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Does God Make a Difference?Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities$

Warren Nord

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199766888

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199766888.001.0001

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Liberal Education

Liberal Education

(p.103) 5 Liberal Education
Does God Make a Difference?

Warren A. Nord

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that public schools and universities must take religion seriously for a number of reasons. It begins saying something about what it means to take religion seriously, distinguishing among a variety of ways in which students might learn about religion. It focuses on liberal education and its role in facilitating critical thinking. It shows that a liberal education requires that students be initiated into an ongoing conversation about how to make sense of the world—one in which religious voices must be included as live options. It argues that if we take religion seriously, we need not take everything seriously—and attempts to short-circuit the arguments of those who think that religion needn't be taken seriously because it is not intellectually respectable. The chapter concludes with a few comments about the underappreciated virtue of humility in education.

Keywords:   American education, religion, religious education, public schools, public universities, liberal education, humility

In this and the next two chapters I will argue that public schools and universities must take religion seriously for a number of reasons. I’ll begin this chapter by saying something about what it means to take religion seriously, distinguishing among a variety of ways in which students might learn about religion. I’ll say a little about the importance of a basic religious literacy for understanding particular subjects in the curriculum, but my primary focus will be on liberal education and its role in facilitating critical thinking or what, in the last chapter, I called being reasonable.

As we shall see, a liberal education requires that students be initiated into an ongoing conversation about how to make sense of the world—one in which religious voices must be included as live options. I will explain why, if we take religion seriously, we need not take everything seriously—and I’ll attempt to short-circuit the arguments of those who think that religion needn’t be taken seriously because it is not intellectually respectable. I’ll conclude with a few comments about the underappreciated virtue of humility in education.

Over the course of the chapter we’ll see that two of the potential problems discussed in the last chapter (religious ignorance and secular indoctrination) are real problems given the fact that education must be liberal. The other potential problem (religious neutrality) must await treatment in chapter 7.

(p.104) Taking Religion Seriously

Schools and universities might ignore religion. Many do. But if they are going to address religion they have options. I am going to try to keep this simple but even my simple version requires a number of distinctions (five) and may get a little technical.

1. Religious Literacy

In an elementary school social studies course students may learn a little about religious holidays and symbols, perhaps even some religious history. High school history courses will likely provide more substantive descriptive or factual accounts of religious movements and leaders, beliefs and practices, and their influence (though, as we saw in chapter 2, we shouldn’t expect too much). A literature course may discuss poems or novels that have religious themes or that employ biblical symbolism that needs to be unpacked. While such relatively straightforward approaches to religion may not be free of interpretive assumptions, they are often uncontroversial. In such cases, no deep understanding of religion may be provided, and no judgments regarding the truth of religious claims are made.

2. Religious Understanding

A course in religious studies might require students to get inside a religion by using sacred or theological texts that employ that religion's own categories for making sense of the world. In such a course, students might be asked to bracket their own assumptions in order to make sense of the world as people within that religion do. A high school or college literature course might enable students to get inside a religion imaginatively by way of literary texts (Paradise Lost or a novel like The Chosen) that give them some vicarious sense of what it is to experience the world from within a tradition at a particular time and place. Such a course does more than simply provide information about a religion; it nurtures inside, empathetic understanding—the ability to see and feel the world, no doubt in modest ways, as people within a religious tradition do. For a still deeper understanding students will need to study the religion more systematically, thinking and feeling themselves into the religious worldview within which beliefs, values, experiences, and rituals make sense.

It may be the case that a course will help students understand a religion, from the inside, in historical context—at the time of its founding, or when its (p.105) sacred scriptures were written. Of course, some religions die, while others change over time and receive new theological articulations and defenses in response to cultural and intellectual developments. Hence, students might also come to understand contemporary religions, from the inside, as live options for making sense of the world here and now.

3. Comparative Perspective

A course in religious studies might ask students to compare how different religions make sense of the world generally or of a particular subject such as salvation. The idea here is to both get inside each religious tradition (using its categories for making sense of the world) and then step outside each to contrast them. Of course we need to recognize that it is impossible to step outside all points of view, achieving some kind of pristine objectivity. Still, students may find similarities and differences that prove enlightening and acquire a measure of critical distance on their own beliefs and values in the process.

We might also compare religious with various secular ways of making sense of the world generally, or a particular subject such as the self, in evolutionary biology or neoclassical economics or Freudian psychology. In such comparative study religion isn’t compartmentalized and rendered irrelevant as a possible way of making sense of the world. Rather, religion is engaged—and the similarities and differences that students discover may (again) prove enlightening and give them a critical distance on their own beliefs and values.

As I am going to use the phrase, “taking religion seriously” requires basic religious literacy, of course, but it also requires that students acquire inside (or empathetic) understanding of several religious traditions (otherwise we would just be taking a religion seriously) and it requires that students acquire comparative perspective on various live religious and secular traditions. The idea is that we don’t take a point of view—a religious or secular perspective—truly seriously if we marginalize it, if we don’t let it contend with alternatives ways of making sense of the world (or a particular subject) for our reasoned support.

While I’ll say much more about neutrality in chapters to come, here I’ll just note that taking religion seriously can be done without promoting religion or abandoning neutrality. Consider a philosophy course in which Buddhist, Christian, Marxist, and Darwinian ways of making sense of ethics are all taken seriously—that is, students study each tradition in some depth, acquiring inside understanding of each live alternative (using primary sources written from within that tradition), and read (or hear) how advocates of each position respond to the alternatives, engaging, as it were, in a critical conversation with each other. So long as this is done fairly and the teacher doesn’t pass judgment, (p.106) such a course would be religiously neutral. Needless to say, this approach need not be limited to philosophy courses.

