Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Should Seminaries Give Atheists Scholarships?

It a strange thing to be sure that in this day of such rampant liberalism such a question is even given a moments ponder – should seminaries subsidize the cost of theological education of avowed atheists? It is an even stranger thing that such things happen – and they do happen.

The repercussions are of course that some hopeful Christians entering seminary are awarded less or even no scholarship monies. This could even lead a possible seminarian to conclude that they are not financially able to attend seminary.

There seem to me a few reasons one might argue for permitting seminaries the possibility in awarding atheists scholarships: 1) a call to diversity, 2) a hope of conversion and 3) a commitment to meritorious awarding.

A Call to Diversity

On one hand, one reason seminaries may justify funding atheists is in the desire to diversify the view and theological perspectives of their students. Brown v. Board of Education fell heavily on the reasoning that there was a psychological and sociological benefit to diversity itself. Theological schools could crassly want diversity for diversity’s sake, or a more refined belief that a plethora of perspectives lead ultimately to better theology. Even the Vatican Councils have a designated ‘devil’s advocate’ that is to play against the prevailing arguments of the day in an attempt to ensure that every conceivable viewpoint is considered.

On the other hand, what theological diversity is needed in the seminary? A denominationally aligned seminary already has an orthodoxy and theological perspective. Certainly, if anything is orthodox in Christian doctrine it is the belief that God exists. Theological education presupposes God’s existence; to ‘do’ theology is already to ‘speak of God.’ So what benefit would it be to have the antithetical perspective introduced in theological classrooms? Further, what assurance would there be that such a ‘token’ atheist would share his or her radically divergent perspective?

I say, there is need for theological diversity in seminaries. A dialogue between the Church, faculty and staff is needed to decide to what degree such diversity should be welcomed; nevertheless, atheists can never properly constitute a ‘theological perspective.’ They are quite literarily ‘a-theist’ in name: they are indifferent to God. Their speech about God is in silence, muted. Thus they can give no proper perspective of God. Their diversity would be a false one.

A Hope for Conversion

On one hand, some might argue that funding an atheist’s theological education could lead them to convert to Christianity. By being steeped in a Christian community, immersed in the history of Christianity and introduced to the Word an atheist would be more likely to be converted to the faith and thus it would be worthwhile to financially support an atheist in attending seminary.

On the other hand, seminary is not the place to convert atheists. Its mission is to primarily train the ministerial leadership of the Church. The monies the seminaries are allocated by patrons are earmarked for this mission, not for conversion and evangelism. Further, the seminary - though obviously a Christian environment - is not necessarily the most effective place to instruct someone on why and how to be a Christian. Thus, it would be both spiritually ineffective and financially improper to use the seminary for such ends.

I say, the seminary is part of the Church and has the same desire to see people turn to the belief in Christ; however it functions different than churches, focusing more on supporting vocations than fostering conversions. This should not be read as an attempt to bar atheists from seminaries who may want to use the institution as an avenue for faith, but rather as a proscription in allocating funds to such individuals for such projects.

A Commitment to Meritorious Awarding

On one hand it may be said that as seminaries are graduate institutions they should reward funding primarily – or perhaps solely – on merit; be it academic, leadership, or relevant experience. Academically, graduate schools must take into account the merit of students entering programs and with financial incentives attract students whom can continue to keep or raise the standard of academic excellence of the school. This also is the case for other meritorious considerations such as past careers and leadership experience. The fact that someone is an atheist need not impinge upon such considerations. Generally, it is the overall strength of the applicant rather than theological convictions that can best be quantified and objectified and thus judged. This both expedites the process while also offering the most reliably way to evaluate students. The financial awarding of scholarship by seminaries need not be different from other graduate schools that primarily if not simply consider the merit of the student while ignoring other such subjective qualities such having such and such political party affiliations or having or not having faith.

On the other hand, seminaries are more than mere graduate schools. It is more an accident than the essence of a seminary. And so, academic excellence, leadership ability and the like are a distant secondary to the most important commitment in the financial determination for seminaries: does the candidate have a viable vocation in leading the Church? Obviously, an atheist cannot answer in the affirmative. Though meritorious considerations should be made to those candidates who can answer positively it must be the first qualification that drives the second. The seminary is not a religious studies department - it is a religious studies department and much more. The seminary should care more about the sanctification of their candidates than their qualifications.

I say that seminaries are not equivalent to other graduate schools; they are qualitatively different, and in following so should the students be qualitatively different. Students that are funded by seminaries should be chosen by qualities that reflect their Christian life; atheists that do no have such a life cannot reflect such qualities.

It seems that though we should not bar atheists from seminaries such institutions should not fund them either. As an atheist who received – and accepted - a full-tuition scholarship and stipend from my institution it seems that perhaps I am making a hypocritical argument; but I do not believe so. I know that I do not believe the seminary should have offered me a scholarship and I am absolutely certain I should not have received such a generous one; however, my argument rested in the fact that I believe seminaries should not offer atheists scholarship, not if I believed it prudent for atheists to accept scholarships from seminaries.


Anonymous said...

And yet, aren't you an atheist (or at least your blog title suggests you are) and also in seminary? How do you reconcile this?

The Catholic Atheist said...


My last paragraph explicitly addressed this fact.

My concern is not if it is prudent for atheists to accept scholarships from seminaries, but if, properly, seminaries should ever offer atheists scholarhsips.

My post argues that it is inauthentic to the mission of seminaries to financially support avowed atheists, whatever the reasoning. I, as an atheist need not feel beholden to such a stance (even if I am the one arguing for it).

Jimmy Cooper said...

Jason, if you feel that guilty about it, at least let me take $5 from you in our poker game tonight.

-Matt- said...

From a theist's perspective, God leads all kinds of people to seminary--some that should be there and some that should not, some that are Christian and some that are not. The fact that churches and seminaries exist is a witness to atheists. The fact that you were attracted to a seminary, and not some other podunk institution, is the leading of the Spirit. You were not the sole entity making the decision to come to Garrett. You were just one player in the field of many. If you're an atheist, then who cares where you go, or why you go for that matter?

This is a non-factor for me. If, by you getting a scholarship, you edged out a possible future pastor, then you were not the one who allowed that. All those years of Catholic theology are still making you feel guilty though...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, and btw... I'm glad you're at Garrett.