• Justin McBrayer

God is Not Dead, but in Conservative Christian Colleges, Philosophy Is

The 2014 film God’s Not Dead captured the attention of conservative Christian circles around the country. It features a secular philosophy teacher, Professor Radisson, who belittles a Christian student in his class for standing up for his theistic beliefs. The movie ends with the professor having his own come-to-Jesus moment in a less than subtle vindication of the Christian worldview. The persecution complex theme has proven so popular that it has spawned no less than three sequels: God’s Not Dead 4 is in the works.

Despite the film’s hyperbole—few if any professor would act as Professor Radisson does—it raises an interesting point. Students at many of the politically conservative Christian colleges in our country will never be called on to engage in a philosophical defense of their faith of the sort portrayed in the movie. And that’s not because conservative Christian colleges don’t employ hacks like the fictitious Professor Radisson. It’s because these colleges don’t train students in philosophy, period.

Philosophy is the discipline dedicated to thinking carefully about non-scientific issues that are central to the human life. In contemporary Christian lingo, philosophy is about critically examining one’s worldview. Historically, philosophy was central to higher education. In recognition of that fact, academics are awarded with a PhD, which stands for “Doctor of Philosophy” regardless of the field of expertise. Despite this, many Christian colleges operate in a philosophical vacuum.

In fact, there appears to be an inverse correlation between a Christian college’s political bent and the presence of philosophy on campus. The more conservative the college, the less likely it is that the college offers majors, minors, or even courses in philosophy.

(I say 'appears' because it's a big question whether this correlation holds and a genuine scientific study would have to be done to confirm it. But even a brief look at the evidence strongly suggests that the correlation holds.)

Here are some examples. In recent years, Cedarville University, a Baptist college in Ohio, terminated its philosophy major. Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, hasn’t a single full-time philosopher in the College of Arts & Sciences. Union University is an Evangelical college in Tennessee that delivers a philosophy major but has only one philosopher on staff. Ohio Christian University has a mere three courses in philosophy and no faculty with a graduate degree in the field.

If you want to major in Philosophy, don’t bother with Bob Jones University or Lee University. And you can’t even take enough classes to minor in philosophy at Bryan College (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame), Harding University, or Oral Roberts University. Colorado Christian University—so conservative that it recently sued the Federal government over Obamacare—offers only a single course in philosophy. How are its students to think carefully about social justice without the help of philosophy?

The trend accelerated in 2020. Without declaring a financial emergency, Southwest Baptist University decided to terminate its philosophy program and fire its philosophy teachers. And Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University eliminated the entire philosophy department in one fell swoop.

There are certainly outliers to this pattern. For example, both BIOLA University and Hillsdale College are conservative but have respectably-sized philosophy programs. Baylor University’s Philosophy Department is flourishing and its students successful. But the overall trend is clear: conservative Christian schools do not welcome philosophy on campus.

But why? Why would a college--especially a Christian one--eliminate the academic study of worldviews?

It’s not that these schools think that worldviews are unimportant and that a college education should be purely vocational or something like that. On the contrary, that’s exactly why these schools exist in the first place! They think that Christian commitments (and often political ones) are important and that students should have an accurate philosophical picture of the world. That’s the whole point of attending a uniquely Christian college. By their own admission, philosophical commitments are important. Ideas have consequences. So that can't be the explanation.

Here are two cynical explanations for the trend. First, perhaps the leaders of these colleges don’t think that Christianity is true or defensible (and hence don’t want students and academics snooping about). Second, perhaps the administrations don’t think that the careful thinking engendered by philosophy can uncover the truth. The former is self-refuting—if you’re in business as a Christian college, one hopes that you are genuinely committed to the Christian faith. The latter option is self-undermining—if you don’t think that our intellectual abilities can move us closer to the truth about the world, what is the point of an education?

Conservative Christians across the country need to address this trend. The producers of God's Not Dead are right: we shouldn’t send our children to secular colleges to sit in Professor Radisson’s class. No one, Christian or not, would want his child intellectually bullied in that way. But neither should we send out children to Christian colleges where careful thinking about one’s worldview is deliberately ignored. Doing so would only ensure that they aren’t in a good position to defend their faiths when called to do so.

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© 2020 by Anna McBrayer