4. Teaching Religion

A teacher, text, or course might argue that a particular religion is true, or simply adopt its categories for assessing the truth of rival religious or secular frameworks of interpretation, as may happen in religious academies and colleges. This is a quite different approach to religion—one in which there is no pretense to neutrality.

5. Explaining Religion(s)

Yet another approach is that of taking religion as an object of scholarly study to be explained. In explaining religion the scholar or teacher tries to make sense of religions in terms of some broader or more fundamental categories. Here there would seem to be two possibilities. (This is my last distinction.)

5a. Some scholars have attempted to explain particular religious traditions in terms of more general religious categories. In this case, traditional religions may be taken to provide different but inevitably inadequate ways of getting at God (or the Real), but God (or the Real) exists and is an unreducible aspect of reality. I am thinking here of scholars such as William James, Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, or John Hick.

5b. Other scholars have attempted to explain religions in secular categories. A course in the psychology, anthropology, or sociology of religion will typically take religion as an object of study in need of explanation in the categories of the host discipline. While some explanatory theories may be religiously neutral—as I’ve noted, “secular” means nonreligious not antireligious—many are reductionistic. They claim to show that religion is not what it appears to be when viewed from the inside; they reduce it to a more basic reality that can be fully understood in secular categories. In effect, they take a position on religion, arguing that its basic claims are false or at least misleading. Here I have in mind scholars working in the traditions of Freud, Durkheim, Marx, evolutionary biology, or neuroscience, who explain religion as, for example, a neurotic symptom of unconscious wishes, or in terms of neural mechanisms that can, in turn, be explained in terms of natural selection.

Of course, such theories can be discussed neutrally (just as the religious texts, theologies, and religious traditions can be discussed neutrally) but if such theories are endorsed or advocated then religious neutrality has been violated just as if a particular religious view or theology were endorsed or advocated.

(p.107) No doubt advocates of reductionistic theories take religion seriously in this sense: they believe it sufficiently important to develop (secular) theories that try to explain it (away). But clearly this is not what I mean by taking religion seriously. We take religion seriously in my sense when a course (or the curriculum) takes religious ways of making sense of the world seriously as live options in critical, comparative conversations.

The Argument for Religious Literacy

Before I explain why schools and universities must take religion seriously, I need to say something about the most common argument for learning about religion. It is often argued that students can’t understand literature or history without learning something about religion. A 2007 Time magazine cover story on high school Bible courses noted that there are more than 1,300 references to the Bible in Shakespeare and that Christ's passion is a key to understanding The Old Man and the Sea. John Winthrop's “City on a Hill,” Lincoln's second inaugural, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s rhetoric all draw on the Bible.1 Or one could try to understand art apart from the Bible. I read once of an undergraduate who complained about the pervasive sexism in medieval and Renaissance art: in all of those paintings of mothers and child, the children were always little boys.

No doubt similar cases could be made for literacy regarding other religious texts, figures, events, and movements, including those from religions other than just Christianity. In our post-9/11 world the idea that students need to understand something about Islam if they are to understand politics and world affairs strikes most people as reasonable. (Not that we should need 9/11 to make us aware of the importance of Islam in history and culture.) In fact, in all cultures and for most of history religion pervaded all of life, shaping and informing people's understanding of politics, war, economics, justice, literature, art, philosophy, science, psychology, and morality, as well as their hopes for a world to come. It shouldn’t be surprising that students need to know something of religion to understand their coursework in history, literature, art, politics, and perhaps other subjects of the curriculum.

This is the first—and I think completely uncontroversial—argument for requiring a basic religious literacy. Students can’t understand the subject matter of at least some of their courses without knowing something about religion. In this case, the relevance of religion to the curriculum is derivative or secondary. This is an argument for religion in a supporting role. Religion isn’t important in and of itself, only for understanding something else.

(p.108) Does this argument require that students actually understand religion (from the inside) or take it seriously as a live option? No doubt in many contexts relatively uncontroversial factual information about religion will suffice, and advocates of cultural literacy typically stop short of requiring any deep understanding of religion. Hence, I am calling this the argument from mere religious literacy. As we shall eventually see, however, a deep understanding of history, literature, and politics does require that students actually understand religion, not just a few facts about it.

Liberal Education

First, let me clear that in speaking of liberal education I do not mean an education that is politically liberal. In fact, a liberal education may have either a politically liberal or conservative bent to it (and I will say something good about both in due time). Second, I am not going to offer a full-blown theory of liberal education. Instead, I’ll propose several relatively uncontroversial characteristics of a liberal education that should be compatible with various theories. My goal is to show that liberal education requires schools and universities to take religion seriously.

In his very helpful book Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education Bruce Kimball charts the history of two quite different, sometimes competing ideals of liberal education.2 The first—which he calls the artes liberales, or “liberal arts” ideal—is grounded in the classical canon. It assumes that moral truths and ideals of civic virtue are to be found in classical literature, and it is largely a literary education. It forms character, and is meant to be the ideal education for public leaders—historically, for men of leisure, of liberty (hence, liberal arts). Such an education binds students to the past, to tradition (and as such is typically conservative). While Kimball traces the liberal arts conception back to the Greek rhetorician Isocrates, Cicero is its patron saint. It was the educational ideal of late Greece and Rome, the early Middle Ages (where it took on Christian hues), the Renaissance, and early America.

