Before I talk about Kevin Roose‘s excellent new book, The Unlikely Disciple, let me remind you of this clip from Real Time with Bill Maher:
Remember that sense of anger you felt every time Jerry Falwell made any sort of public statement? Maybe, like Maher, you weren’t all that sad when he passed away.
Kevin Roose felt pretty much the same way about Falwell a few years ago — basing his view of Falwell off the man he’d seen on television. But when working as an intern for AJ Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically), he met a few students from Liberty (the school Falwell founded) and became curious about what their lives were like.
So he applied to — and was accepted into — Liberty University.
Kevin’s book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University is a recounting of his months there. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.
In it, Kevin describes a little bit of everything — his awkward dates with a sweet Christian girl, what he learned in his classes (Young Earth Creationism and Evangelism 101, to name a couple), and his one-on-one interview with Falwell himself (the last print interview Falwell gave before dying).
I’ll say it again: This is an *incredible* book — I couldn’t put it down — and not just for the entertainment value. Every atheist should read this to find out what the Fundamentalist Christian world is really like. It’s not always as awful as you might think and the students aren’t all cookie-cutter Falwells-in-training. Still, when you see how repressed some of the students are, what lengths they go to in order to remain “pure,” and what they are learning, it’s obvious how problematic religion and dogma can be.
Speaking of what you learn there… here’s a partial list of questions actually asked on the History of Life midterm exam, according to Kevin:
1. True or False: Noah’s Ark was large enough to carry various kinds of dinosaurs.
2. True or False: Science is the only way to truly know truth about the world.
3. True or False: Margaret Sanger [the founder of Planned Parenthood] was a promoter of eugenics [selective breeding, a practice commonly associated with the Nazi Party].
4. True or False: Evolution can be proven using the scientific method.
Correct answers (according to Liberty):
You could ace it… but it would cost you your last trace of rationality.
I had the chance to talk to Kevin about his experiences there. Some excerpts from his book are interspersed below our conversation:
Hemant: How in the world did you get accepted into Liberty?
Kevin: Honestly, I have no idea. I filled out the application, wrote the essay (“Describe how your perspectives of life and morality will enable you to contribute to Liberty University’s mission”) and submitted it along with my transcript from Brown. A few weeks later, the thick envelope came. I guess they really needed the tuition money.
- Liberty’s application doesn’t include a mandatory statement of faith, but to complete the essay prompt… I had to read a few dozen Christian articles and sermons online and wrangle some of the buzzwords into a three-paragraph response. (I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but it included sentences like “The path to righteousness is not an easy one.”) I filled in a few more blanks, clicked “Send,” and my application tumbled through the ether to Liberty. (p. 12)
On the Creation Studies class:
Hemant: What was it like sitting in a Creation Studies class when you knew what was being taught was untrue?
Kevin: Creation Studies was probably the most challenging part of my academic life at Liberty, precisely because I didn’t agree with what was being taught. (To quote the popular bumper sticker, I give evolution two opposable thumbs up.) But I took solace in the fact that even if I didn’t believe that Noah’s Flood or Adam and Eve were totally historical, learning to see things from the creationist’s point of view would be good for my open-mindedness. I think it’s crucially important to learn about worldviews we don’t agree with, even if those worldviews lead to exam questions like: “True or False: Noah’s Ark was large enough to accommodate various kinds of dinosaurs.”
Hemant: How should the scientific world respond to the education that Liberty students receive (i.e. Creationism)? Should universities or public schools hire Liberty graduates?
Kevin: Depends which Liberty graduates you’re talking about. Like every school, students who come from Liberty are a diverse bunch, and I have no doubt that some of them would be completely capable teachers. Some might not be, of course. So I think it’s important to assess each individual case. I wouldn’t throw someone out of a job interview just because he or she was a Liberty graduate.
- All Liberty students are required to take a creation studies course, while only Biology majors are required to learn evolution-based science. And even those evolution courses are sort of Fair and BalancedTM, if you get my drift. (p. 33)
On Falwell and the students at Liberty:
Hemant: Were the students at Liberty as sheltered as one might expect? What would they be surprised to find out about mainstream America?
