How Should Students Respond to Anti-Christian Professors?

Frowning cat

Hostile professor cat doesn’t like Christians.

A friend who works in campus ministry asked me for advice recently. He had heard about a difficult situation at another university and was wondering what I would say to the student:

There is a student in a philosophy class here, where the professor is incredibly disrespectful towards Christians. How do you usually encourage your students to respond, and what advice do you usually give them? It appears there are not many Christians in the class, and if there are, they all laugh at the professor and go along with him.

Even though relatively few professors express anti-Christian views in the classroom, this is a fairly common experience for students. In her sociological study Science vs. Religion, Elaine Howard Ecklund found that the small minority of scientists who were actively hostile to religion received much more attention than their numbers might warrant:

There is a small group of scientists (less than 5 percent of those I interviewed) who go beyond privatizing religion or separating themselves from it to actively suppressing its expression. Because of their vocal bent, this group can appear much larger than it really is. They have been outspoken about the irrelevance and danger of religion as well as the need to suppress it where possible, and their work and views have received a lot of public press because of their contrarian nature. (105, emphasis added)

Ecklund’s study focused on scientists at elite universities, so I don’t know what the percentage of actively hostile professors might be in other disciplines or at other types of universities. As an undergraduate English major at a public research university, I encountered two professors who openly disparaged Christianity (both tenured, one in literature and the other in linguistics) and only one professor who openly discussed her Christian faith (an adjunct Latin instructor). As I got to know professors personally, I discovered several more who held strong personal beliefs (both Christian and non), but who kept them out of the classroom for various reasons. Anecdotally, Ecklund’s 5 percent figure feels about right for faculty who are vocally against religion.

Very rough math[1] suggests that an average student will encounter 2 hostile professors as an undergraduate. Horror stories from friends will make the number seem even larger. With almost all of their other professors keeping silent on religion, the vocal disdain of this “unsilent majority” can feel like the default position of faculty. This is one reason why I think it’s important for Christian faculty to let students know about their beliefs.

What would you counsel a student who is dealing with an anti-Christian professor? Leave your suggestions in the comments, or email them to me if you prefer to be anonymous. I’ll share my thoughts a bit later in the comments.

  1. Some estimates, with lots of assumptions: 124–128 credit hours are required for the typical bachelors degree. If the average class is 3 credits, then a student will have ~41 professors as an undergraduate. Some of these will likely repeat, but there will also be 1 credit classes, TAs, etc., so let’s go with 40 professors. If 5 percent are actively hostile to religion, then the average student will encounter 2 such professors over their undergraduate career.  ↩
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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    andrewymoon commented on February 5, 2013 Reply

    I am a philosophy professor at Kansas State University.

    1) One of the BIGGEST things that Christian students should do is to simply be good students. I have been discouraged by students who are openly Christian in discussion from time to time, but then are late to class, don’t seem to put much effort into the class, put forth a bad attitude, and so on. More important than a Christian student being able to outdebate a professor or fellow student on a topic is that she be loving, respectful, hard working, and thoughtful. That will impress nonChristian professors more. (Another way to put it: it would be hard for those antiChristian professors to retain their hostility if Christian students were the ones who expressed the most genuine curiosity, worked the hardest on the projects/papers, contributed thoughtful points to discussion, and so on.)

    2) As is consistent with your findings, I think that most professors just want students to learn their subject well, whether it’s philosophy, anthropology, biology, or whatever. Really, as teachers, we just get excited about students who care about learning and put in good work.

      alexo commented on September 19, 2013 Reply

      totally disagree no matter how good of a student you are the professors will not change their attitude towards religion especially Christianity. These professors randomly attacking Christianity with students doing nothing to warrant it.

    Andy Walsh commented on February 5, 2013 Reply

    I think the response needs to be appropriate to the nature of the hostility. Does the professor offer disparaging commentary on Christians in general, possibly looking to get a rise out of Christian students? If so, it might be wise to hold one’s tongue and not rise to the bait. Trolling and its milder cousins aren’t just for Internet fora.

