Left-wing comedian Bill Maher recently ignited another controversy by claiming that Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is "not a real school." Citing Liberty's teaching of Biblical creationism as historical fact, Maher joked that Liberty is "a school you flunk out of when you get the answers right."
Outrage predictably ensued. But Maher's point — that schools asserting the truth of religious doctrine with no evidence to back it up are not operating as "schools" at all, but rather as churches — deserves consideration. After all, just how "religious" can a religious school be without turning into a de facto church? And on the other hand, how secular can it get before becoming "just a school"?
Religious colleges struggle to reconcile the assertions of their leaders and holy books with the knowledge and reasoning of scientists and textbooks. As faith-based organizations, they have a mission to propagate and defend religious doctrine, which by its very nature is unscientific and requires a suspension of logical reasoning and disbelief. But as places of higher learning, they also have a duty to promote intellectual maturation, critical thinking skills, and competence in scientific reasoning.
These dual obligations have a nasty and frequent tendency to butt heads. Religious colleges continually wrestle with the question of whether to embrace the knowledge and values of contemporary society, however awkwardly, or stand in principled opposition to it all.
Either approach could fail in the end. Those that stubbornly resist the winds of progress and change risk alienating themselves in the academic marketplace, sliding slowly but surely into irrelevance. On the other hand, the ones that choose to adapt risk compromising on faith so much that they ultimately become secular.
Can a college be both a church and a school without eventually sacrificing one or both parts of its identity? Is any religious institution truly able to fully embrace social change and scientific progress without abandoning belief? Or, is being "religious" inherently reactionary and anti-intellectual?
To deal with the conflict between faith and modernity, some religious schools try to have it both ways: they mix science and faith together. For example, once evolution became widely accepted in the scientific community, some religious schools (and their churches) began teaching students that the six "days" of Biblical creation were figurative — each day could actually mean millions or billions of years. This helped the schools preserve a degree of academic integrity.
But concessions like this can only be taken so far. By incorporating science at the expense of traditional doctrine — even just a little bit — religious colleges are, in effect, admitting that their sacred texts and long-standing beliefs cannot go toe-to-toe intellectually against scientific observation, where such observation exists. And how many times can a religious college concede the intellectual shortcomings of its doctrine, and accommodate the scientific and social realities of the modern world, before it ceases to be "religious" at all?
Some institutions deal with this dilemma by effectively avoiding it. Instead of attempting the uncomfortable act of balancing religion and reason, they simply reject the latter. Schools like Liberty University build ideological walls around their campuses, shielding students from blasphemous intellectual assaults on their ages-old worldviews. Curricula and rules are designed to promote religious belief and adherence to "tradition," not to honestly educate students in the ways of the world.
When a school — in this case, Liberty — has a Doctrinal Statement proclaiming absolutely that "The universe was created in six historical days" (not figurative) and "human beings were directly created, not evolved," it's not hard to see where its loyalties lie.
That said, many religious colleges and academics take great pains to act like legitimate educators — while maintaining a faith identity at the same time. It's an awkward position to be in, and it may not be sustainable forever. At some point, the twin camps of religion and reason may grow too far apart for any school to keep one foot firmly planted in each without looking ridiculous (or doing the splits).
No matter where it falls on the belief spectrum, every religious college may sooner or later have to make a choice: whether to be a proponent of critical thought and discovery, or a purveyor of doctrine — a school, or a church. As science keeps advancing and society keeps evolving, it will get increasingly harder to pretend to be both.
For an interesting look at the perspectives and challenges of religious colleges, check out God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America, by Naomi Schaeffer Riley.
Kevin Wolfman is a a writer and project editor at the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government, divisions of e.Republic, Inc. He is a former teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Not Politics: The Student's Guide to Political Science. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.