Newsweek, Harvard, Belief, the Reason for God, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, and the Case for Civility

A very interesting article appeared in Newsweek a couple weeks ago about the controversy that has been bubbling at Harvard University for the last few years around the topic of religion in their curriculum reform package.  Of course such a complex question cannot be adequately covered in a popular news mag, but I thought the Newsweek piece well worth reading, and want to encourage you to take a look.  It was called “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith” and you can read it here.

The topic of what college students should study, what constitutes a learned person—pointingend of education.jpg to the bigger question of what constitutes a well-lived life—is being explored in colleges large and small.  (See, for instance, the excellent, recent, Religious Ideas for Secular Universities by the always profound and crisp writer, C. John Somerville [Eerdmans; $18.00.]) High schools, home-schoolers, private academies of all sorts are likewise asking good questions these days.  I love the play on words in Neil Postman’s excellent paperback The End of Education; that is, what is the end (as in, the point of or purpose of) education?  If one isn’t clear about that, it will spell, he shows, the end of (meaningful) education.  The debate about the role of religion in education (and, more broadly, in the debates with the new atheists–and, boy, do we have a lot of books on that) raises all this stuff.  Religious studies at Harvard is only one way into a very, very important conversation.  I hope you read the article if you haven’t yet and allow it to make you ponder.

Here is a little rumination brought on by my reading of the Newsweek piece, and a bunch of books to be aware of if this resonates with you as important. (Or, if I can be so bold, maybe a book or two to get if this doesn’t strike you as important.)  Either way, we’re glad you are a part of this virtual community around our work here at Hearts & Minds.  We hope you enjoy thinking about this with me.  Here goes.

There is a presumption in the conversation almost whenever this comes up which is clearly seen in the Steven Pinker quotes in the Newsweek Harvard/religion article, and in his long-standing, well-publicized anti-teaching-about-religion position; it is a view that is frankly implicit for most people, and, I think, in the article itself.  Namely, that there are those who are reasonable and scientific (fully free of religious values) and those that are into faith (and, well, perhaps a bit less reasonable insofar as they take their religion seriously or allow it to inform their thinking.)

 Many have been clear and helpful in exposing the fallacy of the second part of that, thereason for god.png insinuation that people of faith are unreasonable.  There are oodles of good books that make great arguments for the rational basis for basic Christianity, showing that there is reason for faith.  We have a huge section of that kind of work in the shop, from Ravi Zacharias to Eric Metaxas to Nancy Ortberg.  Tim Keller’s spectacular Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Riverhead; $16.00) comes to mind as a wonderfully written, very thoughtful, very enjoyable study.  If you haven’t picked it up yet, we really would recommend that you do.

belief 3.JPGEven more amazing is the brand new collection of excerpts of famous authors, a reader entitled Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith edited and with an introduction by Francis Collins (HarperOne; $19.99.)  I mentioned this when it first came out a week or so ago and I can hardly say enough about it as an excellent book to read through, or to dip in to as you have need.  From ancients like Plato, Augustine or Aquinas through great thinkers like Lewis or Pascal or Alvin Plantinga and modern writers like Martin Luther King or Elie Wiesel or Tim Keller, this is a truly fabulous anthology.  You probably know of the editor, the former head of the human genome project and now the Director of the National Institute of Health for the Obama administration.  

However, the first part of that assumption (that some are simply not religious, worldviewishly neutral) is more subtle, more pervasive, and consequently more troublesome. This assumption that some are religiously neutral has been shown to be false and yet stubbornly is assumed by so many.  The Bible shows, the best philosophical minds have illustrated, and postmodern studies have developed, the key insight that nobody is value-free, philosophically innocent, religiously neutral or able to think outside of their own skin. All theories are themselves sprouts growing from some root.  Or, it might be said, at least, growing from some soil.  Or, to use the apt analogy of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, nobody on a barge puts their pole to push off on the bottom of the barge itself: they cast off of some firm foundation outside of the barge!