    Is the professor directing comments towards particular students in the class? In that case, perhaps a conversation during office hours might be helpful. This should be approached with humility; I’d recommend being prepared to ask questions – sincerely, not as accusations. Is there something the professor is trying to teach? Is the behavior in response to something specific said or done by the student, or a general reaction to those who believe in religion or Christianity? It may even be worth asking something along the lines of whether the professor feels that a Christian can be successful in his or her class.

    Jesse Erickson commented on February 5, 2013 Reply

    There is more than one way to take down a building. One is with a wrecking ball (attacking the teacher), another is an earthquake. This can be done especially well if you have a class in which there is an abundance of group discussion. Be a good student, defend the truth if it directly comes up, but don’t be “that” student. Talk with the classmates and try and influence them. That way you’re countering what the teacher is saying without creating drama, as it were.

    JTG commented on February 6, 2013 Reply

    I agree with everything that’s been said so far. Here’s some more advice:

    1) Be the best student you can. Your job is to LEARN. You don’t need to believe something to learn it. Whether it’s calculus or Kant, know the subject matter.

    2) Realize that your professor has thought about the subject matter a lot longer than you have. Better to ask questions than to argue.

    3) Try to discern is the professor is really being anti-Christian or just trying to start a debate. Some professors will intentionally take positions that go against most students in the class. They’ll switch positions. They’ll say bombastic things. They’re doing it as part of their pedagogy (i.e., it’s how they’re trying to educate their students).

    4) Ask yourself, “If I had a professor who was saying the opposite belief, would I find it problematic?” If not, why not? For example, let’s say that a professor said something like, “Personally, I think believing in God is silly.” Would you be ok with “Personally, I think not believing in God is silly.” In this case, the professor may be trying to let you know what her beliefs are so that you can have a better understanding of her assumptions coming into the discussion.

    5) Religion is unlike gender, race, or other traits because it is more than who you are — it’s also a set of beliefs. As a result, it’s more open to debate, attack, discussion, and questioning. I just happened to see a post on FB from an atheist friend of mine. “If you can love the sinner but hate the sin, I can love the believer but hate the beliefs.” While I think both statements are problematic, it makes the point that in some subjects, thinking about religion–and Christianity in particular–is not only possible, it’s necessary.

    6) Feel free to ask for the evidence without needing to provide evidence yourself. If a professor makes a statement that you disagree with, ask them why the statement is true. Ask politely (after class, in office hours, or via email would be best). In some cases, there may be libraries full of material (e.g., evidence for evolution) and in other cases, there is very little if any (e.g., homosexuality is literally genetic). Some statements may be well-founded. Others may be off the cuff belief statements with little facts to back them up.

    7) Finally, if you have done your best to do your job as a student, but you feel bullied, then consider reporting the professor to your office for handling discrimination. This is going to be the rare, rare case. Only consider it if you’ve tried everything else I and the other commentators have listed. You’ve tried to understand. You know the material. And yet, bigoted statements with no pedagogical value are still being said at your expense. If you’re actually being harmed — either through unfair grading or you want to avoid class because it’s demeaning — then start documenting what is being said. Take notes. Ask for clarification in writing. For example, if you heard a prof say, “Fundamentalists like you are idiots” (I can’t imagine someone saying this, but I’m sure somewhere someone has), email him and say something like, “Today in class, I thought I heard you say, ‘Fundamentalists like you are idiots’. Did I hear that right? What did you mean by that?” If you think you have a long paper trail, then show it to someone you trust. Your IV leader would be one. But I would run it by another prof in another department. I would recommend someone who is not a Christian or does not share your same politics — You need some objective advice from a professional.

    But overall, this is going to be rare. And even the couple of profs you have that are problematic are likely professionals who are good at what they do. Be humble and realize that sitting through a bad class isn’t the worst persecution in the Christian life.

