Vocation for Atheists

I have struggled with many things while teaching vocation—students falling asleep, not doing the reading, complaining about being required to take a course on the meaning and purpose of their lives (why do I have to pay for a class that won’t help me get into pharmacy school?). But one particular question about which I have wondered is whether talk of vocation can only be meaningful for students of faith.

What if one didn’t believe in God at all? Could the concept of “vocation” still be useful then?

And I believe the answer is that thinking about vocation can be a productive way for colleges to help students consider the question of what they are going to do with their lives, and how they are going to do it.

Perhaps surprisingly, this can be an area where colleges and universities struggle. Career services are often excellent at finding people jobs but are not usually interested in helping people figure out what jobs they ought to try to get (except in the technocratic sense of using personality-testing tools that help students discover their aptitudes). And the curriculum can sometimes end up looking like the handmaiden of the career service office. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues, the liberal arts teach students skills because employers value them: “Silicon Valley types say they want to hire humanities majors […] because they want to hire lively and curious minds with analytical skills.” Sure—but that doesn’t tell humanities majors anything about whether they should want to work for Silicon Valley types. Justifications like these have value, but also resemble the bureaucratic version of “vocation” that Max Weber famously condemns in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one in which what you ought to do is simply whatever has value in your particular social context.

On the other hand, the humanities do not always possess a good analytical framework for thinking about what individuals ought to do at all. In English class, for instance, we might see texts as both mirrors of and means by which readers manage their anxieties about social ideologies. Such a position is appropriate to English as a discipline, but it does not answer the same kinds of questions as a class on vocation might.

More importantly, properly reacting against the ideology of American individualism, scholars in the humanities tend to emphasize the structural nature of society. However, focusing on structures to the exclusion of individuals can also foster what Charlie Tyson, in another recent Chronicle article, identifies as reactionary “nihilism”, the idea that:

the political and economic structures that shape our lives are too big to flip. […] People who strive to mitigate human misery by winning attention for chosen causes or conducting campaigns for political and legal reform reveal at best their ignorance and naïveté, at worst their complicity with the system.

 In a society so conceived, what does it matter what anyone does?

But, even if it is the case that the autonomous individual is a fantasy of bourgeois ideology, we nevertheless still experience the choices we make as individual choices. As Martin Hägglund writes in the recent study This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, it is “not to say that I am free from natural and social constraints” to assert that “I must be responsible for what I do.” We might not be able to be “anything we want to be,” as the high school cliché goes, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we choose to become.

Even if all this is true, though, why teach students about vocation in particular?

For me, a significant reason is the importance of virtue ethics to the vocation movement. One of the most important claims of virtue ethics is that we should focus less on what constitutes a good act or a good concept and begin to think about what we should do in order to live a good life. As articulated by the theologian Alasdair MacIntyre, virtue ethics asks that moral philosophy refocus its goal from seeking to articulate the nature of the good according to one set of axioms or another, to seeking to resolve what is, for MacIntyre, its key question: “what sort of person am I to become?” We can see such a focus all around in the vocation movement, from the title of one of our most popular classroom textbooks, Leading Lives that Matter, to essays in NetVUE-sponsored anthologies by virtue ethicists such as Bill Cavanaugh and Paul Wadell, to book sections on “Vocation and Virtue.”

On a related note: See Bill Cavanaugh’s “Vocation and Freedom in a ‘free market’ economy.” For more on Bill’s insights, see “The problem with ‘you can do anything you want.'” On Paul Wadell, see “Mentoring for vocation: a form of friendship.” For another example of vocation and virtue ethics without theology, see Hannah Schell’s “Royce, loyalty and vocation” and Carter Aikin’s “Vocation without the V word.”

This shift in emphasis has nothing to do with the existence or otherwise of some kind of being that calls someone to a particular vocation. Rather, it parallels the contribution that the vocation movement can make to the humanities in general. The humanities can be concerned in good faith with Big Questions about morality and the meaning of life, without necessarily answering students’ questions about what it is they ought to do with their lives; yet students also want answers to those questions—that’s a place where vocation programming has a role to play.

A second advantage of the virtue-ethics inflection of vocation programming is its emphasis on treating virtue as something that needs to be practiced in community, rather than as a piece of knowledge. In her well-known “happiness course,” the psychologist Laurie Santos takes issue with something she calls the “GI Joe fallacy,” from the old GI Joe cartoon tagline, “knowing is half the battle.” Sometimes, in college, we act as though if we teach students to understand what is right, that’s all the need in order to do what is right. But Santos’s research shows that knowing what to do in many cases has a minimal connection with what we actually do. For example, I know perfectly well that I feel happier if I go for a run in the evening—but all the same, I still frequently don’t go. Another great advantage of vocation programming, then, is its focus on practical strategies, not just on knowledge. This goes from practically focused essays in our textbooks—I’m thinking of ones by Lee Hardy and Gary Badcock in Leading Lives That Matter—to the fact that NetVUE is emphatically a cross-institutional organization, whose active members are as likely to come from career services as from campus ministries or from the faculty.

I mean this to be the start of a conversation, rather than the end of one—but what I hope I have put on the table here are some reasons why colleges would do well to engage with the vocation movement, even if they do not subscribe to the notion of God as the caller of individuals to highly personalized vocations: students want to know what they should do; they want to know why they should do it; and they want to know how they can go about it. And that is what I hope we can give them.

This post is an excerpt from a talk delivered at a NetVUE regional gathering held at Huntingdon College in February 2020. The entirety of the talk is available to NetVUE members through the Community Network Site.


Tom Perrin is Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Faculty, and Professor of English at Huntingdon College and the author of The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction: Popular U.S. Novels, Modernism and Form, 1945-75 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). For more on the significance of vocation in the context of higher education, see Tom’s editorial in the New York Times, “One Way to Make College Meaningful: Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

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