Is Academia a Religion?

Dana Sidebottom
Cultural Studies MA Student
Queen’s University

…I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

Marin Morris, My Church

I have often joked about something that I call “The 4am Miracle”. It is that moment of inspiration that strikes suddenly and unexpectedly after hours of staring at a blank entre. It is the moment that the words flow uninhibited, the ideas focus and align, and the insights are profound. In the morning, I read over the work from the moment of transcendence, and it is always my best writing. Despite the feeling that I am not the one controlling the work, that the work is simply using my body as a vessel, it is always the most elegantly written, the most thought-provoking, the most engaging part of my essay – it is as though, in that moment, the Spirit of the Academy has possessed me for the sole purpose of articulating a point worth making.

This weekend, I attended a lecture given by a neuroscientist who studies the eye/brain connection and the processes used in our perception of the world. He closed his talk saying, “…managing the miracle of human sight”, and I was struck by his use of the word “miracle”. Miriam Webster dictionary defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”. Divine. A scientist described the phenomenon he has spent his life investigating as a product of divine intervention. And so too have I described my academic moments of inspiration as a miracle, as a divine intervention. And so now I wonder… Is academia a religion?

When I wake up, press the button on my kettle, and sit down in front of my computer every morning – am I going to church? Am I entrenching myself in a unifying worldview shared by millions of others, and trusting an institution and its set of ethics and principles to watch over me and guide my life? Inarguably, the answer is yes. I came to academia a supplicant (they called me an applicant, but the connotation is the same), and upon acceptance was initiated into the academy.

For four years I was a Novice, learning from those who have completed their training and moved up the ranks of the institution. I was made to feel guilty for my sins of not studying, partying too much, and falling behind, and I was judged by the Higher Powers each time I turned in an assignment. If being accepted to university can be compared with being Christened, turning in a paper was like going to Confession. Graduation was my Confirmation – my declaration that I was a member of the institution always, that I would carry the knowledge of my degree with me throughout my life, that I would forever be branded as a “university graduate” and therefore a full member of this community.

I have returned now as an Apprentice to an Adept or a Master, and in returning and ascending the ranks, I have accordingly been given greater responsibility and greater freedom. I guide my own small class of novices now, and I have been entrusted with more of the wisdom that the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower hold sacred. I am even permitted to add to that knowledge in my own small way, carefully guided by my superiors.

I started thinking about this idea while sitting in my Community Based Research course. The course is looking at emergent research methodologies and is critical of the harm done by academics that have not traditionally been concerned with the communities they have studied. The critiques are valid and the new methodologies are interesting, but I am quick to defend the institution. As with all religion, there are things that change and adapt with time, there are moments when our highest earthly authorities come together and agree to adaptations of earlier doctrines, but there are some things that are dogma. Sources must be cited. Knowledge must be recorded and preserved. And the institution must persevere.

The big question, of course, is one of belief. Do I believe in the Academy? I love the Academy, and I believe in its ability and its desire to do good. I believe that the members of this community seek to expand and share knowledge, and to safeguard that knowledge for future generations. We comment on, critique, analyze, and offer insight into socio-political issues. We hunt for new cures, we research new surgical procedures and new energy sources, we create space to question authority and assess the state of the world. But I also have faith in the 4am miracle. I have experienced transcendence in the carrels of libraries, and I have felt the touch of the Spirit of Knowledge guiding me to answers that I did not have before.

Is academia a religion? I don’t know. But I think it’s my religion.
Bless me professor, for I have sinned. It has been many days since I worked on my thesis…



2 thoughts on “Is Academia a Religion?

