Is Academia (Like) a Religion?


Scholars are practitioners of academia. Many people, initially in the West and eventually globally, have had a millennium to imagine the knowledge and research that are data for academia, which is solely the creation of scholars’ studies. It is created for scholars’ analytic purposes by their imaginative acts of comparison and generalization, and transmitted through teacher-student lineages by people who value the pursuit of truth(s). Specialized research produces an evolution of knowledge that impacts and is impacted by society.  For this reason, practitioners, i.e. academics, must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness should constitute their primary expertise, their foremost object of study.  

But scholars in academia can be in it unselfconsciously and therefore not fully see their practice as it is. So I would like to propose a flip:  rigorously interrogate academia to provoke students and faculty alike to contend with the complexity, the ambiguity, and the unwontedness in what we have come to accept as clear and self-evident. The recognition of the strange and enigmatic in things we supposedly know best – nature, our culture, our language, or especially ourselves – induces us to scrutinize them freshly, revise our thinking about them, and reconstruct our knowledge of them for ourselves. Without probing what is native and familiar to us – to see why and how it works as it does – we have difficulty devising the fruitful analogies and suggestive metaphors that disclose the familiar in the foreign. . . . On this model, education . . . is a process of estrangement and appropriation.  

Many scholars do not critically reflect on their subjectivity. As insiders to academic practice, they do not fully recognize the “strange and enigmatic” of what they supposedly know best. This exploration blurs boundaries between “scholar~practitioner” and “objective~subjective,” thereby shifting knowledge about academia in new, creative ways.

As part of this flip, I’ll ask a few questions: is academia (like) a religion? Does it have religious qualities? Are practitioners religious even if they don’t recognize themselves in that way? But first, what is religion? Renowned definitions of this familiar category have been offered by theologians, philosophers, psychologists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political theorists:

These definitions collectively show that people identify religion very differently. The lack of consensus can be challenging, whereas the classification approach proposed by Ninian Smart, a founding father of the field of Religious Studies, provides an alternative way to locate “religion” that works well to organize this discussion. He proposed seven dimensions that broaden the category to include a range of worldviews not typically labelled as “religion.” For example, the Grateful Dead, Carolina Panthers, Bernie-ism, and Trumpism could make the cut. The dimensions including the following:  

Ritual and Practical: public and private practices and patterns of behavior such as worship, meditation, conversion, initiation, pilgrimage, singing, feasting and fasting

Ethical and Legal: revealed and authored rules, laws, precepts about human behavior such as those that regulate the lives of lay people, monastic communities, and society

Mythic and Narrative: sacred stories and histories, revealed and authored, written and oral traditions,  true literally or symbolically, such as cosmogonies, hagiographies, tales of tales of gods, people, saints and demons.

Doctrinal and Philosophical: systematic and intellectual formulations such as statements of belief and faith, analyses of God’s nature, notions of grace

Social and Institutional: community participation and membership, hierarchical and nonhierarchical, people together and in isolation, locally and globally, denominations, study groups, monasteries, state religions, diasporas

Experiential and Emotional: emotionally charged experiences that generate feelings such as ecstasy, love, inner peace, dread, awe; a state of awareness.

Material: sacred objects and spaces; nature, such as land, rivers, mountains; culture, such as buildings, scriptures, sculptures, paintings, jewellery, clothing, foods, body art

Ritual and Practical Dimension

Ritual and Practical: public and private practices and patterns of behavior such as worship, meditation, conversion, initiation, pilgrimage, singing, feasting and fasting

Rituals stabilize social institutions, maintain group ethos, express and resolve social tension, distinguish sacred and profane, preserve social solidarity, and/or create a link between past and present.

Academia is rich in ritual. This isn’t surprising because historically it grew out of the Church. When universities emerged in the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory IX described them as “wisdom’s special workshop.” “The correlation to religion isn’t just symbolic. The historicity of higher education is nested with the rituals of religion.” Both the Church and academia are conservative institutions built on ritual, hierarchy, and authority.