Everybody’s “firm” starting point (see Romans 1:21-25 for a blunt description of this as the
science and its limits.jpg human condition) leads to a viewpoint and the (often unconscious) spectacles through which we see, which are formative in what and how we perceive and what we conclude.   It leads, in the language of Clouser, to “reductionism.”  This is nothing new–Chesterton and Lewis were elegant thinkers and eloquent writers about reducing the complexity of life down to nothing but…  Reductionism is bad enough, but it is frustrating when it is not admitted, when it is considered the natural truth of things, unbiased.  This is the huge fly in the ointment in the debate about Darwin and natural selection and intelligent design, for instance, as so many see that debate as being between those that do pure science—somehow allegedly devoid of a philosophy of science—and those that are essentially doing religion, not science. That is a huge example of the worldview bias we are talking about, this notion that some have ideologically pure vision and only religious people have presuppositions.  One good book on the philosophy of science is Science and Its Limits by Calvin College professor Del Ratzsch (IVP.)  Pretty heady stuff, but so, so important.  For a more entertaining dip into these waters, expelled.jpgwatch the Ben Stein DVD Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the documentary about scholars in higher education who dared to question the reigning paradigm that only natural causes can explain things.  Dr. Ratzsch, by the way, is not a
part of the intelligent design movement; he wrote a book (Battle for Beginnings) on why “neither side” of the creation/evolution debate is winning…I think he’s on to something, and it is partially because he understands how deep presuppositions are shaped by faith-like commitments, that nobody is neutral, that all of life is religion.   

My friend blogger Dick Cleary has examined the Dover, PA ID trial–Scopes 2 some called it—of a few years back, just for example, offering this very critique of the ruling:  the judge and the prosecution—as much as we might intuit that they were right to expose the odd dealings of the confused Dover school board—simple had no evident understanding of the philosophy of science.  Read his provocative report here. Or, his serious piece on religion and science, here.  Cleary, himself a life-long science teacher and now college instructor in philosophy, is a master at exposing the unfounded assertions of the secularists and how they wrong-headedly say others have religious assumptions but fail to see their own equally un-testable, and therefore, pre-scientific views. 

It seems that we are all what Oxford University Press scholar Christian Smith calls “moral, believing animals” always serving, making-meaning, living as people out of the deepest recesses of our deepest convictions (or what the Bible calls idols.) The assumptions and presuppositions of the heart and mind shape and color all we do.  That is, Mr. Pinker’s naturalism is every bit a “faith like leap” as are the assumptions of the more traditionally religious (like Christians, Hindus, or Muslims, say.)  A pre-theoretical assumption is, finally, rooted in something outside itself–there are no “self-evident” truths, and all truth is shaded and construed in light of deeper heart-level presuppositions.  Nobody is not religious.

total truth.jpgSome books (among many) that I could recommend to explore this further: Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey (Crossway; $19.99) is a magnificent and sprawling study of the ways in which the split-level assumption (that there is true truth learned through reason and there are subjective values learned through religion) has deformed faith and reason, church and society.  It is a rigorous read, but lays bare this cultural assumption in very helpful and profound ways.  I simply cannot imagine being an informed and opinionated person without being at least fluent in the arguments she makes. 

More philosophically demanding, but still written for educated lay people who are not professional philosophers, and a must for anyone serious about higher education or seeing how belief shapes the academy I fully recommend the very important The Myth of Religious
Myth of religious Neutrality.jpg Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Beliefs in Theories  by Roy Clouser (University of Notre Dame Press; $29.95.)  I’ve talked about this often at workshops for scholars or serious students, the Emerging Scholars Network, and other such venues.  It is a remarkably important piece of work. 

