Here we talk with a secular community member of Baylor University.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Looking at the landscape of the secular university life at Baylor University, what is the secular/religious status of Baylor University – its foundation and founding culture as a university, and its development over time into the present?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: I must admit that I am ill-equipped to speak about the religious development of student life at Baylor, as I am from a different part of the state and have no relatives who have attended the university. I have, however, spoken with a long-standing professor (who is himself a Baylor alum) about student life during the late 1960s and early 1970s. From what I could gather, the university was much more religiously and culturally conservative during that time, particularly in the treatment of women: female students were required to wear long skirts or dresses (even for physical education classes, and in the Texas heat), a strict curfew was enforced for women living on campus, and the role of women as homemakers was emphasized. My professor recalled how men’s dorms were cleaned by maid services, whereas the women were expected to keep their own living quarters spotless – and experienced consequences for failing to do so. I vaguely recall him mentioning that the expected conduct for unmarried women was different than for married women, but I cannot remember if he went into specifics.
While the nightmarishly oppressive student life my professor detailed has since faded into comparative liberalism and equality, traces of those harshly conservative times still linger. For instance, the university code of conduct prohibits sexual intercourse between two unmarried people for both students and staff (although there did appear to be an unofficial exemption for football players prone to sexual violence), and included “homosexual acts” as misconduct until 2015. Additionally, there is a cultural pressure among the female students of Baylor to marry young. A negative but popular stereotype of female students is that most are “seeking an MRS degree” – additionally, the desires of many young women manifested in the “ring by spring” culture often leads to extra stress and turmoil. I will never forget speaking with my Catholic RA my freshman year as she vented to me about the stresses of finding a responsible man in college; while her studies and schoolwork were important to her, it didn’t appear to weigh as heavily on her as watching her crush sleep around and fretting over whether God would present her with a soulmate soon. Later that year, some of the RAs held a slumber party-like get-together in the basement where they discussed marriage, the importance of finding a godly man, how to keep your eyes open for your soulmate, and the importance of not giving up.
It occurred to me then that something was not right with this picture. College is supposed to be a journey of discovery and character-building, where you learn to grapple with the responsibilities of adulthood and begin truly coming into your own. However, for an entire population of women on campus, self-betterment seems to involve the addition of a man.
Baylor may be more inclusive and tolerant than it once was, but the remnants of old religious conventions are far from gone, and it affects most facets of student life for those groups not traditionally favored by religion – from every Title IX poster reminding women of the double standard for chastity from which the only escape is a lack of consent, to the continued rejection of the campus LGBT club (but casual approval from Student Activities for a poster from an alt-right group attempting – and failing – to insult the pride flag with the communist hammer and sickle), to the religious mantra engraved into the side of the campus science building (“By Him all things are made”), which claims the rights to entire fields of research – regardless of the faiths or lack thereof of those who breathe life into their disciplines – for a deity which has nothing at all to do with science.
As far as the university-endorsed stances are concerned, the college adopts a liberal, academic interpretation of the Bible – including a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, history-oriented explanations of Old Testament Law, and a facts-based approach toward the resurrection. The university does not endorse creationism nor intelligent design. However, many students and professors are either creationists or supporters of intelligent design, and they are left to their own as long as they do not claim to speak on behalf of the university. This leads to a bizarre dynamic wherein many students graduate from Baylor with a science degree and still reject common descent.
Jacobsen: Who are the major groups and figures of controversy over time regarding secular matters on the campuses?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: While Baylor is a conservative Baptist university, students from all walks of life are in attendance. There are few conflicts between secular and religious matters, as the population of secular students is small and willing to play by the university’s rules. We knew what we were getting into when we came here, and, simply put, we do not want to be expelled. While Baylor can improve by allowing the voices of secular students to be heard (it’s difficult to have a place welcoming of open discourse regarding faith if we’re not allowed to discuss the lack of it), there are no battles between secular and Christian causes. However, Baylor does face a constant, albeit much different problem: fundamentalism.
Two men from Baylor’s engineering department stand out in particular to me: Walter L Bradley (now retired) and Robert J Marks II, who are both prominent figures in the intelligent design community. Because Baylor’s official stance is in support of the theory of evolution and common descent (in concordance with the university biology department), the administration is extremely careful about ensuring that they cannot be misconstrued as holding a contrary position. Their rigidity is necessary; Baylor is a research-oriented university and proud of it. I’ve noticed that some of their motivation seems to be in a “Baptists/Christians can do science, too” spirit, as most of the religious classmates I’ve experienced in STEM take their faith and identity rather seriously, and have expressed feeling uncomfortable or occasionally offended when working with secular students outside of Baylor (it is common procedure for students in STEM to visit other universities for summer internships, research experiences for undergraduates (REU), travel to conferences, etc.). Other religious students insist that they are discovering the beauty of how God works, etc. Whatever the motivation, I wholeheartedly support the university’s devotion to excelling in scientific research (with America lagging behind in STEM graduates, we need everyone we can get!). As a part of this devotion, the university understands the damage an endorsement of creationism or intelligent design will cause. The biology and medical programs in particular are Baylor’s bread and butter, so endorsing pseudoscience would destroy the university’s credibility and livelihood.