Stabilizing rituals bind academics together through the generations.  Following a successful admissions process, graduate students listen attentively to lectures (some sermon-like) given by professors, intellectual giants who are sometimes regarded as leaders or celebrities.  After finishing a Master’s degree, people take Ph.D. qualifying exams. Upon passing, they become  Ph.D. candidates, a.k.a. ABD (All But Dissertation). Doctoral candidates attend their dissertation defense where supportive and/or unsupportive committee members ask tough questions. Completing that trial, they gather autographs for the signature page. Throughout this time, pilgrimages to conferences reinforce community and support seekers who exchange academic ideas. Gaining funding is another part of the process. One person said, “I use the metaphor of canonization for people who get large grants – it elevates them above the rest of their colleagues and is a mark of distinction that functions as an almost divine approval of their qualities as researchers.” Hierarchy manifests more directly in healthy and dysfunctional advisor-advisee relationships. Former Professor Karen Kelsky explained, “Intense hierarchy characterizes every single academic field regardless of whether the guy is a Marxist or not, or whatever radical bullsh*t he is claiming about himself. The fact is, he holds almost absolute power over his advisees.” “No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track: Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.” For graduates, the commencement ceremony is pomp and circumstance with classical music, medieval attire, stirring speeches, and announcements of names and dissertation titles of degree recipients who are hooded by senior scholars. Ph.D. = Doctor of Philosophy.

Academia is replete with formal and informal rituals that mark people’s rise through ranks that confer increased authority. Pressure to “publish or perish” is acute for non-tenured professors. After being awarded tenure, people advance from assistant to associate to full professor, and to an endowed chair. Becoming department head, dean, provost, chancellor, or president are other esteemed positions. Retiring as emeritus professor is the final stage. Throughout their careers, some people look to mentors as venerable sages, occasionally elevating them to savior status (except if they acted like angry gods during the training-as-initiation process). Teachers’ legacies create links between past and present through course content, research interests, and mentoring styles. Entering academia is an extended, transformative journey that involves sacrifice of time, money, romance, job security, and/or sanity. One person said, “academia requires vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy.” Professors whose ethics stress equity and justice ironically spend their careers jockeying for position in this exclusive, hierarchical environment.

Not everyone in academia stays. Some people go through the harrowing experience of disaffiliation, by force or by choice. During tenure review, a candidate’s research is assessed by colleagues who might determine that the work is subpar. The assistant professor is denied tenure, which is like being relegated to the status of an impure outcaste, cut off from one’s lineage. Excommunication. Others choose to leave, possibly to start a business, join another sector, or raise children. Extricating oneself is a major life overhaul and identity shift.An ex-academic explains this process that mirrors anthropologist Victor Turner’s analysis of rites of passage that have three stages:  separation, liminality, and aggregation. 

For academics considering the world beyond higher education, the situation is akin to looking at a black hole. . . . [This makes] leaving academia awesome in the word’s original sense: enormous and terrifying. Many people consequently try to keep its event horizon in the distance – preferring the familiarity of the world they know to the risk and uncertainty of being drawn into a different career.  I’ve written this book after safely crossing over that metaphorical limit.  I was, in fact, transformed by the process. 

Ex- or post-academic insiders become new people deployed in the outside world.

Ethical and Legal

Ethical and Legal: revealed and authored rules, laws, precepts about human behavior such as those that regulate the lives of lay people, monastic communities, and society

University ethics focus on inclusion because everyone deserves an education that fosters growth and freedom. Social justice is a commitment to “challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any differential distribution of power, resources, and privilege.” Dedication to economic, political, and social equality is expressed through programming, majors, conferences, and certifications. The quest to support each person considers intersectionality, the interdependent identities stemming from race, class, and gender differences that create systems of discrimination and disadvantage. There’s awareness about microaggression, an “everyday exchange that cues a sense of subordination based on any one of a number of social identities, including: race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, nationality, religion, and disability.” Signage affirms these ethics: “DIVERSE, INCLUSIVE, ACCEPTING, WELCOMING, SAFE SPACE FOR EVERYONE.” 

Yet unsafe spaces exist. For instance, sexual harassment is highlighted by #metoophd, #metoofieldwork, and #metooSTEM hashtags. “The sexual predator is merely disguised as a professor,” according to one woman. The website, Academia is Tied in Knots, is dedicated to “visualizing testimonies of sexual harassment in the academy.” In 2018 at New York University, a male student accused his internationally known female professor of sexual harassment, assault, and stalking.  After a Title IX investigation found her responsible for harassment, she was suspended. “Less shocking still was the smear campaign that many of her celebrated colleagues launched against her accuser … which resembles the silencing tactics deployed by the Church of Scientology and other cults. These scholars fail embarrassingly to embrace the radical theories on which their careers and reputations rest.” Even when cases are proven by Title IX investigations, offenders sometimes go unpunished. For instance, a University of California, Santa Barbara professor continued teaching until his retirement despite substantiated claims of sexual harassment that he explained as “cultural misunderstanding.”