Kevin: Actually, I was surprised at how non-sheltered they were. Almost everyone I met was totally socially adjusted, and could have fit in at any American college. Most of the time, conversations in the dorm centered on girls, homework, and music — the same stuff you’d hear at Brown.
Hemant: What was the reaction like from Liberty students (and yourself) at the mainstream media’s response to Jerry Falwell’s death? People like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens said some pretty nasty things about him. Were their comments appropriate? Did Liberty students understand why these things were being said?
Kevin: Ah yes, the Hitchens eulogy. I believe he summed up his views when he told Anderson Cooper [Hemant: Actually, Hannity & Colmes] that “if you gave [Falwell] an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox.” Which, despite being quite funny, isn’t entirely accurate. I actually got to interview Dr. Falwell (as Liberty students call him) before he died, and I got to see a different side of him, one that explained why he had millions of die-hard followers and a student body who absolutely adored him. I had very mixed emotions when he died, because while I think he did some incredibly hurtful things in his life, I appreciated certain elements of his personality.
Hemant: What should the secular world know about Jerry Falwell?
Kevin: He was a complicated guy, much moreso than the one-dimensional caricature he became whenever the TV cameras were rolling. For example, he loved light-hearted practical jokes. When he died, they found three boxes of stinkbombs in his desk. It doesn’t make the hateful things he did any less offensive, but it also helps to explain why he was as popular as he was. You can’t become a religious leader of his magnitude without touching some lives.
Hemant: Based on your writing (and I suppose to nobody’s surprise), gay students would have a horrible time at the school. Do you feel like the atmosphere will ever get better for them among that crowd?
Kevin: I’d like to say I’m optimistic, but I just don’t know. The school has an incredibly long history of anti-gay activism, and I don’t know what it’d take to reverse it. I think only time will tell.
- All in all, the Liberty students I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU… in fact, I suspect a lot of my hallmates at Liberty could fit in perfectly well at a secular college. (p. 63)
- But that’s the secret about a place like Liberty; everyone doubts. (p. 105)
On the Rules:
Hemant: Who came up with the three-second rule for hugging? It sounds so… exact. Like they ran some sort of calculation.
Kevin: There’s actually a Facebook group called “I Hug For 3 Seconds, Sometimes 4,” which is subversive and exciting and sad all at the same time.
Hemant: Which Liberty rule was the strangest to adhere to?
Kevin: I’m not sure about strangest, but the hardest was definitely the no-cursing rule. I actually had to buy a Christian self-help book, called “30 Days to Taming Your Tongue,” which tells you how to replace your four-letter vulgarities with words like “Glory!” and “Mercy me!”
- By the end of the list [of rules], filmmaker [and fellow student] Ryan is rubbing his temples and breathing heavily.
“Now, I know you guys are probably thinking, what did I get myself into?” [Resident Assistant] Stubbs says. “But it’s not really that hard.”
[R.A.] Fox adds, “You just have to go in with a positive attitude. If you think, ‘Oh man, these rules are such a drag,’ you’re going to miss out on a lot. We see the rules as a way to maintain our focus on God. They give us freedom to concentrate on the things that really matter.” (p. 23)
On the Quiverfull movement:
Hemant: How serious is the Quiverfull movement among the Christians you met?
Kevin: It’s hard to tell. In theory, a lot of Liberty students I met agreed with the basic Quiverfull teachings (have as many kids as possible, as quickly as possible), but I’m not sure how many of them actually plan on starting Quiverfull families. Once they see how expensive childcare is, I’m guessing some of them will have a change of heart.
- “Listen up, students,” [Falwell] said. “Now, I made sure there were five thousand girls here on campus, and five thousand boys. I don’t know how much more I can do. Folks, we need more Liberty babies for Christ. Let’s get going!” (p. 73)
On the Rational Response Squad:
Hemant: A professor at Liberty challenged the Rational Response Squad to a debate and you wrote about some surprising reactions from Liberty students after it occurred. Why was this debate such a big deal for them? (Or was it a big deal at all?)
Kevin: The debate was interesting, because while it was pretty clear to everyone at Liberty that Dr. [Ergun] Caner (the professor who challenged the atheists) got walloped, it didn’t cause a mass spiritual panic among Liberty students. It made me wonder whether the point of atheist/believer debates is really to change people’s minds, or whether they serve mostly as reinforcement for each side.
