Religion and higher education
Posted: 27 January 2007 09:16 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Being a new member of the community here, I’ve been listening to all of the previous POI podcasts and doing some subsequent reading by authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins etc. I’m starting to become a little more aware now of some of the ways religious ideas seem to still be ever-creeping into secular areas, especially education. A good example popped up today while reading the newspaper.

The following was excerpted from today’s [i:dc58aa3fdb]Tallahassee Democrat[/i:dc58aa3fdb]. It seems to be pretty representative of a benign (on the surface at least) idea to include into everyone’s college education the study of religion, or theology. I’m sure many of us who strive for a free, scientifically-based examination of any and all subject areas, including religion, wouldn’t necessarily disagree with with this goal, and the author here almost seems to be ascribing to this ideal—at first. The second and third paragraphs in the following excerpt reveal the true nature of the author’s proposition, that being to return the "truth" of religion to a student body desperately in need of the moral guidance that only religion can supply, via it’s "forms of reasoning unavailable through other disciplines." He further goes on to say that this reasoning "says there’s a truth out there that defines the reality of the world we live in. A scary thought" Funny, but I always thought that scientific inquiry had been doing that for a long time now. The prospect of equating the religious "truth" as a reasonable alternative to scientific inquiry is the truly scary thought.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as clueless but harmless, however it automatically gains some credibility just due to it’s publication in the first place. This also seems to me to be yet another example of how this insidious mindset persists and is growing in scope.

I plan to put together a letter to the editor regarding this column and its general ideas, but my first thought was to bring it up here and get some thoughts on this kind of thing from the forum. What do you all think?

[i:dc58aa3fdb]The Tallahassee Democrat[/i:dc58aa3fdb] - Originally published January 27, 2007
Excerpted from [i:dc58aa3fdb]Bringing religion back into higher education [/i:dc58aa3fdb]by community columnist Chris Timmons

"What we need at universities today is not only a grounding in liberal arts, but religion, that which orders the whole man to love, decency and contemplation of truth. Isn’t the university the center of civilization’s knowledge and desire for truth? Isn’t the university designed exactly for the high aim of forming the right people for the tough task of maintaining civilization? Theology, although relegated to the dustbin, is the basis for Western civilization’s understanding of liberty and democracy. The real tragedy is that the university is supposed to be a place with democratic forms of doing things embedded in its function. Instead, it has become an insular, monologue-driven clique of academics talking past each other, obscuring reason and debate, and rejecting serious claims to alternate forms of reason while making everything else equal by throwing away truth.

Bringing theology back into the debate in higher ed gives students a real chance at learning to explore forms of reasoning unavailable through other disciplines. It encourages integrity, character and respect. It says there’s a truth out there that defines the reality of the world we live in. A scary thought.

By the way, it propels learning on a scale and in a way that is more diverse than the narrow specialties that produce the miseducated careerists. While theology may never again be taken seriously at the university, sometimes we have to remind ourselves of its benefits. Theology is plainly necessary for living, as Matthew Arnold would say, "steadily and whole."

The full text of this column can be found at http://www.tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070127/OPINION05/701270304/1006/OPINION

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Jack Martin
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Posted: 27 January 2007 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Re: Religion and higher education

Interesting subject, SC. A few things jump out at me from the article you quoted:

Theology, although relegated to the dustbin, is the basis for Western civilization’s understanding of liberty and democracy.

Huh? Where did he get that idea from? The basis for western ideas of democracy comes from ancient Greece, not Christian theology. Contemporary ideas of liberty come as much from the european Enlightenment as anything (e.g., against the ‘divine right of kings’ and the church inquisition), and that was an explicitly anti-sectarian affair.

The real tragedy is that the university is supposed to be a place with democratic forms of doing things embedded in its function. Instead, it has become an insular, monologue-driven clique of academics talking past each other, obscuring reason and debate, and rejecting serious claims to alternate forms of reason while making everything else equal by throwing away truth.

This is a caricature. It bears no resemblance to the university as a whole, or even on average. It certainly is true that post-modernism has too much of a hold on many liberal arts departments, but it is far from universal, and there are plenty of good theoreticians of all sorts there. I even know some of them! :wink:

And this does not even touch departments of the sciences, engineering, medical school, et cetera.

Bringing theology back into the debate in higher ed gives students a real chance at learning to explore forms of reasoning unavailable through other disciplines. It encourages integrity, character and respect. It says there’s a truth out there that defines the reality of the world we live in. A scary thought.

Theology certainly has its place, in particular as part of a rounded program of philosophy or religious studies—it will always have an important role to play in learning the history of philosophy, or world religions. But I have no idea what this author means by “explor[ing] forms of reasoning unavailable through other disciplines”. These are precisely the same forms of reasoning one gets in standard philosophy classes, with the exception of the role of faith that stands at the heart of much of the worst sort of theology.

And of course, faith is a non-rational, even an anti-rational, stance that rejects reason and evidence in favor of the stubborn acceptance of religious slogans. IMO it has no role to play in genuine scholarship, and hence no real role to play in a classroom or university setting. (Except, of course, as a subject of study rather than practice).

As for theology “encourag[ing] integrity, character and respect”, I can’t see how it would do such a thing, certainly not any more than doing other sorts of philosophy or religious studies would.

And the claim that theology shows “there’s a truth out there” is no different from what one learns in any decently taught course: indeed, it’s the truths that one is eventually tested on at the end.

Or, instead, is the author suggesting that the theology professors engage in proselytization instead of teaching and scholarship? Does he mean that the university become a sectarian religious institution, providing indoctrination into one particular sort of religion? Because if religious studies is done well, I think it will show the diversity of religious opinions, and tend to weaken rather than strengthen any sort of narrow sectarianism, e.g., of the sort that would say “There’s a truth out there, and it’s that of religion X”.

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Doug

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Posted: 27 January 2007 12:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Just so Doug. Those are many of the clueless aspects of this little essay I was hinting at, and I knew I could count on some insightful commentary from the folks here. I believe you are right in saying that he was suggesting more proselytizing versus true scholarship, or as he termed it,

insular, monologue-driven clique of academics talking past each other, obscuring reason and debate, and rejecting serious claims to alternate forms of reason while making everything else equal by throwing away truth.

What is interesting, and somewhat disturbing, is how he just kept skimming the surface of this idea, without ever coming right out and putting it forth. I can see how many of the “moderately religious” readers may see this as reasonable. 

Thank you for your clear, intelligent assessment. You said a lot of what I was thinking about this column, though stated much better than I ever could have.

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Jack Martin
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Posted: 27 January 2007 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Glad to be of help, SC.

To be fair, I think that the “throwing away truth” line may be an allusion to post-modernist obscurantism. If so, it is something that I am as opposed to as blinkered sectarianism. But they are clearly different phenomena.

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Doug

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