More on changing American religion and higher education

Greetings from Santiago, Chile.  I am here to give a talk to, and meet with people at, an Ellucian users’ conference.

Santiago Chile street with foggy horizon

It’s lovely to be in person for an educational technology event.  I’m masked, but can still bask in human presence. Plus I get to try out my childlike Spanish language “skills.” Everyone here – Chilean, plus people from other Latin American nations – are most kind to me as I fumble and strain.

And my hosts have been splendid.

Ellucian audience after my talk 2022

Audience recovering from my presentation.

Now, to this post’s topic, which doesn’t have much to do with Chile, although it touches on travel. Last week I shared notes on a new Pew study about changes to American religion.  Today I’d like to follow up with a few additional thoughts based on conversations with readers and a webinar.  This is a short post and these three points are not in any particular order:

In response to that post, over on LinkedIn Tonya Amankwatia offered two provocative ideas.  First, if Christianity declines sharply, will some institutions make a point of remaining affiliated to the level of mission and operations?  Tonya suggests the possibility of Historically Christian Colleges and Universities as an institutional category.

Second, thinking of campuses supporting students, “How will schools engage Christian students in the future?”  Especially if that set of religions becomes marginal or stigmatized?  I wonder how attractive the (presumably) dwindling number of very Christian institutions will be to such students.  Alternatively, will other campuses try to direct certain staff to support such students, like staff with clear religious identifications of interests?

Several days after Tonya’s comments I participated in a Greenfaith global webinar about religion in the climate crisis.  Its presentations and, to a lesser extent, discussions covered a lot of topics. One religious theme particularly stood out for me: rethinking parts of current or potential economic development as luxuries in the Anthropocene.  That’s luxury in a religious sense, a sin, something to be shunned and condemned.  Speakers didn’t embed that line of thought in a particular religion; indeed, the event was replete with a range of faiths, from Judaism and Islam (Sunni, I think) to New Age and various Christianities.

I’m not sure a carbon luxury view requires a religion. There have been plenty of anti-consumerist, even austere ideas in play of late without the backing of a faith: Buy Nothing Day, voluntary simplicity, even slow food.  Of course, plenty of religions and religious practices have offered divine backing for opposition to luxury. And perhaps criticizing consumerism or leading stages of development could become part of an emerging, new religious movement (which I keep looking for).

I think that this view, if people adopt it, might connect to higher education in several ways, especially following the analytic framework I develop in Universities on Fire.  First, a society could embrace such an attitude and then suffer economic stagnation or decline, as consumer purchases drop.  If that occurs, local academic institutions can see public financial support decline – or enrollment rise, assuming the population follows the COVID-tarnished theme of linking economic woe to college attendance.

Second, a new conception of luxury can lead to campus-community divides. A town whose population inclines towards this belief might view their non-believing academic neighbors with suspicion, as dangerous decadents.  The reverse could also occur, if a campus population turns to a kind of climate austerity (again, in the religious sense) and deems its neighbors to be committing a moral error.

Third, the presence of such a belief on campus could lead to institutional friction. For example, some activist students might deem their faculty (for example) to advocate or practice sinful luxuries, such as flying too much, eating plenty of beef, urging GDP growth via consumerism, etc.

Fourth, a greenhouse-gas-emitting-behavior-is-luxury idea will be worth researching for some faculty, from religion to history of ideas. Similarly, it may be teachable.

That’s it for now. I have to set up to teach tonight’s seminar from my hotel room, then sleep before a breakfast meeting.

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4 Responses to More on changing American religion and higher education

  1. Joe says:

    I would love to see more evangelicals, in particular, embrace minimalist, low-carbon models of stewardship (one translation of “dominion”) of the Earth, by viewing Earth as God’s gift to humanity.

    As a Deist and Green, that would suit me fine.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      Joe, the problem has become one of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic” on steroids. Prosperity theology perverts the teachings of Jesus Christ–and turns Christianity into a hustle of grand proportions. In that milieu, to be poor is to be less blessed. And under the 7 Mountains Theology, believers are expected to be warriors against anyone who challenges their wrong-headed (and even contradictory) beliefs about race, class, gender, nationalism, and the environment.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, this begs the question, What’s a greater threat to democracy, global neoliberalism or Christian authoritarianism (the growing, radical wing of Christianity)? Despite their epistemological differences, these two ideologies feed on each other, and there is a large amount of overlap, especially in cyberspace. Neoliberal companies like Google and Microsoft, for example, have no problems working with anyone who’ll pay, whether it’s BlackRock, Bank of America, Exxon, Harvard University, or Liberty University. Together, these two oppressive ideologies disrupt, dominate, and destroy humanity– and the planet.

  3. sibyledu says:

    The Christian roots of most US colleges spring from the colleges’ original development as institutions to train ministers in that tradition. If the Congregationalists could found Yale, then the Anglicans wanted Columbia and the Presbyterians wanted Princeton, and so on across the nation. Since the first Morrill Act, the sectarian character of universities has eroded in favor of a secular, public model. There are already quite a few “historically Christian colleges” for whom the Christian identity is, essentially, a relic; neither students, faculty, nor staff are expected to affirm the founding faith, nor is that faith reflected in curriculum or co-curriculum, appearing only in official mottos and at invocations at commencement. I expect that further decline in the percentage of Christians will result in further “erosion” of this sort. A very small percentage of students choose college for sectarian reasons today; I don’t think colleges will be noticeably damaged by declining Christian faith. (There are other forces ready to damage them.)

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