The second conception of liberal education—which Kimball calls the liberal-free ideal—takes as its patron saint the philosopher Socrates, and is moved by the continuing search for truth. It values free, critical inquiry and tolerance; it is skeptical. It inclines toward egalitarianism and individualism rather than elitism and tradition. It pays scant attention to the classics but is concerned with philosophical inquiry and scientific experiment. It assumes no truth from the past, but is critical, constantly looking for new truths; it underwrites the idea of progress. It liberates students, rather than binds them to (p.109) tradition (and is more liberal in a political sense). The liberal-free ideal was foreshadowed in Greek philosophy and in the philosophy of the High Middle Ages, but it came into its own only with the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and nineteenth-century research universities. Arguably, it had become the dominant conception of liberal education in American universities by the end of the nineteenth century.

Of course, much education nowadays is only marginally liberal in either sense, fixated as it often is on narrowly practical knowledge and vocationalism. Be that as it may, I am going to suggest a number of characteristics of liberal education that combine Kimball's two emphases and that cut across secondary and undergraduate education. My proposal is that we think of liberal education as having four dimensions related to one another by way fifth, of a structured, coherent conversation.

(1) I suspect that the most common conception of a liberal education is that of a broad education. A liberal education is not narrow, specialized, or merely vocational. It introduces students to other cultures and to a variety of subjects and disciplines.

There are several reasons for requiring such breadth. It has often been argued that a liberal education enriches the lives of students, and this is good in and of itself. In the next chapter I will say something about moral reasons for liberal education. Here I want to focus on the idea that a broad education is necessary for critical thinking (or what I call being reasonable). No doubt critical thinking involves more than breadth; it requires logical rigor and the reasoned assessment of evidence and arguments. But if education is to go beyond training, socialization, or indoctrination students must have critical distance on what they learn. They must be open to, and informed about, alternative ways of making sense of the world and their lives.3 What do they know of England who only England know?

The idea of breadth often translates into acquiring an understanding of different subjects—history, literature, science, and art. But, as I argued in the last chapter, while we talk about studying subjects we always study them in terms of frameworks of interpretation provided by the various disciplines, and so it is not surprising that educators typically think of breadth in terms of disciplinary approaches to knowledge. In universities students are typically required to take several courses in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and, perhaps, in the arts. What is important is not so much subject matter—in fact, there may not be any required subject matter—but how to think about subjects. Secondary schools are apt to place more emphasis on subject matter (in part because it can be more easily tested), though always as interpreted through the lens of the host disciplines. The essential point is that (p.110) if students are to think critically, they must have some understanding of the major ways that humankind has devised for making sense of the world.

(2) If students are to understand different cultures, intellectual traditions, and academic disciplines they must be able to get inside them. They must acquire some sense of how their members or advocates understand them, not how we understand them given our preconceptions and values. If we screen alternative traditions through our own conceptual filters, assuming that we know how to interpret the world, we will gain no critical perspective on our own assumptions. It is hard to improve here on John Stuart Mill, who wrote that students must hear arguments “from persons who actually believe them … in their most plausible and persuasive form…. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men … have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them … and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profane.”4

Such perspective is often difficult to acquire, particularly when the culture or tradition is very different from ours. At the least this requires imagination (much education fails for want of imagination), intensive study, and especially the use of primary sources. Here the humanities do most of the heavy lifting. I will call this dimension of a liberal education “inside understanding.”

(3) If the ideal is to promote critical thinking and inside understanding, the next question is, about what? The answer: about the things that matter most. A liberal education is not superficial. It has often been argued that a liberal education should address those existential Big Questions regarding justice and suffering, love and death, beauty and the meaning of life, which any thoughtful human being must confront. A liberal education orients students in life; it gives them some sense of what is meaningful—all of which is of momentous importance. I will have a good deal more to say about the moral and existential nature of education in the next chapter. For now I simply note that a liberal education inevitably and properly orients students in the world; it gives them implicitly (if not always explicitly) some sense of what is important, of how to make sense of the world, and of how to live their lives. It provides a context in terms of which students can think critically about their vocational goals, their future education, their civic and moral obligations, and what makes life meaningful. The third dimension of a liberal education, then, is existential depth.

(4) Not all cultures, intellectual traditions, or academic disciplines are compatible with one another; there are tensions and conflicts, as well as continuities and complementarities, among them. (Think of cultures that are patriarchal and those that promote gender equality, of democratic and (p.111) totalitarian ideologies; or of evolutionist and creationist theories.) It is not enough, if our goal is critical thinking, simply to introduce students to various cultures, disciplines, and intellectual traditions, in turn, like items on an academic cafeteria line. A good liberal education will initiate students into an ongoing conversation about how to sort out the contending views. This is the Socratic nature of a liberal education: we seek truth through conversation.

No doubt students may be exposed to contending cultures and theories within a particular course, but the disciplinary structure of education makes interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary discussion of contending intellectual traditions all but impossible. High school education is frozen into the traditional categories of social studies, language arts, math, and the sciences, and never the quatrain shall meet (except for math and science). University students are free to choose among a dizzying array of narrowly focused, highly specialized courses that are unlikely to relate to one another in any meaningful way (and cumulatively may leave them largely culturally illiterate). Textbooks rarely acknowledge that their subject matters may be interpreted in fundamentally different ways. And in spite of a widespread acknowledgment of the value of interdisciplinary studies, students are all too rarely required to participate in interdisciplinary conversations. As the literary critic Gerald Graff has put it, college curricula (and we might add high school curricula) are typically separatist “with each subject and course being an island with little regular connection to other subjects and courses.”5

As we actually practice it, education is essentially a sequence of monologues, something closer to serial socialization than to a conversation and, as such, it is more a matter of training students than educating them. (I am reminded of the good soul who, when asked for an opinion of Dr. Johnson's new dictionary, replied that it is “most instructive, though I did seem to notice a trifling want of connection.”6) Graff's proposal, one that I endorse, is to “teach the conflicts”—indeed, to use this as an organizing and connecting principle for a liberal education.7 Alasdair MacIntyre has argued for a similar conception of the university as “a place of constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict, in which a central responsibility of higher education would be to initiate students into conflict” in which, among other things, “the most fundamental type of moral and theological disagreement was accorded recognition.”8

I suggest we put this a little more positively. A liberal education must be a conversation in which students come to understand the relationship of cultures, traditions, and disciplines to one another. Are they complementary, do they conflict, are they in tension with one another—and what are the implications for how we make sense of the world?