      MjO commented on February 20, 2019 Reply

      As a student facing a friendly and funny literature professor, this advice is very meaningful and useful. The professor makes jokes and directly refutes and diminishes The Bible by assigning passages to read – of course the somewhat controversial verses relating to the husband being the head of the wife, how women should have no authority and be silent in church, and makes the argument that everything Paul says in his books of the New Testament are his opinion and have no relation to Christ or the Christian faith. There are very few openings in the discussions to ask questions or try to give context to certain passages. So patience is tested as well as “facts” and history of the Bible.

      The difficulty is that he approaches the class with a light-hearted approach, so an attempt to question the professor, either in or out of class, is met as a “killed vibe.” This list, along with the guidance of a local campus minister has aided in getting through this class. Ultimately, this is a refining experience, and meeting someone with an opposing opinion helps to give insight into my own faith, things I can learn and better understand about my own walk in faith.

      This comment in general is just a healthy reassurance in this situation, and a little blessing in my search for help. Thank you!

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on February 7, 2013 Reply

    Thank-you to a faculty friend who shared by email:

    “Tom, There’s one way to relate to non-Christian faculty that’s unlikely to help: a belligerent god-hates-you approach. A few Christians are skilled at debating and that’s good until rancor results. If a class is discussing a topic and the teacher makes an anti-christian remark, with little reason or evidence, an appropriate response from a Christian student is a quiet question: “How did you come to that conclusion?” I don’t like making a class into a bitter war zone. Perhaps the best way to disarm opposing faculty is to find ways to make friends with them outside the classroom. Or stay after class, and ask a few questions in a winsome way.”

    In a separate email, the faculty shared a quote from Henri Nouwen on “Dressed in Gentleness.” I do not know if this was also intended to address the question, but it is no doubt applicable.

    “Once in a while we meet a gentle person. Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu.

    Gentle is the one who does “not break the crushed reed, or snuff the faltering wick” (Matthew 12:20). Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something. A gentle person treads lightly, listens carefully, looks tenderly, and touches with reverence. A gentle person knows that true growth requires nurture, not force. Let’s dress ourselves with gentleness. In our tough and often unbending world our gentleness can be a vivid reminder of the presence of God among us.”

    mhick255 commented on February 7, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, everyone. These are great suggestions. My advice for the student mirrored many of yours:
    1) Be the best student you can possibly be.
    2) Pick your battles with regard to disagreement. It’s much better to ask good, solid questions than to try to defend your own positions. Remember: the professor has been thinking about these issues for much, much longer than you have.
    3) Remain calm and respectful at all times.

    I would also say that your response will likely be different depending on your relationship with the professor. In my encounter with the linguistics professor, for example, he was teaching an elective class (far below his “pay grade”) that didn’t affect my major very much. His disdain for Christianity flowed out of his disdain for *everything*, including the class he was teaching. He gave us a ridiculous amount of “group discussion” time, but his remarks triggered a lot of good conversations between myself and two other students, a progressive Catholic and an atheist, with whom I shared several common interests. I didn’t get too worked about the professor’s comments, though I did write my final paper for the class on C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra.

    The English professor, however, not only taught in my major, but also taught one of the subjects (20th century poetry) that I was most interested in. My relationship with her was much more complex. She and I had several in-class discussions about the post-conversion poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, because I felt her judgments about their poetry was overly influenced by her feelings about their religious beliefs. As I go to know her (I ended up taking a second class from her), I learned that her negative feelings about Christianity were rooted in her difficult relationship with her mother. I came to have pity for her as much as anything.

    Interestingly, neither of these professors took their teaching duties very seriously. The linguistics prof stop holding class about halfway through the semester, and you could predict your grade from the literature prof by where the assignment fell in the semester. (Mid-semester papers were a B+. End-of-semester papers were an A-.)

    David K. Naugle commented on February 7, 2013 Reply

    I don’t think I have anything to add to the excellent advice already provide. Michael has provided a fine summary:

    1) Be the best student you can possibly be.
    2) Pick your battles with regard to disagreement. It’s much better to ask good, solid questions than to try to defend your own positions. Remember: the professor has been thinking about these issues for much, much longer than you have.
    3) Remain calm and respectful at all times.

