As you probably know, it is not uncommon for an atheist to cite some survey which shows that atheism is positively correlated with a college education. This is supposed to support the subtle narrative that since intelligence and education are correlated with atheism, God does not exist. After all, if God did exist, wouldn’t highly intelligent and educated people be among the first to figure this out?
But why assume a true education has occurred simply because someone has had a college education? Could it be possible that most of the “education” that occurs on a university campus is a carefully filtered distillation of reality such that it is more akin to indoctrination? After all, if a form of secular, a-theistic indoctrination occurs on most campuses, of course such a positive correlation exists. And given that professors and scientists require a college education to become professors and scientists, we would predict that compared to non-college educated people, more professors and scientists would be atheists. This would then set up a positive feedback loop to perpetuate and expand the indoctrination, stealthily portrayed as “education” to the wider public.
So is this happening? While I can’t say for sure, the hypothesis becomes more plausible when we note that indoctrination does occur in the universities.
Robert Boyer, a professor of English at Skidmore College, wrote an excellent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “The Academy’s Assault on Intellectual Diversity.” While Boyer doesn’t address the issue of atheistic indoctrination, he does help illustrate that the university setting has become a culture of indoctrination. Consider some excerpts:
But things have gotten out of hand. The desire to cleanse the campus of dissident voices has become something of a mission. Shaming, scapegoating, and periodic ritual exorcisms are a prime feature of campus life. A distinguished scholar at my own college writes in an open email letter to the faculty that when colleagues who are “different” (in his case, nonwhite, nonstraight, nonmale) speak to us we are compelled not merely to listen but to “validate their experiences.” When we meet at a faculty reception a week or so later and he asks what I think of his letter, I tell him I admire his willingness to share his thoughts but have been puzzling over the word “compelled” and the expression “validate their experiences.” Does he mean thereby to suggest that if we have doubts or misgivings about what a colleague has said to us, we should keep our mouths firmly shut? Exactly, replies my earnest, right-minded colleague.
Notice that Boyer exists in a culture where everyone is expected to suppress all skepticism concerning the culture’s favored worldview. A distinguished scholar felt quite comfortable expecting his/her fellow scholars to self-censor when it came to certain issues. What’s interesting is that a Christian who believes Jesus rose from the dead would clearly qualify as “different” on most campuses. Do you think the same distinguished scholar would say that all faculty should not merely listen to but also “validate their experiences” when it came to the Christian? Are you kidding me?
Though it must seem odd to those who spend little or no time in the academy to hear that academic intellectuals are notoriously susceptible to groupthink, there are several compelling ways to account for this. For one, as Jonathan Haidt has pointed out in The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012), academics are much like other people in “trying harder to look right than to be right” when they conduct an argument. Within the confines of a community that prides itself on its disciplined commitment to a consensually agreed upon set of “enlightened” views, deviations once regarded as signs of a robustly diverse intellectual culture come more and more to seem intolerable.
And what if one of the enlightened views is atheism itself? Wouldn’t that also explain how post-modernism, a worldview embedded within atheism, could flourish and grow in power within the halls of academia?
A wide range of psychological tests conducted by Wason and others cited by Haidt provide no evidence whatsoever that the professoriate is any more likely than a less educated cohort to think independently, that is, to process fresh ideas and to draw from them anything but the officially sanctioned conclusions.
As Haidt notes, academics tend to have higher than average IQs, and are predictably “able to generate more reasons” to account for what they believe. But high IQ people like academics “are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side.” This is especially troubling — or ought to be especially troubling — in the culture of the university, where diversity of outlook and ideas, and resistance to accredited formulas, is at least theoretically central to the institutional mission.
This is an important point. It explains why highly educated atheists can list all sorts of reasons for being skeptical of Christian theism. But when it comes to actually understanding and responding to what some of us Christians actually believe, they are lost. Why? Because in that context, they “are no better than others at finding reasons on the other side.” So they rely on stereotypes.
Boyer goes on to explain how academia has itself become an splendid example of confirmation bias:
But academics today are increasingly behaving like members of an interest group, whose opinions they hold and value primarily as tokens of membership in the high status, politically virtuous elite to which they subscribe. It was once possible to suppose that this particular interest group — given its ostensible commitment to education — would want to promote genuine diversity of opinion, if only to weaken the confirmation bias we all share, “a built-in feature” of what Haidt calls our “argumentative mind.” But ideological intolerance makes the confirmation bias seem to most academics not a danger but an entirely desirable feature of our collective enterprise. [emphasis added]
This confirmation bias is on display to anyone who cares to see it. Simply read the public writings (blogs, tweets, etc) of academics reaching out to the general public. Think of people like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, and Peter Boghossian and how their arguments often amount to confirmation bias. And ponder the glorious irony of the fact that such people are totally blind to their reliance on confirmation bias, even to the point where someone like Boghossian preaches to others about the need to be open minded.
Boyer ends his essay with some interesting observations:
At my own college, when a senior colleague at a public meeting last fall uttered an expression (“in their native habitat”) felt by some to be “offensive” — though clearly not intended to be so, and followed by a clear apology when a complaint was voiced — there were calls for her to resign from the faculty. And though she is, and will remain, with us, the incident prompted a volley of abusive and self-righteous rhetoric, drove more than one faculty member to advise students away from courses taught by “that woman,” and stirred a renewed emphasis on “re-education” and “rehabilitation.”
Astonishing, of course, that those very terms — “re-education” and “rehabilitation” — do not scare the hell out of academics who use them and hear them. That they do not call to mind the not so distant history of authoritarian regimes in Europe, or lead on to the thought that “diversity,” for many of us in the academy, has now come to mean a plurality of sameness. More important: The words, apparently, do not suggest how vulnerable we are — all of us — to error, slippage, and hurt, and how the protocols, tribunals, and shamings currently favored by many in the academy have distracted us from our primary obligation, which is to foster an atmosphere of candor, good will, kindness, and basic decency without which we can be of no use to one another or to our students.
Thanks to the post-modernist “scholars” and activists within academia, we are in the position to collect volumes of evidence about the central role of indoctrination in many places of higher learning. The mere fact that indoctrination can thrive in a context of higher education tells us we can’t automatically assume higher education always entails education. This means it is possible for a college-educated person to be a college-indoctrinated person.
Since the evidence indicates that both ideological conformity and indoctrination exist and flourish in academia, it is not unreasonable to propose that an anti-Christian strain of atheism itself is part of that culture. That would explain why many of the boldest New Atheist activists have been proud members of academia.