(p.112) (5) Finally, a liberal education must have a historical dimension. (We might think of this as temporal breadth.) One can’t understand one's own time without historical perspective. One can’t understand race relations in the United States without understanding the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. History is a record of the cultural experiments of humankind from which we must learn to live responsibly. It is commonplace to quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The point, of course, is that our lives might well be changed by the lessons of history—and Santayana's use of the word condemn points to the gravity of the lessons.

But, of course, we aren’t simply external observers of history, self-contained, morally unencumbered individuals or social atoms. We are caught up in history, we live in communities of memory (to use Robert Bellah's fine phrase) that give shape and substance to our identities. We inherit roles in stories (or, as scholars would say, in narratives). We are historical beings, enmeshed in webs of influence and obligation that tie us not just to other people in our own time, but the past and the future. Indeed, all thinking takes place within cultural and intellectual traditions (embodying narratives or worldviews) that constrain and guide it, that make sense of it. (This is a more conservative complement to the somewhat more liberal emphasis on breadth and critical thinking.) Needless to say, traditions aren’t static; they change in response to political, cultural, technological, and intellectual developments. Our traditions are caught up in cultural and intercultural debates—in culture wars—and to some considerable extent, it is in response to these challenges that progress takes place.

If we think of a liberal education as a conversation, it is clearly a historical, ongoing conversation, and just as we cannot understand any conversation if we walk into the middle of it, so students cannot understand the curricular conversation unless they understand something of its history.

A liberal education has, then, four dimensions—breadth inside understanding, existential depth, and historical perspective—all connected, fifth, by way of an ongoing critical conversation.

Now, what are the implications of all of this for taking religion seriously? First, in terms of breadth, what is obviously missing in both public schools and universities is any requirement that students study religious ways of making sense of the world. Second, if religious perspectives are to be included, students must be given an inside understanding of them—or they fail to serve their critical purpose. Third, the relevance of religion is even more pronounced if education should address the moral and existential Big Questions (which I will take up in the next chapter). Fourth, given the historical influence of (p.113) religion it is clear that religious perspectives must have an important role in the ongoing conversation. Finally, religious perspectives must be allowed to contend with other perspectives in the critical conversation that a liberal education should nurture; religion can’t be compartmentalized, rendered irrelevant to the rest of education, if education is to serve the purposes of critical thinking.

It would seem, then, that barring any special reasons for excluding religion from the conversation (I’ll consider several possibilities in due course) a liberal education must take religions seriously, nurturing an inside understanding of religions, as live options, as part of a critical conversation. The study of religion is important not just derivatively, for what it can contribute to the study of other subjects; if students are to be liberally educated they must understand religious perspectives on the world (and their subjects) not just a few domesticated facts about religion swaddled in the secular categories of history, literature, politics, and science. To leave religion out of the conversation is clearly and utterly illiberal.

Reason Again

I have focused here on the fact that a liberal education is necessary if students are to think critically. Short of this, what we call education is nothing more than training, socialization, or indoctrination. The problem is that almost always, critical thinking is pursued only within disciplines. I don’t mean to condemn disciplines. Scholars make progress by narrowing their focus, by working within methodologies that are fruitful and that give them rules for adjudicating disputes. But if disciplines are necessary for intellectual progress, they aren’t sufficient for the purposes of a liberal education because they fail to address critically important interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary disputes regarding the relationships and limitations of the disciplines. As I suggested in the last chapter, too often disciplines function as intellectual blinders that keep scholars from seeing the whole of reality.

In terms of the two conceptions of reason I distinguished in the last chapter, a liberal education requires more than simply teaching students to be rational (or to think critically) within a particular framework of thought (an academic discipline, an intellectual tradition, a narrative, a worldview). A liberal education requires that students are encouraged and enabled to be reasonable about contending ways of being rational. Students must acquire critical perspective on the disciplines; they must be initiated into conversations in which they learn to assess the assumptions and claims of contending (p.114) disciplines and the traditions and worldviews within which they are embedded. Short of this, education, while teaching students to be rational in a variety of ways, ends up a matter of serial socialization in one discipline after another.

I might put a little meat on these bones by way of an example of what's at issue. As we have seen, economics texts and courses are typically framed in terms of neoclassical economic theory (which is part and parcel of the modern worldview shaped by modern science and social science). From the commitment of the discipline of economics to value-free social science, a whole series of claims follow about human nature, morality (or values), decision making, and what it is important to understand in order to study economics. Neoclassical economic theory may, in the end, be the most reasonable way of thinking about the economic domain of life, but it is deeply controversial when viewed from the vantage point of alternative disciplines, worldviews, and cultures. While the basic assumptions (and the underlying worldview) of neoclassical theory may be articulated in textbooks or courses, alternative assumptions about economics, human nature, and morality—grounded in different disciplines and worldviews—are not apt to be. As a result, while students will learn to think critically (or rationally) about economic problems in terms of neoclassical theory, it will be all but impossible for them to think critically or reasonably about neoclassical economic theory itself.

