historian. I suppose some might consider it a disqualification.  I do think, however, that intellectual historians – and maybe just academics in general – would do well to remember how transformative a college education can be for all of our students, perhaps especially for those who bring with them some wariness about what and how they are being taught.

It’s a magnificent human and humane endeavor in which we are engaged, this shared quest for knowledge — or, if I may dare say so, this quest for wisdom.  It is nothing to be feared, even when we occasionally get ferocious with each other.  Chris Shannon’s review of Jewett’s book – the most read post of last week, by a wide margin – was just damn ferocious.  My comment in reply – the most read comment of last week, I suppose – was pretty damn ferocious too. But in person, face to face, Chris was not fearsome at all.  (I don’t think I was either, but who am I to say?)  He was very pleasant, and easy to talk to, and we had a nice chat.  Didn’t change any minds about our respective views of the university, but perhaps changed our views of each other, and in the process found a way to make room for difference and dissent.  Just another day in the life of the university, right?

It was a pleasant conclusion to an absolutely extraordinary day for me – indeed, the whole conference was extraordinary. But what the conference — and all the many simultaneous and overlapping and cross-cutting conversations folks engaged in throughout the weekend — modeled so well really was that:  just another day in the life of the university.  It’s a life that, at its best, at our best, has so much to offer because it constantly reminds us that we still have so much to learn.

14 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. LD, I mentioned in my USIH paper how we discuss this in the history of science-and-religion as the privatization of religion. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were still plenty of religiously observant people active in scholarship, but what had changed was that they generally held their faith privately and gave naturalistic explanations in their research. An excellent example of this is British physicist John Tyndall, who is well remembered for his 1874 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, explicitly excluding religious explanations from scientific activity. In his private life, however, he was a deeply spiritual man, thrilling to nature in a decidedly Romantic vein. Ursula DeYoung’s 2011 book “A Vision of Modern Science” is a fun read about the two sides of Tyndall.

  2. Excellent post, L.D., it speaks to the necessary if not urgent task of understanding religious cultures, especially from the perspective of a non-practitioner or non-believer, which is my case. You might be overly generous in suggesting the audiences’ laughter wasn’t mocking. The truth of the matter is that condescension and derision towards religious practices are not uncommon among scholars in the humanities and social sciences, I have witnessed it frequently. Such disregard is sadly connected to the troubles of the left in the U.S., an issue I always bring up to my activist friends, who often brandish a radical form of secularism as part of their political toolkit, ignoring the historical relevance of spiritual and religious culture for building social justice and equality in this country. Thankfully we are now at a post-secular turn, where we are questioning this type of attitude, and humbly seeking to understand the nuances of the other.

    • This comment is interesting in light of Hollinger’s argument, which was a vindication of the secularization thesis (properly understood). In part (to put it a little crudely), Hollinger was arguing that just because most Americans still avow religious beliefs, doesn’t mean that most of them are not secular (in a broader sense). I think he’s largely correct. But I also think (as Kahlil suggests) that the religious / not-religious divide is also salient. While (most) Americans who, e.g., express a belief in God may well be secularized (as per Hollinger), their belief in God remains an important part of their identity and separates them from those of us who strongly identify as non-believers.

  3. L.D. your last point brings to mind a comment from a student in one of my classes this past week. He said, “I am starting to understand what you meant when you said the more you learn the less you know.” I am filled with pride when my students challenge themselves and fight the complacency so common to youth. I had another student say she wanted to take a couple of years off and just read everything. They are engaging with ideas, they are interacting with other thinkers across time and space, they make me less pessimistic about the future.

  4. Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. There has also been a looooong Twitter conversation prompted by this post. Here’s a link if you’re interested: Intellectual Historians v. Religious Studies Scholars.

    Scott, I looked at your web page, with the description of your dissertation project. I thought of Charles Hodge and, more spectacularly, Lewis Sperry Chafer, whose entire 8 vol. systematic theology draws legitimacy from its claims to scientific method.

    Kahlil, you might be right about people’s reactions, though I hope not. Laughter can mean so many things — people laugh out of surprise, out of relief, out of embarrassment for themselves or for others, and — yes — sometimes out of condescension or scorn. It was, I think, a fairly intellectually generous gathering. But I do think it’s good to remind ourselves that our own access to and comfort with certain ways of knowing has a lot to do with birth, upbringing, social opportunities, etc. It’s important for intellectual historians to try to put themselves in someone else’s epistemic shoes.