Nearly any book on worldviews names this problem, too. Think of Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton’s Transforming Vision (my favorite worldview study) or James Sire’s small  Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, for instance, or the major work he drew upon in writing it, Worldview: The History of a Concept by David Naugle, published to great acclaim by Eerdmans.  The two books I first recommend for postmodern studies, too, get at this in their own way: see the delightfully written and very interesting book by Crystal Downing, How Postmodernism how postmodernism.jpgServes (My) Faith (IVP) or James K.A. Smith’s Whose Afraid of Postmodernism? (Baker) for a nice introduction to this deconstruction of meta-narratives, and all that that implies.  For theological conservatives who get the willies thinking about this, just go back to Van Til or Francis Schaeffer–they predicted this postmodern insight generations ago, naming how all of life is lived either out of God’s grace or based on an idol of some aspect of the created order made into a god.  All of these books expose this myth of religious neutrality, and show how all of life is informed by the deepest imaginations and convictions of the human heart.  Philosophers call this an a priori.  Clouser masterfully and carefully shows how the a priori starting point of a theory determines how the discipline is understood and perhaps practiced.  Of course it is more complicated that this—it is why I named James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, which reflects on our worldly rituals and cultural liturgies and practices as shaping us and our worldviews, as one of the books of the year last year.  But it is still true: ideas have consequences.  Or, as arts writer and Christian philosopher Calvin Seerveld has put it: ideas grow legs.

This is readily seen, isn’t it, in our recent health care debates, just for instance: our presuppositions, our starting assumptions about the role of the state and the common good, about personal liberty and individualism and consequentially, our attitudes about whether high taxes are good or bad, will then determine whether one is a political liberal or conservative, in favor of increased government involvement in health care or not.  Obvious, right?  Everybody’s opinion on policy is really a working out of their deeper worldview-level thoughts (beliefs?) about very basic stuff. [An aside: it is interesting to me that many evangelicals who are social conservatives have this instinctual suspicion of the state, which, it seems to me, comes from a worldview of the secular Enlightenment, more influenced by John Locke or Thomas Jefferson than, say, Romans 13, that says that government is, in principle, a gift of God, and therefore a good thing.  Why evangelicals gripe about taxes for the common good is beyond me, but that’s another worldviewish conversation.  It does presume, though, a certain view of the state, a view that is often unquestioned.  And held as an item of faith. No?]  Which reminds us that every dogma or proposal, from politics to science to the beliefs about the role of religion at Harvard or your school or workplace, is rooted in religious-like convictions.  Even if those who advocate those views deny it.

Ditto in every discipline; how can an otherwise brillant thinker and genial fellow like Dr. Pinker and other secularists not see this?  Clouser even uses mathematics as an example, thinking if he can show how deep-level religious-like beliefs shape the theories in math, we can see it more easily in other areas that he explores, such as physi
cs and politics. An old friend who recently died (and is missed by many out at Kent, Ohio) Kenn Hermann wrote a very good review of this book–it is a five page PDF and it would be great for you to at least read his good remarks about it.  James Skillen did a brief but excellent summary of it here in the Citizens for Public Justice report.

 Myth of religious Neutrality.jpgThe Myth of Religious Neutrality is a very, very important book and I would think it would be on the lips of college faculty, grad students, and sharp undergrads everywhere, especially those in the sciences.  I think it is nearly professional malpractice for scholars to not understand a little about the role of faith and theories, about what Berger calls “the social construction of reality” and the ways worldviews color ideas.  Each of these books mentioned above make a similiar case, and it leads to this: Clouser is a must-read for Christian scholars!

If I might implore Christian theologians, pastors and anybody who works in education: please consider reading this kind of stuff. I hope the links and reviews inspire you to want to read more about the philosophical underpinnings of ideas.  We need to be prophets, really, detectives, with wise cultural discernment.  What we think about the deepest questions matters, and the “below the service” worldviews that we breath like air effect us.    Teachers, at least, should at least read C.S. Lewis’ Abolition ofabolition of man.jpg Man on this, or the simple Oxford University Press paperback by historian, George Marsden called The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.  You may know the story of the title of that book: the New York Times called the notion that the eminent scholar practices a Christian philosophy of history “outrageous” so his Oxford editors invited him to explain himself.  It was from the title of that book for professors and scholars that Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby got their title, for their book for high school students making the college transition, or for any undergrads, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (Brazos Press.) To be such an outrageous, young Christian scholar may lead to some derision; at Harvard, apparently, some don’t even want to study religion, let alone take it’s claims seriously.  This book can help.