Economists may respond that the proof is in the pudding of predictive reliability (a foul-tasting pudding these days). But this is only one possible measure for thinking about the adequacy of an economic theory. One might reasonably wonder, for example, whether neoclassical theory is compatible with what we know about human nature from philosophy, history, or literature, or whether neoclassical economics gives us adequate resources to understand justice and human flourishing. We might also wonder if neoclassical theory is compatible with a religious understanding of the world. But these questions and controversies are rarely raised—and never in the introductory textbooks I’ve reviewed.

Students must be taught neoclassical economics. After all, most (but not all) economists accept neoclassical theory. But students must also be exposed to other ways of making sense of economics or the whole idea of critical thinking about the subject of economics will come to naught. If students don’t engage in informed, critical conversation about the alternatives we will be training or indoctrinating rather than (liberally) educating them. I will say more about how this should happen in chapter 10.

There are, of course, religious as well as secular ways of making sense of human nature, value judgments, and the economic domain of life. Indeed, (p.115) there are religious ways of making sense of virtually every subject in the curriculum. But it is virtually never explained to students that these religious alternatives exist. Consequently, as we saw in the last chapter, both secondary and higher education unrelentingly and uncritically nurture across the curriculum a secular mentality that borders on indoctrination. Let me acknowledge again that much secular and scientific scholarship is compatible with much, perhaps most, religion. The problem is that we don’t just teach discrete scientific facts and secular theories. Instead we teach students to interpret all of their subjects in secular categories—categories that often conflict with and marginalize religious categories (as is the case with economic theory).

Critical thinking, learning to be reasonable, is not an optional philosophical frill that educators have the freedom to take or leave at their pleasure. It is at the heart of what a liberal education is about. Short of this, schools and universities should stop talking about educating students and retreat to talk of training or indoctrination. And, of course, talk of exploring alternative ways of making sense of the world is thin gruel if religious alternatives are not among them.

Must All Alternatives Be Taken Seriously?

If schools and universities must take religions seriously, must they also take alchemy, flat-earth geography, astrology, Fascism, or Marxism seriously? Must they be considered as live options? Are some ways of making sense of a subject or the world beyond the pale? And how might we set priorities among legitimate alternatives?

First, only live traditions need be taken seriously as live options, though there may be very good reasons for studying dead traditions in the context of history. There are no (or very few) defenders of alchemy or a flat earth nowadays. Marxism is trickier because there are still Marxists. Obviously, not all religions—for example, Greek, Roman, and Norse religion—are live alternatives that need be taken seriously.

Second, among living traditions, we may justifiably give priority to those that are most influential. There are only so many pages in the textbooks and hours in a course, and this imposes a major practical constraint on the range of alternatives that can be considered. While the thrust of a liberal education is always toward broadening the range of alternatives to be considered, there is inevitably a trade-off between breadth and depth of understanding; the more alternatives, the more superficial the treatment. Compromises are necessary. Minor intellectual, political, and religious movements do not have the claim on us that influential movements do.

(p.116) Third, it is justifiable to give some priority to traditions depending on proximity: it is more important for students to learn about their own states than other states, their own country than other countries, Western civilization than other civilizations. It may be more important to take seriously a local religious tradition with little influence on the world stage than a major religious tradition whose influence is more distant. True, the purpose of a liberal education is to broaden the conversation, the range of (live, influential) traditions considered; but, again, there are trade-offs given the time (and textbook pages) that is available. This is not an argument for excluding distant traditions, only for giving them somewhat less priority.

Fourth, we have already seen that a liberal education addresses questions of existential depth, and this provides a criterion for choosing among contending alternatives. Some traditions are more important in people's lives than others, and if there is not time for all, then those of more importance to more people should be given priority. Even though polls show that perhaps a quarter of Americans believe in astrology (including a recent president and first lady) it just doesn’t have anything like the importance for most people that, say, religion has.

Fifth, it is justifiable to discriminate on the grounds of what is intellectually serious; after all, the purpose of a liberal education is to put students into a position where they can be reasonable. Of course, what counts as intellectually serious is controversial and changes from time to time. A reason that astrology need not be taken seriously is that there is now, as opposed to several centuries ago, only a superficial intellectual tradition connected with it. (Perhaps not everyone will agree.) When voices speak out of the context of a rich and reflective intellectual background there is reason to take them more seriously than if they express (relatively) superficial ideas or ideals—no matter how common, relevant, and influential.9 Perhaps I should say that the phrase intellectually serious shouldn’t be taken too narrowly; certainly much art, for example, is intellectually serious; artistic traditions provide live, influential, and important ways of finding meaning in the world.

Sixth, while it is important to learn about, and even to understand from the inside, live traditions that most Americans would consider evil or deeply misguided (communism or religious terrorism) I don’t see that they need to be taken seriously as live options; indeed, it may be justifiable to condemn them on moral grounds. Needless to say, where we draw the lines will be controversial.

I don’t think these criteria should be particularly controversial in principle (though they may be in particular cases); in fact, we use most of them routinely. In any case, the world's major religious traditions are live, influential, intellectually (p.117) rich traditions that address matters of great existential significance to people in ways that are not (typically) beyond the moral pale. In taking them seriously we are not committed to opening the floodgates to everything.

Is Religion Intellectually Respectable?

I said above that religion must be taken seriously if there are no special reasons for excluding it from the conversation. In chapter 7 I will consider the claim that there are constitutional problems with taking religion seriously, and in chapter 8 I will consider several practical and political reasons for not taking it seriously. Here I want to discuss what is probably the most influential argument among scholars for not taking religion seriously: religion is not intellectually respectable.

