November 21, 2017

Counting the Cost of Letting Your Light Shine

Don Johnson

“What we need,” say the professors of biblical worldview, “is more young people to take their biblical perspectives into every field — we need Christians in medicine, music, science, sociology, in every field.”

I am currently teaching the principles of biblical worldview to the people of our church (using the excellent textbook, Biblical Worldview, which is available here and reviewed here). In general, I agree with the proposition. We have a great need for Christians in every field, the more the better.

But Christians who consider entering the “worldly” fields (as opposed to the “spiritual” fields such as pastor, evangelist, Christian school teacher, etc.) need to think soberly about the path they might choose and seriously count the cost.

I say this in light of a recent article, “Are the Social Sciences Undergoing a Purity Spiral?” by Uri Harris. In the article, Harris describes the state of the social sciences in particular:

A couple of years ago, six social scientists published a paper describing a disquieting occurrence in academic psychology: the loss of almost all its political diversity. As Jonathan Haidt, one of the authors of the paper, wrote in a commentary:

Before the 1990s, academic psychology only LEANED left. Liberals and Democrats outnumbered Conservatives and Republican by 4 to 1 or less. But as the “greatest generation” retired in the 1990s and was replaced by baby boomers, the ratio skyrocketed to something more like 12 to 1. In just 20 years. Few psychologists realize just how quickly or completely the field has become a political monoculture.

While the paper focuses on psychology, it briefly mentions that the rest of the social sciences are not far behind:

[R]ecent surveys find that 58–66 per cent of social science professors in the United States identify as liberals, while only 5–8 per cent identify as conservatives, and that self-identified Democrats outnumber Republicans by ratios of at least 8 to 1 (Gross & Simmons 2007; Klein & Stern 2009; Rothman & Lichter 2008).

Most of us on the outside of academia are probably somewhat aware of these trends. We know the academic world is full of leftists; we know that many (most?) of them are hostile to Christianity. We know that Christians who enter that world have a challenge awaiting them. But do we really comprehend how challenging that challenge really is?

Harris continues in his article to describe the psychological/social environment of the social sciences in particular. I don’t think he is writing from a Christian worldview, but I think he is describing the scene accurately. He quotes political scientist Sam Abrams saying this:

Professors were more liberal than the country in 1990, but only by about 11 percentage points. By 2013, the gap had tripled; it is now more than 30 points. It seems reasonable to conclude that it is academics who shifted, as there is no equivalent movement among the masses whatsoever.

Harris says:

People that freely self-identify as far-left in the abstract, in other words irrespective of specific political issues, seem to me to be signalling something: that they are committed to an ideology. The fact that such a large portion of the most influential people in academic social psychology do so suggests that this ideology is entrenched in their field.

He then makes this observation:

Sociologist Carl Bankston paints a picture of a field that has institutionalised ‘social justice’ ideology on all levels over the past twenty years:

To attend a conference these days can feel like taking part in a rally of true believers. These associations are not government entities, one may argue, and they are entitled to become exclusive clubs of the committed. The problem is that the embedded ideologies of academic professional organizations are bound up with the embedded ideologies of universities. When we hire new faculty members or when we tenure or promote professors, one of the points we consider is whether the individuals concerned have been active in professional associations, especially the national association. Because the associations so strongly push political perspectives, universities implicitly encourage professors to hold and express the “correct” socio-political orientation.

From Bankston’s description, it seems clear that any non-leftist would find working in sociology almost unbearable. The research in the original paper suggests that the leftward shift in social science is likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.

At this point I’ll leave Harris’ paper for you to read. I want to focus on this observation: “any non-leftist would find working in sociology almost unbearable.”

For years it has been true that Christians in the sciences have had to swim upstream. They have been denied doctorates, denied jobs, denied tenure, and denied recognition in countless other ways as they attempt to maintain their biblical worldview in a hostile anti-biblical environment. One may well desire to be that pioneer who enters the sciences (or the arts, or what-have-you) and blazes a path for fellow Christians to follow into careers that impact the world in many ways. But… what is the cost of being that pioneer?

  • Is the price, first of all, parking your beliefs at the door, in order to get in the door?

When I was in sixth grade, a long time ago, I had to write an essay in science class about evolution. I was able to repeat the evolutionary dogma I had been taught, but I can remember the incredible pressure I felt as a twelve-year-old trying to decide whether to say anything about creation. In my case, it wasn’t because of a hostile environment (or a hostile teacher … he lived right across the alley on the other side of our block, we were neighbors, and he was friendly). But, I wondered, what would he say if I said anything? What would happen to my grade? What should I do? In the end, I gave a very brief line, something along the lines of “in spite of this, I believe the Genesis record.” That was all I could bring myself to say in my essay, and I was deeply troubled as I said it – troubled by the environment I was in and troubled at my own timidity. My teacher never did say anything to me, but he told my parents that he wished I would have taken the time to give him more of my reasons rather than simply my statement of faith.

Well, it is true that a twelve-year-old will feel social pressure in quite a different way than an adult, well-trained in the sciences, who wants to enter into the mature fields of, say, social psychology. Right? Consider what Uri Harris says one more time:

“any non-leftist would find working in sociology almost unbearable”

Are you prepared for that? Are you prepared for putting yourself into a completely hostile environment where virtually no-one of significance will accept your theories, no matter how well you back them up? Are you prepared to buck the establishment at every turn, to be the pariah on your faculty (assuming you can even be hired in your field), to be ridiculed and held to scorn and ostracized?

It is small wonder that in our current climate academia is a field vastly under-populated by Christians. We might be a bit naïve in thinking there is much that can be done to infiltrate such fields with people maintaining a biblical world view.

Now, as I said, it is unlikely that Uri Harris is writing from a biblical viewpoint himself. His solution seems to be quite off the mark (read the rest of his paper). He seems to suggest the answer lies in the hard sciences. He puts far more confidence in that than I do.

What is the solution, really?

Well, until Jesus comes, I think that the problems of our world need to be addressed less by Christians taking the world into every field and more by Christians taking the Word to every person. In other words, I think we need to get away from the model of pursuing worldly significance and returning to the model of John the Baptist, preaching the gospel in the wilderness (Mk 1.4). We need less professionals and more professors of religion. We need more disciples. We need more evangelists.

We need revival.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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