I encountered the perfect physical manifestation of Baylor’s Christian mission and faith-positive environment mixing with its scientific literacy during my honors college freshman camp. We were all piled into Bennett Auditorium, listening as a key figure within the English department encouraged us on our journeys in spiritual growth. She asked that we produce examples of “distractions from God” we may encounter during our college experience. The first student to answer responded with a quick, confident proclamation of, “Evolution!”
I watched as the professor faltered. She clearly did not want to correct the student and risk a negative reaction, but she could not endorse the position, either. After thinking on her feet, she then gently responded, “Scientism and materialism are problems, yes…” before continuing on to the next person.
I believe that, in that moment, that woman had become Baylor University incarnate.
In that same gentle spirit, the university required that Marks alter the website he created to promote intelligent design using Baylor’s servers as a host, and which insinuated university endorsement. They also revoked grant money after discovering that Marks was using it to fund his work with Discovery Institute fellow William A. Dembski, which appeared to support intelligent design. Many would consider a misuse of funds and jeopardizing the university’s academic standing a serious offense, but Baylor only politely removed themselves from the equation by ceasing financial support and asking that Marks insert a disclaimer on his website.
In response, Dr. Marks was interviewed in the propaganda film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” and was touted as an example of how academic freedom is under attack. He now runs the campus apologetics club, Oso Logos (which some SSA members attend regularly for the sake of debate and communication) and is a bit of a celebrity to both clubs, albeit with opposite connotations.
Walter Bradley, though now retired, was a colleague of Marks who co-authored “The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories.” Bradley had his work cited and was interviewed by Lee Strobel in “The Case for Faith.” In the interview, he is presented as an “origin of life expert,” though, to my knowledge, Bradley only formally studied engineering and does not have a strong background in biochemistry. Like Marks, Bradley taught in the engineering department. He was such a strong advocate for the Discovery Institute that they named a center after him.
However, these men are not Baylor’s closest brush with endorsing intelligent design. That would be William A. Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, who, in 1999, managed to become paid staff at Baylor thanks to his friendship with Robert B. Sloan, then-president of the university. Sloan hired him without departmental consultation, and without the knowledge of the vast majority of Baylor’s staff. Dembski founded the Polanyi Center, which was intended for research in intelligent design. When the website for the center went live, controversy immediately followed. Baylor staff protested the center’s existence, and boycotted Dembski’s efforts to establish credibility. Baylor’s faculty senate voted 27-2 to dissolve the center. President Sloan refused until an outside committee suggested repurposing the center and integrating it into the already-existing Institute for Faith and Learning, whereupon he conceded. Dembski remained on-staff until 2005.
Baylor university strikes a delicate balance between being just secular enough to cultivate a respectable research environment and just pious enough to encourage Christian faith. When key players such as those mentioned above attempt to disrupt that balance by pulling the university into fundamentalism, the staff are forced to restore the balance without appearing to contradict their Christian message.
It is actually quite impressive.
Jacobsen: If we take into account the culture surrounding Baylor University, what is it?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: The culture within the university and the culture around the university are two very different subjects.
Baylor is a large, research-oriented private school with an acceptance rate of roughly 39%. The tuition alone is nearly $43,000 a year. The student population is primarily white, and the school is known for its law and medical programs. In contrast, Waco high school has a total minority enrollment of 90%, with 71% of the students being economically disadvantaged. Test scores are far below average. The school is underfunded, uncared for, and eclipsed by the shadow of Waco’s pride and joy, Baylor University. The university is physically located in a slum just outside of Bellmead, which has one of the highest crime rates in America.
Baylor is a fantastic university for those who can afford it, or for those who are lucky enough to have credit worthy family members who can co-sign a loan, or for those who go to a school which prepares them enough to do well on standardized testing and earn a scholarship. More often than not, those in closest physical proximity to the university are those least able to attend. To the university’s credit, they are encouraging of locals to apply, and they have great volunteer groups and missionary groups who assist Waco schools and the greater Waco area. However, the imbalance persists.
Largely, the culture within Baylor is centered around student activity groups, Christianity, mission groups, classes, and marriage, whereas the culture around the university seems to be based on scraping enough together to get by.