In arguing several years ago against a faculty task force recommendation that Harvard introduce a “faith and reason” general education requirement for undergraduates, the psychologist Steven Pinker claimed this would give religion “far too much prominence. It [religion] is an American anachronism in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.”10 In response, Mark Edington, Pinker's Harvard colleague, pointed out that this is “more than a little like standing at the water's edge and commanding the tide not to rise.”11 As I noted in chapter 1, the secularization thesis, much loved by social scientists, has come in for a great deal of criticism lately. Religion hasn’t disappeared; indeed, much of the world is becoming more religious. As a result, it might even seem that religion deserves more prominence in the curriculum. (The Harvard faculty ended up rejecting the recommendation, proposing instead that students be required to take a course in “culture and belief.”)

Of course Pinker doesn’t want to count noses in deciding what to let into the curriculum. His real problem is that religion isn’t intellectually respectable. What is really important, he argued, is that students learn to make sense of the world scientifically. Needless to say, science has many “cascading effects” on how we “view ourselves and the world in which we live” including “that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; … that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; [and] that precious and widely held beliefs [religious beliefs, no doubt], when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.” He concludes that “a person for whom scientific understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated.”12

The intellectual historian David Hollinger puts this kind of argument into historical context, claiming that while “Christianity marched into the modern (p.118) era as the strongest, most institutionally endowed cultural program in the Western world” it is no longer plausible “within disciplinary communities in the social sciences and humanities.” While some scholars argue for a greater pluralism of views in the academy, one that includes religious voices, Hollinger responds that no such pluralism is required, for things have been settled as a result of the Enlightenment and modern science. Universities “should not surrender back to Christianity the ground they have won for a more independent, cosmopolitan life of the mind.” Christianity had its chance and failed. In effect, the price of admission to the academy is a principled rejection of Christianity and those religious views whose advocates refuse to play by the rules of the prevailing secular “epistemic communities” of the academy.13

No doubt most scholars acknowledge that there is value in studying religion historically or sociologically for its influence on culture. But, like Pinker and Hollinger, many scholars believe that religion no longer warrants being taken seriously in the academy (any more than alchemy or astrology). Indeed, to include religious voices may corrupt the conversation with appeals to holy books and uncritical faith.

There are several problems with this position.

The appeal to science as the arbiter of intellectual respectability is a nonstarter. After all, universities don’t impose scientific standards of respectability on philosophy, ethics, politics, literature, or art. I have noted the remarkable new dialogue among some theologians and scientists over the last several decades that has undercut much of the traditional antagonism between science and at least some kinds of religion. Postmodernists have told us that all efforts to establish metanarratives, including the scientific metanarrative, are misguided, and if this is the case then surely the fact that religion isn’t scientifically respectable doesn’t settle anything. What must be avoided is granting modern science the authority to define what is reasonable and respectable across the curriculum. In fact, what most people (including scientists in their off-hours) find most meaningful in life—love, morality, beauty, the spiritual—slips right through the conceptual net of science. Indeed, many atheists have taken the position that scientific naturalism isn’t a reasonable position.

Hollinger's claim that religion is no longer respectable “within disciplinary communities in the social sciences and humanities” is too strong. For example, while I suspect that most philosophers do not believe in God, some do, grounding their belief in a wide range of philosophical arguments not typically taken as beyond the philosophical pale.14

Of course, how good such arguments are is a matter of considerable controversy. But that's my point. I don’t need to show that it is actually reasonable to believe in God; a considerably less controversial claim will suffice for my (p.119) purposes. What counts as respectable, what counts as reasonable, is deeply controversial, and so long as there is no consensus among scholars about the intellectual respectability of religion it will be illiberal to keep religious voices out of the curricular conversation. In fact, what might appear to be a hostile consensus is, in part, the result of exiling religious scholars from universities to divinity schools, seminaries, and religiously affiliated liberal arts colleges. Or perhaps I should say the most vocal dissenters are exiled (or at least silenced), for many scholars keep their religion to themselves. As I have noted, faculty in colleges and universities are almost as likely to believe in God as are other folks.

Quite apart from this silent majority, however, there continues to be a lively religious counterculture that is intellectually respectable in the following sense. Various religious ways of making sense of the world are held by scholars, many with advanced degrees from our most prestigious research universities, who understand and work (largely) within the dominant categories of our intellectual life, but who also draw on religious traditions to rethink and reform the conventional wisdom of our time and place. To be sure, in order to be taken seriously religious scholars must have mastered the conventional scholarly wisdom of their disciplines, even if they reject the adequacy of it. But if some religion is mindless and disdains intellectual respectability, much isn’t and doesn’t. Most religious scholarship has not gone the way of astrology and alchemy or lapsed into purely private and irrational faith. Theologians and religious scholars continue to grapple in informed and sophisticated ways with secular modernity and postmodernity.

No doubt some scholars in the dominant intellectual culture find these efforts irrelevant, worthless, or perhaps even dangerous; indeed, I suspect that many assume that all religious thought is simply a variation on fundamentalist anti-intellectualism. But such naïveté does not justify excluding religious voices from the curricular conversation; to do so is both sadly uninformed and profoundly illiberal. As the neo-Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton (no orthodox believer) puts it, “The truth is that a good many secular intellectuals with a reasonably sophisticated sense of what goes on in academic areas other than their own tout an abysmally crude, infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained…. This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals—that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance.”15

But surely, a critic might respond, religion is a matter of faith and not open to critical thinking. In reviewing my first book on religion and education Alan Wolfe argued that “efforts to reintroduce faith into public universities” (p.120) are a mistake. We have religious institutions for nurturing faith; the university should remain “committed to its core mission of advancing and transmitting knowledge.” It “is not the place for certainties.”16 D. G. Hart has argued on similar lines that the idea of initiating students into controversies that involve religion “would require the university to tolerate doctrines that are explicitly dogmatic and sectarian, and that appeal to sacred texts whose authority rests upon standards that modern scholarship is incapable of adjudicating.”17 Indeed, because the university simply can’t deal with faith and dogma, the religion that it can tolerate tends to be thin and watered down. This being the case, the university may actually pay religion respect by excluding it from the conversation: “It may be time for faithful academics to stop trying to secure a religion-friendly university while paying deference to the academic standards of the modern university. If the old religions are right, in the new heavens and new earth there should be plenty of enduring rewards that will make promotion, tenure, and endowed chairs look like so much hay and stubble.”18

Wolfe's ominous suggestion that I have proposed to reintroduce faith into the university (or public schools) should not need a response at this point—but let me be clear. I agree with him that the university's purpose is “advancing and transmitting knowledge,” not nurturing uncritical faith. I am arguing not as a proponent of religion, much less as an advocate of uncritical faith. My primary concern is with liberal education, and a critical, reasoned search for truth is at the heart of a liberal education.

