I read two very different articles this week that left me pondering the topic of Christian isolationism. The first was in Salon by self-described agnostic Maggie Flynn:
I’d only been in Nashville a few months when I met this guy — let’s call him Matthew — at a downtown honky-tonk through friends of friends. He was sweet and charming, teaching me the two-step over a shared pitcher of beer. The following weekend, he took me on our first date to the Sunset Grill, one of Nashville’s hippest dining destinations, despite being named after a Don Henley song. In his sexy Southern twang, he ordered a bottle of wine to go with the meal.
After the waiter departed, Matthew leaned across the table, almost apologetically, and said, “You don’t mind that I ordered a bottle of wine, do you?”
I assured him that I approved of his choice. Still, he looked bothered.
“I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I like to unwind with a drink now and then, but I don’t drink all of the time,” Matthew said. “I bet you don’t either.”
“Not in the morning.” I laughed.
“Oh, a joke. That’s funny. But seriously, do you think you’ll drink after you have children?”
I was certain he was putting me on. I was 22, freshly graduated from college and unaccustomed to this line of questioning, especially on a first date. But he persisted. He’d enjoyed our tipsy two-step, he explained, but he was looking to plan his future. He believed in getting the serious business out of the way on a first date. I wondered how many second dates Matthew ever had.
“I don’t even know that I’ll have children,” I said.
“Is that another joke?”
The wine arrived. As if to demonstrate how moderation worked, Matthew poured me half a glass, which I definitely saw as half-empty.
“Are you religious?” he asked.
“But you believe in God?”
I drained my wine glass and reached across the table for the bottle. I gave him an honest answer, though I suspected I would never see Matthew again. I said that I really wasn’t sure. I certainly didn’t believe that the Bible was the literal word of God, nor did I buy into stories about building giant arks and visiting whale’s bellies. While I didn’t consider myself a Christian or a practitioner of any other religion, I wasn’t an atheist, either. To say definitively that God didn’t exist seemed as restrictive as saying that he did. I was a skeptical agnostic, I concluded.
Matthew listened carefully and nodded, conceding my logic, if not my position. Maybe he was an OK guy after all.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“What do you have against God?”
When I first started teaching in my current institution, a decade or so ago, I was impressed by the diversity of students in lectures. Lots were believers of one sort or another, but many others would describe themselves as atheists and agnostics.
Whatever they thought about religion, they shared an intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness that made teaching the best part of my job: they enjoyed being challenged in their assumptions, and they loved exploring the ways religions have shaped and been shaped by cultural, social and political shifts.
Most noticeable of all, students rarely expressed a need to proclaim or defend their own faith perspectives in lectures.
But things are so different now. The prioritisation of the student experience has rightfully empowered students to take a greater responsibility for their learning, which means that student unions and their societies enjoy a far greater influence in universities than ever before.
But this includes religious societies. And at my institution, the fee-paying culture has given rise to a predominantly white, economically-privileged, middle class student body, in which any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity. It is a belief system that is uncomfortable with the academic study of religion, and which will often explicitly resist it.
Students’ membership of this society is flattening the dynamics of lectures. Buying into the current claim that Christians suffer persecution in the UK, many appear compelled to resist the academic critique of the traditions and texts they hold dear. Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text.
A female colleague was accused of being “stupid” and “lacking authority” by those who believe a woman has no right to teach others about religious texts.
Other colleagues have been marked out as heretics in lectures. Of the students who remain outside this group – identifying as atheist, agnostic, Catholic or Jewish – a number have confided they feel intimidated or silenced by the louder, assertively evangelical students in the class.
I find both of these stories dispiriting. This is not how Christians are supposed to be. The Gospels are essentially about the early Christians engagement with the non-Christian world around them.
One has to wonder how the believers Flynn met in Nashville or the students in that class imagine they will be effective evangelists. If they refuse to even listen to an argument now, how do they hope to answer it later. And if they can’t relate to atheists or agnostics as friends then, how will they ever understand them well enough to convince them to change their minds?