  1. Despite the fact that this blog post can be viewed as a satirical piece, it poses a very interesting question. Can Academia be a religion? I have often wondered this myself as many students have gone so deep in to the academic realm. It is evident that there are many parallels between academia and religion. However, one could argue that the idea of academia as religion is problematic since there are many individuals who feel confined to religion, and therefore may feel the same regarding academics.
    Accountability is one reason why people are less interested in religion today. Young people do not want to be held responsible for meeting (or not meeting) the laws of their affiliated religious tradition. The author says, “I was made to feel guilty for my sins of not studying, partying too much, and falling behind, and I was judged by the Higher Powers each time I turned in an assignment” (Sidebottom, 2017). This exact reason might turn potential students away from academia. Potential students may fear the same critique for sinning when it comes to meeting school deadlines. In Petra Klug’s text on why some people criticize religion she emphasizes the idea that people become criticized for their lack of belief (2017). In this case, the sin is the inability to meet deadlines and students are quickly judged or looked down upon for this behaviour. Like many other religious traditions, there is also a societal expectation that comes along with participating in academia. While this blog accurately references graduation as a form of confirmation (Sidebottom, 2017), this could be seen as problematic for some facing social anxieties in academia. If confirmation or graduation is considered a stepping-stone in becoming a member of the institution (Sidebottom, 2017), it could also limit some potential students looking to be admitted in to university. Research indicates that people are only likely to pursue social involvement with their religion if prompted by family and friends (Thiessen, 2015). Therefore without some kind of push to attend university or graduate, students are less likely to attend.
    With both accountability and social reasons deterring people from participating in religious traditions, it is evident that the same can be applied to academia. Perhaps the author should consider the implications of labelling academia under the same definition as religion. If some disagree and say that academia is not religion, what is it then? It is still a personal choice, but does it then constitute itself as more of a hobby? Also, do you think people feel the same holy bind to academia that they do with religion? Does it have that kind of life-altering property? These questions and more make this comparison of academia problematic for potential and current students.


    Klug, Petra. “Why Some People Criticize Religion While Others Just Don’t Care.” Religious Indifference, no. 1 (2017): 219-237.
    Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Sociology of Religion, no. 77 (2015): 441-443.

  2. This is an interesting post. As a religious studies student, I have considered and critiqued topics such as CrossFit and veganism as types of religious movements, however I had never considered academia to fall into a similar category. To further your point on academia as a religion, I thought about academia in comparison to common world religions. In doing this, it can help us to understand one argument as to why academia could be considered a religion.

    Simply put, traditionally people are either “religious”, “indifferent,” or “critical.” Kung explains that someone who is indifferent shows “a lack of interest in or concern about religion; an attitude or feeling which is unbiased, open, neutral and marked by impartiality in regard to religion; and a behaviour which is passive in terms of religion” (Kung, 220). Differently, someone who is critical means that they: “[…] make a judgment; […] talk about problems; and […] express disapproval” (Kung, 220). Similar to attitudes towards world religions, I believe that thoughts / beliefs concerning academia can also be categorized into three sections, whether you see academia as a religion or not. Positions towards academia can be classified as: academics, anti-intellectuals, and people who are indifferent. Academics are people who are interested / studying a(n) intellectual topic(s) in higher education. For example, professors, students, and scholars. People who are indifferent can be characterized similarly to those who are indifferent to religion. By replacing “religion” with “academia,” Kung’s definition of religious indifference also makes sense concerning indifference towards academia: “a lack of interest in or concern about [academia]; an attitude or feeling which is unbiased, open, neutral and marked by impartiality in regard to [academia]; and a behaviour which is passive in terms of [academia].” Similar to those who are critical of religion, anti-intellectuals are against academia. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines anti-intellectuals as “opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.” Anti-intellectuals have strong opinions as to why academia is negative, similar to how people who are critical of religion have arguments against it. While comparing the views on traditional world religions with academia, there are clear similarities in categorization.

    While there are relationships between categories, there are also relationships within members of a certain category (such as within a certain religious group). In excerpts from The Meaning of Sunday (Thiessen, 2015), it is clear that a large benefit of being part of a religious group is the sense of community. When considering academia, is community a large benefit of the group? My initial response is that yes, as academia promotes community among people who are like-minded. However, it could also be argued that academia is a competitive “religion,” with people trying to get ahead of one-another and prove each other wrong. What do you think? Is community even necessary in defining religion? This question becomes difficult to answer, as “religion” is not easily defined. Some may say that religion does not need to entail community, as it can be practiced individually, even without others knowing. However, is that then spirituality, rather than religion? What do you think?

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