    Do this, and leave the results to the Lord.

    David Naugle

    jondaley commented on February 8, 2013 Reply

    One problem with the “be the best student” approach is that if the subject content is objectionable, should we really take part in that at all?

    When talking with a friend/professor at a Christian liberal arts college about a student that was having trouble with her psychology class due to the content. The professor had two answers: 1. she thought the student was too sheltered and it was a good thing to be exposed to the lewd content; 2. psychology students at secular colleges were studying this, so the Christian colleges should too. She thought that all people needed to read Freud, et al to understand our culture. Given that her husband and I haven’t ever read of any of it, I suppose I can’t comment on whether I am “missing out” by not reading it, but I suspect it isn’t really necessary.

      Rachel commented on February 8, 2013 Reply

      I wonder if the conflict for your friend and her student has to do with different ideas about education… if the student (who has chosen to attend a Christian college, after all) expects classes to help FORM him or her into the image of Christ, while the professor expects her class to INFORM students about the world. It can be hard for students who are (maybe for the first time) encountering distasteful ideas in the academy to realize that they can understand an idea without believing it is either true or acceptable. “So-and-so says this is the case, but he is wrong for these reasons” and “This is a truth about the world, but that’s not how the world is meant to be!” are both healthy, intellectually mature ways that students can deal with topics and subjects they find personally unsettling.

      As a teacher, I sympathize with the struggle that your friend’s student is facing, but I would hesitate to say that Christians should categorically avoid “lewd” material – things that make us morally or aesthetically uncomfortable. If we shelter ourselves entirely from the intellectual and artistic trends that have shaped the world we live in today, we may not be “missing out” personally, but we are destroying our ability to relate to those in our society who *have* been formed by such ideas and images. We cannot love our neighbors well by cultivating ignorance of everything they do and say and believe.

      Our world is not always clean and pretty and safe; there’s slime and ugliness and brutality to it, too. We can try to hold ourselves apart from all the dirt and grime, or we can ask God for the courage and strength to walk into it as his Son walked into the mess of our lives and worked to redeem it. It means being uncomfortable – and remaining uncomfortable. It means learning to stick so close to God that the slime can’t stick to you. And while maybe not all of us are called to do that with the works of Freud, that work of redemption through incarnation belongs in one guise or another to all of us who are called to be the body of Christ in the world.

    John Hundley commented on February 8, 2013 Reply

    Hey guys! I wrote something a while back about the intersection of religion and academia. It deals with the underlying perspectives, such as secularism, modernism and metamodernism–perspectives from which many professors teach, however unconsciously. I know it isn’t directly answering this particular post, but it may be a helpful analysis of the prominant perspectives.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on February 11, 2013 Reply

    A graduate student with a different perspective on the question sent me the following and asked me to post it anonymously. ~ Mike

    Every university should have a policy or institutional commitment to diversity. Religion is one of the cultural variables that are protected. Though it is true (as the one of the previous comments indicate that religion is usually perceived and treated as a different cultural variable than say race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and affiliation are equally protected. Thus if a professor is making statements that are overtly stereotypical or disrespectful, then it constitutes as a form of bias and discrimination. I would highly recommend reporting these incidences. They can be anonymous and no actions need to be taken. Many universities have a Bias Response Team that you can report these types of incidences. Reporting is very important as many academic institutions are NOT aware of these type of bias exist and without any students reporting any forms of discrimination/bias, it can be seen as if religious students encounter no bias.

    Another thing to be aware is that the ideals of higher learning is to promote diverse viewpoints. Scientific process is hindered if there is a monoculture in academia (what you find usually is a very liberal and secular viewpoint). Some fields are recognizing how detrimental this is (see attached paper on political discrimination in social psychology). So in response to all the other comments, another step to take is action. Of course there are times we need to turn the other cheek, but Christ also calls us to stand for our people (e.g. Daniel, Esther, etc).

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