Religion: A Viewpoint Diversity Blind Spot?:

How could Heterodox Academy address this lacuna? It could, for example, promote the use of surveys or studies to better understand the religious makeup of faculty, administrators, and students — and how they are affected by the lack of viewpoint diversity, the narrowing space for legitimate debate, unfair recruitment and promotion practices, and intolerance of religion on campus. It could highlight the issues affecting religious groups and individuals working or studying in universities and colleges more in its blog posts, weekly updates, and podcasts. It could make a greater effort to involve academics from theology or religious studies fields. It could publish articles parsing the differences between political conservatives and religious academics—not all of the latter are members of the former (and vice versa) —and explore how these differences affect research methods, interests and findings.

Despite the myriad challenges to protecting political viewpoint diversity and freedom of speech in academia today, HxA has boldly undertaken the challenge. Yet, it must now go one step further and also explore the limits and potential of religious belief on campus as well. 

That’s Seth Kaplan of Johns Hopkins. Kaplan is right that the viewpoint-diversity movement, especially as represented by Heterodox Academy, has been focused on bringing conservative or even centrist ideas into the academic conversation rather than on finding a place for religious views. I think there are two reasons for that. 

  1. Any appeal to religious belief or doctrine as a justification for an intellectual position, or even as an explanatory matrix for cultural phenomena, is effectively ruled out by the academy’s universal commitment to methodological naturalism, whereas politically or socially conservative ideas may be articulated fully within the canons of that naturalism. 
  2. Many scholars who are serious religious believers teach at religious colleges, and those institutions have explicit commitments to certain orthodoxies — real orthodoxies, not metaphorical ones. Heterodox Academy says that “The surest sign that a community suffers from a deficit of viewpoint diversity is the presence of orthodoxy, most readily apparent when members fear shame, ostracism, or any other form of social retaliation for questioning or challenging a commonly held idea.” So obviously HxA is not going to be comfortable with institutions that don’t merely “shame” people for holding the wrong ideas but may actually fire them. 

If indeed members of HxA have these reservations, they are reasonable ones. All meaningful conversations happen within certain structures of constraint, and methodological naturalism has done a pretty good job of providing those structures, and has done so for so long that most academics are not even aware that they are methodological naturalists. Richard Rorty’s famous claim that religion is a conversation-stopper need not be true, but one can see why he thought it was. 

So can anything be done? If there were two good reasons for the discomfort, maybe there are two possible solutions: 

  1. Methodological naturalism is an academic/scholarly component of what Charles Taylor calls living within an “immanent frame,” and, as Taylor also points out, that “frame” is not simple or obvious — not something that simply emerged when religious belief is “subtracted” from human experience — but rather a great achievement, a built structure of constraint. But like all such structures, it simultaneously enables certain conversations and disables others. (This point is best articulated, I think, by Kenneth Burke in his famous essay “Terministic Screens.”) I think it would be intellectually productive for HxA to reflect on the historical origins of its core commitments and the costs that those commitments inevitably incur — even while still maintaining the the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. These are intellectual goods that engagement with religiously-committed scholars can encourage. 
  2. HxA has emphasized viewpoint diversity within institutions, but that’s not the only way to think about these matters. There is value in intellectual diversity between institutions. That is, not all colleges or universities need to have the same intellectual mission — especially in the United States, with its rich history of both private and public universities. It is possible that religious institutions, even if they place constraints on internal intellectual diversity, may contribute to the overall diversity of American academic culture. 

Whether or not I’m right about any of this, it seems to me that these are issues that viewpoint-diversity advocates need to debate.