Economic disparity also compromises inclusion. In the gig academy, about 75% of  faculty are graduate students and adjuncts who earn near poverty level wages. The University of California at Berkeley Labor Center reported that “a quarter of part-time faculty members are on public assistance, further foreclosing their options and avenues of escape.” The cheap workforce is employed on a part-time, temporary, and/or contingent basis without benefits or job security. “But many of these people persist as adjuncts because they have been trained to believe that this is the only thing they should do with a doctorate.” This inequity is especially pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic: cancelled classes means cancelled paychecks. One instructor said, “In addition to no job security, adjuncts are hardly ever (or maybe never) eligible for unemployment due to the way our contracts are written. We fall through the cracks in every possible way.” Another explains, “It’s depressing and scary. No idea what winter semester will bring. It’s all contingent on enrollment numbers.” An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education described professor burnout, but a reader retorted that it’s “moral injury.” Systemic economic disparity ironically persists at institutions where many leaders support dismantling society’s hierarchies that perpetuate privilege and exclusion. The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission addresses this issue that plagues academia.

Another problem is academic fraud. For example, professors who sought to expose what they see as the absurdity of “grievance studies” submitted hoax research to prominent journals. One paper explained that white males in college shouldn’t speak in class and should be asked to sit on the floor in chains. Another paper suggested that men should be trained like dogs to prevent rape culture. Both articles were accepted for publication, and the latter was recognized as exemplary scholarship.  This unethical experiment revealed yet another problem: “research” about silencing, chaining, and training humans like dogs was approved by prestigious journals, which defies academia’s purported mission to nurture everyone’s growth and freedom.

Another fraud is people who lie about their race. An associate professor of history at George Washington University whose work focuses on Africa and the African diaspora resigned when her real identity was exposed. She blogged about having “assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.” Soon after that incident, an assistant professor of African American history at Furman University resigned because she was caught faking a Mexican heritage. As scholars wonder who among them is not who they say they are, they must ask: what drives academics to commit this kind of criminal deception?   

Another ethical dilemma at universities is unchecked anti-Semitism that is at an all time high. The FBI’s Hate Crime Statistics Act report data showed that most religion-based hate crimes target Jews or Jewish institutions. Recent examples on campuses include arson at the University of Delaware Jewish Center. At Columbia University a Jewish professor’s office was vandalized with a swastika and other slurs spray-painted on the wall. After enduring Jew hatred from peers, the Jewish vice president of the student government at the University of South California resigned from her position. The sign at University of Kentucky’s Jewish Student Center has been vandalized four times, and the center’s leader receives phone threats. These incidents occur at alarming rates that compromise academia’s vaunted ethics of inclusion.  

To what extent do scholars scrutinize and critically self-reflect on these wide-ranging “strange and enigmatic” ethical dilemmas in  “native and familiar” academic spaces that they supposedly know best? 

Mythic and Narrative

Mythic and Narrative: sacred stories and histories, revealed and authored, written and oral,  true literally or symbolically, such as cosmogonies, hagiographies, tales of gods, people, saints, and demons. 

Academia is a calling of mythic proportion, passed down from generation to generation through written and oral testimonies. In the Ivory Tower surrounded by gardens where people eat fruits from trees of knowledge, scholars are set apart literally or metaphorically from the profane world. Truths are pursued, minds are opened, and hearts are awakened. Many seekers are activists who strive to resolve people’s suffering and fix institutional brokenness. The quest for knowledge, growth, and freedom is nurtured by liberal education (“liberal” is from the Latin liber “free,” the Greek eleutheros “free,” and the Sanskrit rodhati “one grows”). As authors, academics touch immortality through their publications that endure forever. 

But to what extent is this utopian vision realized? Is it a myth sustaining people’s hope that a more just future will come to fruition?  Scholar-practitioners achieve historical insights and scientific advancements. But idyllic academia is replete with privilege, exclusion, and systemic “isms” such as classism, racism, sexism, and educationism (discrimination against less educated people). For instance, meritocracy is the academic dream that people can progress based on their abilities rather than their wealth and other lucky accidents of birth. But it is a “false ideology that has torn society asunder and created a caste hierarchy that simultaneously excludes most people and damages the few that it admits. . . . . Meritocracy, which was initially envisioned as a means to collapse social barriers, thus engenders an impenetrable aristocracy.” High and rising tuition rates that outpace inflation prevent many people from entering the Ivory Tower.  