In this perspective, secularism can be as much of a dogma, and is always rooted in some faith story, as is evangelical faith or Orthodox Judaism.  The Newsweek article hints that Pinker and others who stubbornly extol the sole use of Reason for determining truth verge on being (rationalist) “fundamentalists.”  Yet, it seems that the author is of two minds about this.  It seems like the extreme and vocal secularity of Pinker is what makes him, in the author’s view, a fundy.  I think I want to say we are all fundamentalists, after all (some are just more honest and civil about it.)  We’ve all got fundamentals that are deeply held, and we live and die by them. (Or maybe you are aghast at the thought, which, then, for you, serves as your fundamental non-negotiable creed, eh?)   For some of us it is certain Biblical dogma, others of us describe this as an unfolding journey, for some it is an ideology like Darwinism or Marxism.  Everybody believes, and in that sense, all are religious.

Knowing this helps us navigate justly the pluralism of the public square, not just the Ivy League squabbles about religion at Harvard. As the quite excellent and moving last book by the late Robert Webber asks, Who Gets to Narrate the World?(IVP.)  Or, as the new Eerdmans collection by the aforementioned Peter Berger puts it, the world is desperate for a third alternative, and a way to adjudicate peacefully, the claims made “between relativism and fundamentalism.” It is called between relativism.jpgBetween Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position (Eedmans; $17.00.)  The sooner we understand the “myth of religious neutrality” the sooner we can move towards the “cosmopolitan public square” called for by Os Guinness’ very important The Case for
case for civility.jpg Civility (HarperOne.)  From Harvard Yard to your backyard, this stuff plays itself out in culture wars, political tensions, and increasing hostilities.  We dare not try to cover up religion, or yield the day to those who want to marginalize people of faith while they privilege their own empiricism or positivism.  But, as Guinness sweetly shows, we dare not, as people of faith, fight back with any desire to “re-take” our country or insist or a Christian imperialism.  We resist a secular “naked” public square, but do not counter with a sectarian one.  We should be for pluralism: freedom of and from religion, and a social structure that permits a fair and robust debate about it all.  We are a believing race, people whose deepest convictions are contested, even in the sciences.  Bring on the conversation and civil debate.  At Harvard and in your hometown, your church, your college, your blog.

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any book mentioned

Religious Ideas for Secular Universities C. John Somerville  regularly $18.00  NOW $14.40
The End of Education Neil Postman regularly $15.00  NOW $12.00
The Reason for God  Tim Keller  regularly $16.00  NOW $12.80
Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith Francis Collins regularly $19.99  NOW $17.99
Science and Its Limits Del Ratzsch  regularly $16.00  NOW 12.80
Battle for Beginnings Del Ratzsch  regularly $20.00  NOW $18.00
DVD Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed  regularly $26.99  NOW $21.60
Total Truth Nancy Pearcey  regularly $19.99  NOW $17.99
Myth of Religious Neutrality Roy Clouser  regularly $28.00  NOW $22.40
Transforming Vision Richard Middleton & Brian Walsh  regularly $16.00  NOW $12.80
Naming the Elephant James Sire  regularly $16.00  NOW $12.80
Worldview:The History of a Concept David Naugle  regularly $30.00  NOW $24.00
How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith Crystal Downing  regularly $19.00  NOW $15.20
Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?  James K.A. Smith  regularly $17.99  NOW $14.39
Desiring the Kingdom  James K.A. Smith  regularly $21.99  $17.59
Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis  regularly $11.99  NOW $9.59
Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship George Marsden  regularly $19.99  NOW $17.99
Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness Don Opitz & Derrick Melleby $13.99  NOW $11.19
Who Gets to Narrate the World? Robert Webber  regularly $15.00  NOW $12.00
Between Fundamentalism and Relativism  Peter Berger regularly $17.00  NOW $13.60
The Case for Civility Os Guinness  regularly $23.95  19.16


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