It is, of course, true that many religious believers are anti-intellectual and have no desire to participate in the rough-and-tumble of reasoned debate. (The same is true of some scientists.) But I would make three points in response. First, some (perhaps even many) believers can’t be characterized in this way; they do believe that they are being reasonable and are game to discuss it (at least so long as the ground rules are fair). Second, whatever the beliefs of people in the pews, the major religions are grounded in rich intellectual traditions in which theologians and other intellectuals have developed—and continue to develop—ways of defending, rethinking, and reforming their traditions in response to intellectual developments. Third, even if religious faith were utterly and stupifyingly irrational, it is important for students to acquire some understanding of how such faith relates to the rest of their studies.

No doubt Hart is right that faith and the practice of religion have their home in religious contexts, not in the educational context of a university. Indeed, as Hart suggests, there is a danger that faith and religion will be misunderstood if wrenched out of context. This is why teaching about religion (p.121) requires sophistication and time. But it is essential that students learn to recognize the tensions, conflicts, and complementarities between what they learn in their secular coursework and various religious faiths if they are to think critically about their secular studies and their religion—if they are to be liberally educated.

We need to break down the much too rigid distinction between religion and reason. As I suggested in chapter 4, faith has many meanings. In some contexts, faith need not be uncritical. Religion isn’t simply a matter of blind uncritical faith—or maybe I should say that if some is, most isn’t. Blanket condemnations, stark dichotomies, and rigid compartmentalization aren’t helpful. All of this hopelessly oversimplifies our intellectual life and powerfully and uncritically reinforces the idea of religion as uncritical faith, as a kind of fanaticism. To be reasonable is not to follow (uncritically) science or any secular theory; it is to be open to a variety of ways of making sense of the world and then thinking critically about them. The university should be open and pluralistic, concerned with extending the reach of reason, building bridges between reason and religion, not burning them. In fact, religious beliefs (narratives, worldviews, or faiths) may turn out to be more reasonable than their secular competition, all things considered. This is surely still an open question.

In fact, one might wonder if the fault is in the eye of the beholder. The sociologist of religion Christian Smith finds among many of his university colleagues “a tenacious anti-religious sensibility.” He suspects that they aren’t aiming to be antireligious: “it just comes naturally to them, almost automatically, as if from a fundamental predisposition.” They are, he speculates, “expressing a deeply interiorized mental scheme that is more prereflective than conscious, more conventional than intentional—yet one that has an immense power to reproduce a pervasive institutional culture.”19 They are so deeply immersed in a naturalistic (or at least secular) worldview they can’t escape it. They can’t be objective or self-critical. In effect, we might say, their secularism has become a faith for them.

In his Autobiography Darwin reflected on how, in his youth, he loved reading the romantic poets and Shakespeare, but in his old age he found them “intolerably dull.” What accounted for this “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes?” Darwin concluded that his “mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts.”20 He feared that the result may have been injurious to his moral character by enfeebling his emotional life.

Surely our philosophical commitments, our disciplinary blinders, can numb us—or blind us—to the richness of life and reality if we are not careful.

(p.122) Humility

Ninian Smart, the great scholar of comparative religions, once wrote that there is “neither a God-given nor a humanity-bestowed right to teach a debatable worldview as though it is not debatable, nor to neglect the deeply held beliefs and values of other people on the ground that you consider them foolish.”21 As we have seen, it is not at all obvious how to falsify or verify a worldview. It is not obvious where the truth lies. Indeed, scholars disagree deeply. This being the case, humility is a particularly valuable educational virtue.

My impression, however, is that textbooks (and most teachers) within a discipline present students with the truth, free of any doubts that their own discipline has gotten at least the fundamentals correct. The textbooks that I have read are not burdened by acknowledgments of humility or suggestions that students might profitably think about the subject matter at hand from the perspective of another discipline or worldview, much less a religious worldview.

Of course, there is no consensus, even among secular scholars, about many of the Big Questions to which religions have ventured answers—the origins of the universe, the origins of life, the origins and nature of consciousness and mind, what it means to be human, free will, morality, justice, and sexuality, to name but a few. Quite apart from religious alternatives, there is little agreement among scientific naturalists, traditional humanists (scholars using the categories of the humanities), and postmodernists about how to make sense of the world. So it is not as if secular thinkers have settled everything to everyone's satisfaction without religion. It might seem that a prudent humility would suggest that educators remain open-minded, constructing the curriculum in such a way as to encourage and enable students to take seriously religious as well as scientific and other secular ways of making sense of the world and their lives.