Aside from the poverty issue, Waco is best known for David Koresh and Chip and Joanna Gaines. Our town also features a museum where you may pay to look at corporate advertisements.
Jacobsen: What have been some noteworthy and controversial public statements, events, and groups in Baylor University and its surrounding community?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: Baylor recently had a nationally-headlining rape scandal with its football program. The highest figure was 52 rapes by 31 players between 2011 and 2014, but I am not sure those numbers were ever confirmed. Baylor has apparently made steps to improve. But many students cannot help but question their safety — for instance, 3 rapes were reported at South Russell hall (an on-campus dorm) a semester ago, and neither students nor parents of hall residents were notified. Instead, everyone learned about it through the student newspaper.
While Baylor has denied a charter to the campus LGBT club, it has granted recently a charter to a chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom, who have already started mischief by insulting the LGBT community with asinine fliers which equate minority sexualities with communism, and by inviting Matt Walsh to slander the LGBT community on campus.
Jacobsen: What have been some notable successes for the secular movements and communities on the Baylor University campus and in the surrounding area? How can secular communities and individuals build on them?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: Simply put, there are not really any secular communities in the Waco area. The nearest groups are in Austin and Dallas, which are both 100 miles away. As far as I know, we’re it. Because of this, our group is open to (and has attracted) non-students who are looking for a sense of community, or to become more involved in secular activism. As for our successes, we have managed to attract curious religious students, and have had fruitful conversations with many students who disagree with us. The best way to build on our community is to humanize atheism with kindness and compassion in order to undo the stigma and stereotypes religion so often saddles us with.
Jacobsen: How should young people become more deeply involved in the secular movements around the United States on the campuses? What are some cautionary notes for them?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: If you are a student looking to get involved with secular activism on campus, joining your campus chapter of the Secular Student Alliance (or an atheist/agnostic/nontheistic group) is a fantastic first step. Coming from the president of a chapter with less than 10 members, believe me when I say that you can still do fantastic things with a small group! Find nonreligious charities or organizations to volunteer with in your community to give positive, productive atheistic representation. Though the negative stereotypes hanging over us were not created by our own actions and shouldn’t exist to begin with, they won’t go away until we actively reach out and break them. If you live in an area with atheist groups outside of campus, I would highly suggest joining at least one additional group as well; you’ll likely be met with a mixture of people from all walks of life, many of whom may be helpful in your journey as a secular activist.
If your campus does not have a nonreligious club, consider establishing your own chapter of the Secular Student Alliance — even if your university is religious. Starting a chapter is easy (just go to their website!), and you can be operating your own underground nonreligious club with the backing, resources, and support of a national organization within a few weeks. Speaking from experience, our campus organizers have been fantastic at helping us navigate the waters of recruitment and establishing a presence despite not being university chartered, and residing on a campus where our identity carries a heavy stigma. Even if you’re in a situation where you have to meet off campus and be secretive (our chapter has been there and done that), doing so is better than holding in your thoughts, emotions, and desires, and hoping that things will eventually get better. Establishing a chapter will, at the very least, give you a sense of community as you meet others in your same situation, and provide you with the peace of mind knowing that you put forth effort to make your environment a better place.
Utilize caution when publicly identifying with your group. Only post names or pictures of members with the permission of everyone involved. This is especially important if some members in your group are not out to family as nonreligious, or if you’re on a religious campus, where your standing with professors and friends is influenced by the tacit assumption that you are also religious. Do not do anything that would jeopardize your education.
Jacobsen: What can build bridges between secular and religious groups?
Secular Community Member at Baylor University: Reach out to religious groups on campus. Attend one of their meetings, introduce yourselves to their officers and members, and facilitate polite, casual conversation. If they ask questions about your lack of faith, try to answer in a way which is relatable and inspires critical thinking. Generally, we have found that asking questions is more effective than asserting things — the difference between “do you believe faith is an effective way to find truth” and “faith is not rational” may, to us, obviously state the same message. But to someone with whom you are ideologically at odds, they are more open to your ideas if you allow them to walk through the logical process themselves. I would highly suggest practicing before attempting to hold a conversation with a theist, as they may grow confrontational and the discussion has the potential to become high stakes — you are, after all, representing atheists, whom this group likely already has a bad image of. They may be more inclined to reinforce that preconception, so you might have to be careful. The mobile app Atheos is an excellent resource for helping you learn what conversations are worth engaging in, how to keep the discourse from escalating, and how to present your ideas in the most effective manner. Additionally, inquire about your conversation partner’s life and take an interest in them as a person. It goes a long way to humanize atheism, and you just might make a good friend along the way.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, and take care of yourself.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.