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Monday, May 26, 2014

"A Matter of Faith": Fear Factor - 1, Academia - 0

"Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Today we'll learn that evolution has the answer!" In the upcoming film A Matter of Faith, Harry Anderson plays Professor Kaman, a popular biology professor teaching college freshman about the origin and diversity of life through something called science. In other words, he's the villain.
It happens once a year. Waves of college freshmen pour into the lecture halls of introductory courses to fulfill their 'general ed' requirements and get their first taste of university life. Back home, many a worried parent speculates about the potential dangers of releasing their grown-up children into the wild world of academia. With what will they experiment? Sex? Drugs? Majoring in theater? And to what kind of bad influences will they be exposed? Friends with poor study habits? Political liberalism? Campus dining plans?

Now, I don't mean to belittle the ubiquitous and legitimate concern that parents have for their children first entering college and/or moving out on their own. College often is a mishmash of poor decisions and moral bankruptcy—by anyone's standard—that results in a series of life lessons and nostalgic regret for the best and worst of times. Bad behavior aside, most parents (religious or not) would also prefer to see their children grow in the worldview in which they were raised, rather than abandon it for what they learned at school. Entrusting one's higher education to professors with far more academic freedom than public school teachers, therefore, is a trial of trust for any parent hoping to confirm they have 'raised their children right'.

For many families, choosing a Christian college can mitigate these concerns. The pressure to "let go of one's moral conscious" is minimized, and every professor ascribes to a statement of faith, made public by the university. While students are still exposed to all sorts of non-Christian paradigms, it is done by academics who have reasoned through the paradigms and come out the other side with faith intact. This can be a comfortable transition for students of faith into a world where critical thinking and intellectual independence are in high demand.

So the otherwise anxious parent might think, "It's a Christian college; what could my child possibly encounter that would challenge his/her faith?"

Well, for Answers in Genesis, choosing a Christian college is only the first step. Some time ago, I wrote a 3-part review of Already Compromised by Ken Ham and Greg Hall, a book that warned parents which colleges were staffed by 'evolution-friendly' faculty that rejected a young-Earth, creation science, and overly literal readings of Genesis. (In fact, some biblical professors in the sample group even rejected that Moses alone wrote the Pentateuch!) Three years later, with the upcoming theatrical release of A Matter of Faith, it appears the YEC's fear tactic for worried parents has changed very little:

In short, a father is surprised to learn that in a university biology class, his daughter is being taught the the most elegant and commonly accepted explanation for the origin and diversity of life on this planet. Who would have known? In response, a man shocked to find that real science conflicts with his oversimplified faith decides to do his own homework and, armed with strawman objections to an established scientific theory, seeks to defeat the 'already compromised' biology professor on his own turf. We'll have to wait until September 26 to find out who wins, but my money is on the guy without the Ph.D. in biology. If I'm right, the moral of the story will be that with a few hours in his personal library, any concerned father can discover what faithless academics failed to learn through 6+ years of graduate school.

So how will this story benefit Christians with children in college/high school? Does it teach them intellectual independence and critical thinking? I want to echo here the sentiments raised by John Dunne (author of the brilliant Esther and Her Elusive God) in his review of the trailer earlier this month. John writes:

"The problem that I have... is the silly appropriation of the same trope: Christians versus educators. The attitude is Christians contra mundum. Christians versus the philosophers and Christians versus the scientists. If debates are what you want, watch a real debate. Don’t watch a scripted exchange where Christians defeat fictional foes. There is nothing about this trope that is helpful; Christians should be ashamed of the anti-intellectualism on display."

As a Christian research scientist hoping to find a permanent position in academia one day, the fact that Answers in Genesis and the filmmaker are encouraging future students to immunize themselves against mainstream science is troubling to me. This sort of attitude, once hardened in the minds of zealous young Christians, is extremely difficult to crack, and it tends to leave a long-lasting imprint on the brain. Some will struggle for years trying to recover from the young-Earth molding; others will rather leave the faith altogether. In either case, the detrimental impact of Answers in Genesis on our college generations will only continue to grow so long as they're willing to resort to anti-intellectual fear tactics to preserve a failed paradigm.

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