Classism also shows up as exploitation of adjunct instructors. Some impoverished workers reassess their calling to academia and courageously leave dystopia. “The situation is akin to a breakup. . . . . Recognizing that your love will go unrequited is going to hurt.” After walking away, some people use their hard won knowledge to reflect on academic saints and sinners. For example, a man who turned down a tenure track job wrote a book about that experience. A tenured professor became a Ph.D. entrepreneur by starting a business, The Professor Is In, to guide academics through graduate school, the job market, and the tenure process. Ex-insiders offer informative perspectives about academia’s promise of growth and freedom.  

Doctrinal and Philosophical

Doctrinal and Philosophical: systematic and intellectual formulations such as statements of belief and faith, analyses of God’s nature, notions of grace

If there’s one doctrinal underpinning that applies across academia’s disciplines, it would be postmodernism and related schools of thought such as deconstruction and poststructuralism. Rejecting a grand narrative, these modes of discourse espouse that truths are socially constructed and framed by personal histories based on racial, religious, economic, cultural, sexual, political and other variables.  The standpoint of an observer is determinative. Morality is relative. These intellectual formulations reject epistemic certainty, stability of meaning, and objective Truth, and welcome epistemic uncertainty, instability of meaning, and relative truths. Developed in the mid- to late 20th c., postmodernism influences disciplines including philosophy, history, literature, political science, and feminist theory.

Academics regard founders of postmodernism as sages whose revealed scriptures are gospel. Canonized saints include Jean-Francois Lyotard,  Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Avital Ronell, Jacques Lacan and postcolonial studies critics such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 

Postmodernism explains that there is no Absolute Truth except the truth of postmodernist theory. While this doctrine ironically undercuts itself, few scholars ask provocative, self-reflective questions:   Are all truths debatable? Is dissent tolerated? Are we in an echo chamber that has become an anti-intellectual enclave? Can becoming an academic be like a conversion experience whereby particular doctrines (re)shape a person’s mind? Are we indoctrinated insiders encoded by popular revelations? Is the student body evangelized by professors whose mission is to awaken young people to choice truths? Are unsuspecting neophytes and intellectual groupies initiated into a dominant groupthink narrative?

Instances of dogma creating an intolerant climate in and beyond academia have become common enough that professors and prominent intellectuals such as Gloria Steinem, Cornel West, Steven Pinker, and Salman Rushdie signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” This letter warns about a “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Several incidents that received national attention reveal intolerance among those who theoretically embrace relative truths shaped by people’s socially constructed vantage points. A glaring example is when Professor, Bret Weinstein, declined to participate in an Evergreen State College Day of Absence. In past years, minority students and faculty had avoided campus to highlight their contributions to the college. In 2017 white people were asked to stay away from campus.  Weinstein’s email to an Evergreen email list explained the dangerous precedent set by this proposal: “There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles. . . and a group encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness, which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” Weinstein held his biology class at a park. Students protested, and a riot broke out. The administration did not ask campus police to deescalate the uproarious crowd, and the professor was warned that his safety could not be guaranteed. Due to this incident, he resigned. He wrote “The Campus Mob Came for Me – and You, Professor, Could Be Next” and has spoken extensively about the intolerant climate where his perspective on a complex issue was not only excluded, but violently rejected. Weinstein’s wife, also a biology professor, resigned and explained what’s at stake: “Those without tenure are at risk of blowback for politically incorrect actions or views. . . .  If you do not come together in real life with people with whom you disagree, you guarantee finding yourself in a silo, out of which you can not see. . . . Let us be willing to disagree with respect.” Question:  Do scholar-practitioners who champion the doctrine of relative truths create space to debate the distinction between liberating calls to consciousness and oppressive shows of force? Should unpopular dissenters be humiliated, threatened, and silenced?