- Dr. Caner got a few good points in. He put forth a fairly convincing version of the argument from design (the world is so beautiful and so orderly that it must have been designed by a creator). But ultimately, he was outmatched. The atheists anticipated his arguments and had counterarguments in hand. They knew the Bible inside and out and confronted him with hard-to-spin textual contradictions… and althought Dr. Caner came up with explanations for the discrepancies, they were hardly rock solid…
“The atheists definitely knew what they were talking about,” [fellow student Brad] says. “I almost don’t want to say it, but… they beat him.” (p. 133)
On channeling Ray Comfort:
Kevin: The worst part of the week, probably not surprisingly, was evangelizing to secular coeds, most of whom were drunk, preoccupied, or both. Being shunned and mocked by strangers is never fun, even if you don’t believe in what you’re selling. On the bright side, we were evangelizing outside a nightclub one night, and a “Girls Gone Wild”-style film crew came and set up next to us, so we got a nice little assembly line going.
Hemant: Have you seen the banana video?
Kevin: I have. Actually, I heard professors at Liberty tell students NOT to use the banana example when debating non-believers. Even at Liberty, fruit-based arguments aren’t the most convincing.
- Evangelizing to secular spring breakers in Florida struck me as an enormous waste of time. Why not go somewhere where Jesus would be an easier sell? Like Islamabad? Or a Christopher Hitchens dinner party? (p. 146)
- For these Liberty students, going to Daytona is a tool for self-anesthetization, a way to get used to the feeling of being an outcast in the secular world. The first forty times someone blows you off, it feels awful. The second forty times, you start reassuring yourself that all of this must serve a higher purpose. By the end of the week, you get the point — you are going to be mocked and scorned for your faith, and this is the way it’s supposed to be (p. 163)
On the book and its reception:
Hemant: What’s the best writing advice you received from AJ Jacobs?
Kevin: AJ has been an incredibly supportive mentor throughout the whole publishing process. (To use a Bible metaphor, he’s sort of the Apostle Paul to my Timothy.) As far as specific advice, he once told me that going into print journalism these days is sort of like going into Betamax sales. I took it as a challenge to get published.
Hemant: Will a book tour stop at Liberty? What is the reaction to your book like from current students?
Kevin: I didn’t know what to expect at first, but so far, the reaction has been almost entirely positive. I think Liberty gets a lot of negative press, so the fact that I actually spent time there and gave it a balanced portrayal has helped Liberty students appreciate the book. I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails saying, basically, “Thanks for taking us seriously.”
Hemant: Have you kept in touch with any students at Liberty? You mentioned in the book’s epilogue that most of the reactions from your friends there were pretty positive. Did any of them react negatively to the book and their portrayal?
Kevin: I’ve gotten a lot of calls from my Liberty friends in the past few weeks, all of them incredibly positive. Mostly, they want to know who all the pseudonyms represent. But I think, aside from the narcissistic thrill of being written about, they’re excited that the book isn’t a scathing exposé or a down-with-religion tell-all, that I tried to find good things to say about Liberty in addition to the not-so-good things.
- “This blows my mind, to be honest,” [a fellow student] said. “But I’m not mad. I think it’s pretty cool actually. I’m happy for you. I haven’t read a book in six, seven years. But I might read this one.” (p. 312)
On the aftermath:
Hemant: How would you currently label yourself when it comes to religion? Do you still pray?
Kevin: I was “God-ambivalent” when I went to Liberty — not exactly a believer, but not exactly an agnostic or an atheist. Now, I’m more comfortable with religion, and I do try to pray every day, even though I’m still not convinced it has any cosmic effect. I try to remember what Oswald Chambers said about prayer, which is that (and I’m paraphrasing) it’s not so much that prayer changes things, but that prayer changes us and we change things. So even if God isn’t listening, I think the practice of praying for other people can make us more selfless, more willing to reach out.
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University hits the bookstores this Thursday.
If you have any follow-up questions for Kevin, leave them in the comments! I’ll pass them along to him.