    Bryn, way to keep the light on, my friend.

    • Exactly. And to do so with humility, understanding our own limitations as we try to put ourselves in the “other”‘s shoes. Maintaining intellectual humility is always essential, something we often forget, partly b/c of the dynamics of careerist competition that are to some extent inherent to academic work. By the way, I admit I have been guilty myself of the condescending laughter I mentioned. As good old John put it, “let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

  5. “David Hollinger argued that there is an inverse relationship between levels of higher education – particularly higher education at secular institutions – and beliefs in the supernatural.”

    Lora, did Hollinger (either here or in his previous work) elaborate on his definition of “religion” or “supernaturalism”?

    It seems like the advent of supernatural-based tv shows (beginning roughly in the 1990s, such as Buffy, Angel, Millennium, X-Files, Supernatural) displaying a creative use of “supernatural” events for plotlines has rarely demonstrated a religious sensibility regarding the interpretation of those objects. Monsters, demons, and spirits all inhabit the natural world in these shows, but can elicit a wide range of explanatory frameworks from viewers for understanding their (monsters) reason for existence (apart from the fact that writers simply “create” them and presto! There they roam.). I’m also thinking of the secondary literature on New Age Religion (Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit and Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture.

    Did Hollinger argue that belief in supernaturalism necessarily entails a religious worldview?

    Thanks for your illuminating report on the happenings down in intellectual utopia.


  6. Mark,
    From what I recall, Hollinger did not draw a distinction between “religious” and “spiritual” in his remarks, though it did come up in the questions — I think it may have been the same question I referenced above, or maybe a related one, where the questioner floated the idea that people might find “spiritual” but not “religious” motivations for social justice movements, environmental activism, etc.

    What Hollinger did say, both in his lecture and in response to a question, was that we need to pay attention to the distinctions that people themselves draw. It’s not up to scholars to determine the authenticity or inauthenticity of our subjects’ religious identity/self-understanding. IOW, it is not up to scholars to decide who is / isn’t a “real Catholic” or a “real Methodist” — or, I suppose, following Ben’s comment above, a “real non-believer.”

    But Ben’s comment raises an interesting problem — if secularization as a process can be considered as a variety of religious experience (or at least as compatible with the same), does that change how we view the (always already) secular?

    • LD: Thanks for posting this. I’m catching up on blog reading for the last 5 days, and it’s nice to see more conference reflections.

      Question: So, no one in the audience asked David Hollinger to relay the message in GAL 3:28? If not, I wonder why?

  7. No, nobody asked.

    There could be a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, Hollinger tossed the reference in at the end of his comment, and he wasn’t building his whole argument around it — so, a minor detail that didn’t merit a question. And it’s quite possible that not that many people even noticed it. If someone cites chapter and verse of the Bible in an argument, that kind of jumps out at me — but it may be a little of “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

    But I guess the general rule of thumb for such situations in academe, when someone refers to a text or an idea without explaining it, is just to give a knowing nod for the moment and then look it up later. Heck, the room was filled with smartphones — for all I know, people Googled it right then and had their question answered.

    But, as I said, it wasn’t a huge part of the discussion. But it was an interesting moment. Without meaning to, I’m sure, Hollinger was code-switching. His remark provided an off-the-cuff example of how the university as a pluralistic community of inquiry has the potential to introduce people to new modes of thought in a way that is not unidirectional.

    • You’re probably right about it being tossed in at the end—minds probably on earlier matters. Or, it being a conference, on what smart question the person might ask later. 😉 You might also be right about smart phone answers.

      Like you (it seems), the old evangelical in me perks up when I hear verses. Usually it’s because I’m instantly wondering how the verse is being used out of context, or flat wrongly.

      I don’t know much about Hollinger’s own religious background, so I don’t know about code switching—unless he was switching between USIH folks to RAH folks. – TL

  8. Hollinger has written about his religious upbringing and his decision to become a professional historian in a very engaging essay, “Church People and Others” in James Banner and John Gillis, eds., Becoming Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 101- 121.

    Here’s a link:

    Church People and Others, by David A. Hollinger (.pdf)

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