A 2017 incident at Middlebury College tested the boundary of free speech and became “the saddest day of my life,” according to Professor Allison Stanger. She was scheduled to moderate a Q&A session with Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve.  Students who think that Murray is racist protested his presence on campus. They shouted him down, yelled obscenities, and surrounded him. Stanger, who does not agree with many of Murray’s political stances, supported the event for the sake of liberal exchange of ideas and productive debate. She wrote, “What transpired instead felt like a scene from Homeland rather than an evening at an institution of higher learning.” Question: To what extent do scholar-practitioners who champion the doctrine of relative truths encourage students to debate viewpoints? Which truth claims, if any, should be forbidden?

Another incident occurred in 2020 at Michigan State University as physicist Stephen Hsu, Vice President of Research and Innovation, was researching deadly force and how to improve policing. Hsu shared findings from a study that found no widespread racial bias in police shootings. These data showed different conclusions than what is commonly reported about this challenging topic. After Hsu quoted the research, he was forced out of his administrative position. He wrote in a blog post, “This started as a twitter mob attack, with very serious claims: that I am a Racist, Sexist, Eugenicist.” Question: Are scholar-practitioners who champion the doctrine of relative truths ironically compromising this ideological value by rejecting inconvenient information instead of scrutinizing (mis/dis)information to possibly revise their thinking? Should bearers of uncomfortable research findings be silenced or lose their jobs, i.e. should the messenger be shot?  

It is imperative that scholar-practitioners self-interrogate to determine the extent to which the Ivory Tower is a bastion of liberalism, free speech, and inclusion or illiberalism, silencing, and cancel culture. While some (untenured) concerned, closeted thinkers hesitate to engage this complex issue publically, other people address this open secret. Professor Ramdas Lamb calls out the problem that he sees: “We have to overturn the academic tables that support the ideological insanity currently masquerading as liberal education.” How can professors teach critical thinking if unpopular viewpoints are verboten? A book about campus trends suggests “something unprecedented and frightening. . . . The consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door – accessible from both the left and the right – to various forms of authoritarianism.” What’s at stake is foundational.  Lamb said,  “We live in fundamentalist institutions.”  Has “academia killed its own muse”? 

Heterodox Academy was founded by academics who see a lack of viewpoint diversity on campus. With the tagline, “great minds don’t always think alike,” its vision is the following: “We aspire to create college classrooms and campuses that welcome diverse people with diverse viewpoints and that equip learners with the habits of heart and mind to engage that diversity in open inquiry and constructive disagreement.” Robert George, legal scholar, political philosopher, and Heterodox Academy Advisory Council member, said that “no organization in the history of American academic life has done, or is doing, more to promote the basic freedoms of viewpoint diversity we urgently need in our colleges and universities today.”

Social and Institutional

Social and Institutional: community participation and membership, hierarchical and nonhierarchical, people together and in isolation, locally and globally, denominations, study groups, monasteries, state religions, diasporas

Academia is an amorphous community of scholars who work at institutions around the world. Smaller groups form through departments, fields and subfields, committees, teacher-student lineages, annual conferences attendees, discussion panels, editorial boards, and more. To reinforce connections and enjoy academic culture, people gather in person, through listservs, and on social media.  

The Ivory Tower’s tiered tenure system is structured around membership.  A tenure-track job offer is a momentous initiation. Teaching and writing for about seven years might culminate in being awarded tenure, a rite of passage that guarantees job security. After working for the next several years, professors take a sabbatical (related to “sabbath,” day of rest),  just like every seven years Jews historically took a year-long break from toiling in the fields. Academics, however,  use that “break” to research and publish. Becoming a full professor is the coveted entry into academia’s inner sanctum. 

In the diaspora of academics who take jobs in faraway places, who’s in and who’s out is also expressed online. For example, Inside Higher Ed invites people to “become an insider” by clicking a button that leads to the membership program. The website, “Rate My Professors,” lists debatably accurate evaluations and was countered by “Rate Your Students.” Hashtags include #phdlife and #phdjokes. Social media groups support intellectual exchange, casual conversations, and Q&A. On Facebook “The Professor Is In” has 117K followers who comment on informative and sometimes snarky posts. “PhD Comics: Piled Higher and Deeper” has 423K followers. The 678K followers on “Shit Academics Say” laugh at inside jokes and vent about issues that make the most sense to people in the university’s orbit:  

Unfortunately, I have to reschedule the exam, and I will have to cancel class on Thursday.  Against my best wishes, I have been shot and am in the ER. I also have Covid, and the divorce is getting messy.  Office hours are still 11-12 M/W, with your TA. If I am alive, the exam will be moved to Monday.

