Reader Kent called my attention to a new piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Dodging the God Squad.” It’s by someone using the name “Madalyn Dawkins” (clearly a nod to Richard), who won’t identify herself because she is a faculty member in the humanities at a western U.S. research university, and is married to a senior college administrator. Why would that make her hide behind a pseudonym? Because she’s an atheist. And if she came “out,” her husband could get in serious trouble:
While top administrators wield a considerable amount of power on their campuses, they are also vulnerable (like their counterparts in the world of politics) to people and forces that can undermine their positions and potentially jeopardize their careers.
My spouse has had a succession of administrative posts over the last few decades, and my experience is that in academe there is a kind of God Squad that monitors and polices administrators’ beliefs and attitudes toward religion. The real danger for campus officials who reveal themselves as agnostic or atheist is retaliation from powerful donors, board members, alumni, or other administrators in the institutional hierarchy.
“Dawkins” recounts several incidents in which college administrators who let their atheism slip suffered because of it, The indented material are her quotes:
- A friend who was a long-serving university president ran afoul of an influential donor when he made the mistake of mentioning in a local speech that he had long ago stopped believing in any god. The donor was so outraged by his revelation that she canceled all future payments on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar gift. That same donor encouraged others to stop all future gifts while the president was in office. As a result of her actions, the university lost a substantial amount in canceled payments and anticipated gifts.
- One chancellor had to fight for his job when a powerful board member mounted a campaign against him, lobbying his fellow trustees to vote for the chancellor’s ouster. An avowed evangelical Christian, the board member was outraged when the chancellor told a small group at a cocktail reception that he likened religion to superstition, and questioned whether intellectuals could truly practice a faith.Fortunately for the chancellor, the offended trustee could not marshal sufficient support to fire the wayward administrator, but the board member continued to be obstructionist throughout the chancellor’s tenure, consistently voting against his initiatives.
- Sometimes the offense and the retaliation are more subtle. I know of a dean who, in casual conversations, implied that he was an agnostic and was skeptical of organized religion. The provost happened to be present at one of those conversations, and suddenly her demeanor toward the dean changed. He found it increasingly difficult to schedule meetings with the provost, he was inexplicably passed up for an end-of-term raise, and he received a mediocre annual performance review. The dean ended up leaving for an appointment at another university.
I’m actually surprised that this kind of discrimination would occur in the western U.S., unless it’s in states like Idaho, Montana, or Nevada. And, of course, this is, among First World countries, a uniquely American form of discrimination. I can’t imagine it happening in, say, Denmark, France, or Germany, where nobody gives a rat’s patootie if you’re an atheist. And it’s asymmetrical: if you talk about your religion a bit, you’re not going to suffer at all.
At any rate, “Dawkins” gives some tips for atheist administrators who want to keep their jobs, which include hiding your beliefs and, if someone asks you about them, saying, “I’m sorry, but religion is a very personal topic, and so I never discuss it in public.” But her advice to “Keep your religious (or nonreligious) beliefs to yourself” is not really apposite because, as I said, if you say a few things about your religion, that’s pretty much okay so long as you’re not an atheist. You can’t, of course, constantly ask your co-workers if they’ve heard the good news about Ceiling Cat.
Having been in liberal and godless schools all my life (I did go to college in the South, but wasn’t a vociferous nonbeliever then), I’ve never suffered a bit from being an atheist and professing it openly. That’s because 95% of my biology colleagues are also atheists. But I’ve heard horror stories from other biologists who teach in the South.
I’d be interested in hearing from heathen readers who have suffered, professionally or otherwise, for publicly avowing atheism.