I had to teach my Introduction to Psychology class today to 300+ students from my cell phone while I was trapped in my apartment building elevator with my two young kids. This has to go down as my most surreal and stressful teaching experience.

Holding a journal reveal party for my manuscript.

That Sunday feeling when guilt over not writing and anxiety over next week is punctuated only by the realization that time is a construct but Netflix is real. 

Experiential and Emotional

Experiential and Emotional:  emotionally charged experiences that generate feelings such as ecstasy, love, inner peace, dread, awe; a state of awareness.

People go into academia not for the money but for the joy of learning, producing knowledge, and “eureka!” moments. Scholar-practitioners work in labs,  translate languages, interpret data and texts, and conduct fieldwork. They participate in intellectually riveting seminars held in buildings that may architecturally resemble medieval monasteries. And they study alone in vast libraries with vaulted ceilings. Mindblowing experiences and transformations occur when people are nurtured by liberal education.  

Yet the Ivory Tower doesn’t always deliver the dream. The slogan “no justice, no peace; know justice, know peace” pertains as some people experience dread and alienation. For example, a black woman who works at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University explains why she doesn’t feel fully welcome by her academic colleagues. 

The school boasts about its depth of diversity, yet members of its faculty have asked me which faculty I provide administrative support for. Some continue to refer to me by the name of another black woman who completed her PhD at the school two years ago. . . . It’s not being mistaken for a member of the support staff that troubles me, but what that mistake means. Whether they mean to or not, my fellow academics are betraying a toxic assumption: Even as I move about a university with a messenger bag over my shoulder and a stack of books in my arms, they refuse to see me as a member of the professional and intellectual community I’ve worked to join.


Material: sacred objects and spaces; nature such as land, rivers, mountains; culture such as buildings, scriptures, sculptures, paintings,  jewellery, clothing, foods, body art  

Books, e-books, articles, journals, manuscripts, lab equipment, specimens.  

Libraries as sanctuaries, some classically designed to look like cathedrals.

College campuses, quads, buildings, classrooms, student unions, dormitories.

Offices decorated with diplomas, awards, honors, fieldwork souvenirs, piles of books.

University ID cards, photographs, websites, social media accounts.

Computers, phones, audio and video equipment.

Academic regalia including cap, gown, tassel, hood.  

University logo on clothing, hats, pens, mugs, bumper stickers, face masks.


Is academia (like) a religion? Cult? Wisdom’s special workshop?  Secular religion? What is the right category for this enclave of intellectual expression? I asked hundreds of professors these questions.  People responded enthusiastically: “Of course it’s a religion. It has a priesthood, occult and esoteric rules, and separate ethics.” “As a graduate student, it was my religion. The library was my church. Research was my ritual.” “Religion, not sure. Cult, definitely.” During a podcast interview, Professor Gary Laderman explained: “My religion is learning and knowledge and trying to intellectually absorb as much as I can. . . . I joked, but I’m also being serious. Learning is where I get my religious meaning.” These responses reflect a broad definition of “religion” and show that what people do culturally can be comparable to religion even when it is not labeled as such. “Everything is full of gods,” as Thales remarked. Academia’s lived expressions clearly exhibit the seven dimensions. However, if “religion” is so broad, it loses specificity. When too much is religion, nothing is religion.   So, is academia (like) a religion? It’s a good debate topic.

What is indisputable is that relentlessly interrogating academia reveals more than what’s in its unexamined self-description. The process of estrangement allows scholar-practitioners to revise their thinking and see that the academic quest for truths does not stem from dispassionate objectivity exempt from particular commitments.   Scholars are practitioners, insiders who should self-consciously reflect on their academic practice and thereby discover the “strange and enigmatic” within this familiar category. Recognizing the blurry spaces between “scholar~practitioner” and “outsider~insider” serves everyone who seeks growth and freedom for themselves and others.

Final point: I finished writing this article during the American purgatory between our presidential election that ended six weeks ago and legal confirmation of a winner by the Senate.  As this article goes to press, a dreadfully dire societal communication breakdown is unfolding in America. True to the foundation of liberal education, academic practitioners should model civility by encouraging active engagement through productive debate.  We should energetically seek “dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism” between people whose viewpoints diverge. Hopefully everyone can co-exist with empathy, liberty, and justice for all.