It is true that the track record of modern science is particularly spectacular, and one might be tempted to believe that science is cornering the market on truth to the disadvantage of its competitors. I have already suggested several reasons for being suspicious of the pretensions of modern science to explain everything. Here I might note that in 1894, the distinguished physicist Albert Michaelson (of the Michaelson-Morley experiments) argued that “the most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that that possibility of their ever being supplemented in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be looked for in (p.123) the sixth place of decimals.”22 He was wrong, of course, spectacularly wrong.23 Julian Barnes has put the matter provocatively: “How can we be sure that we know enough to know? As twenty-first-century neo-Darwinian materialists, convinced that the meaning and mechanism of life have only been fully clear since the year 1859, we hold ourselves categorically wiser than those credulous knee-benders who, a speck of time away, believed in divine purposes, an ordered world, resurrection and a Last Judgement. But although we are more informed, we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us that our knowledge is so final?”24

The philosopher of science, W. H. Newton-Smith has claimed that in science there is good inductive evidence for the claim that “any [scientific] theory will be discovered to be false within, say, 200 years of being propounded.”25 Of course, the great revolutions that shake science every now and then overturn not just theories but whole conceptual systems in ways that are likely to be inconceivable for adherents of the old views. Darwin, on at least some readings, overturned a worldview. Such a revolution might happen again—with somewhat different results. We might profitably heed Dean Inge's warning that whoever marries the spirit of the age will, in time, be a widower. In fact, virtually every academic discipline has passed through and beyond various orthodoxies over the course of the last century, revolutionizing its self-understanding.

We can trace the idea of critical reason far back beyond the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment to Greek philosophy, to Socrates, who was said to be the wisest of men. And why was he the wisest of men? Because, Socrates concluded, he was aware (unlike most people) of his own ignorance. And how do we find the truth? Not, Socrates thought, through blind faith or uncritical acceptance of tradition, but by open and reasoned discussion.

A measure of humility is in order. If there is as yet no consensus about how to make sense of the world and many of its enduring problems, and if religious ways of making sense of the world continue to be influential, then humility suggests that it may be reasonable that religious voices be included in the curricular conversation.

One further point. Robert Nash has wisely linked the educational virtues of humility and charity. Too often and too quickly we attribute foolishness and knavery to our intellectual and cultural opponents. We might better attribute “at least a modicum of wisdom and insight to others.” Indeed, Nash concludes, the virtue of charity “is all about generosity and graciousness, and it is a virtue tragically missing in higher education today.”26 Amen.

(p.124) Conclusions

In chapter 4 I argued that public schools and universities perpetuate religious ignorance, fall far short of religious neutrality, and border on secular indoctrination. I said that these were potential problems. In this chapter it has become clear that given the nature of liberal education, religious ignorance and secular indoctrination are real problems. We will have to wait until chapter 7 to address neutrality.

In this chapter I have acknowledged the commonplace argument that students must learn something about religion if they are to understand history, literature, art, and politics. Much more important, schools and universities must take religion seriously if students are to be liberally educated. If students are to think critically about the world and about the other subjects they study—if they are to be reasonable—they must study religions in some depth, acquire an understanding of them from the inside, as live options, in critical and comparative perspective. I have argued that this need not open the floodgates to all kinds of views and I have addressed the concern, widespread among scholars, that religion need not be included in the conversation because it is not intellectually respectable. I’ve also noted that it is an act of hubris, given our current state of understanding, to assume that secular ways of thinking about life and the world are sufficient to make sense of the world and orient students in life. Humility requires that we take religion seriously.27

Finally, let me say explicitly what I trust is already clear: my arguments in this chapter are fully secular arguments.


(1.) Time magazine (April 2, 2007), 43.

(2.) Bruce A. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986).

(3.) Fareed Zakaria notes that “while America marvels at Asia's test-taking skills, Asian countries come to America to figure out how to get their kids to think…. American culture celebrates and reinforces problem solving, questioning authority, and thinking heretically…. It rewards self-starters and oddballs” (The Post-American World [New York: Norton, 2008], 194–95). That is, at our best schools and universities we teach students to think outside the usual boxes; we encourage them to explore alternative perspectives on the conventional wisdom.

(4.) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, The Essential Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Max Lerner, 287 (New York: Bantam, 1965).

(5.) Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars (New York: Norton, 1992), 13.

(6.) Brand Blanshard, The Uses of a Liberal Education and Other Talks to Students (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1973), 283.

(7.) Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars, 12.

(8.) Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 231.

(9.) There is, of course, a danger that scholars in the university will take their own views to exhaust the realm of possibilities when there are serious (live, influential, important) moral and intellectual traditions in our culture that they don’t take seriously. We must also be wary of using intellectual seriousness to (p.305) define out-of-bounds the views of oppressed people who have not had the opportunity to sustain their traditions.

(10.) Pinker, “Less Faith, More Reason,” The Harvard Crimson, October 27, 2006, http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=515314.

(11.) Edington, “God: Amen. Discuss,” The Chronicle Review, December 1, 2006, http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i15/15b01601.htm.

(12.) Pinker, “Less Faith, More Reason.”

(13.) Hollinger, “Enough Already: Universities Do Not Need More Christianity,” in Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education, ed. Andrea Sterk, 47–49 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002). In another article, Hollinger argues that in my book Religion and American Education I gave priority to the ballot box over the laboratory because I insisted on including religious as well as scientific voices in the curricular conversation. But this is a crude misreading of my argument. In that book, as here, my primary argument for taking religion seriously was grounded in liberal education, not politics. See Hollinger, “The Secularization Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century,” Church History 70, no. 1 (March 2001): 142.

(14.) Some understand religious experiences (visions, voices, mysticism, numinousness, conversion) to provide evidence for the existence of God. There are philosophical arguments for the existence of God (ontological, cosmological, and teleological). Design arguments have recently been given new life by the discovery of cosmological evidence that the universe appears to be fine-tuned for life. Some philosophers argue that morality (or at least an objective morality) presupposes a God. Some philosophers have argued that orderliness of nature or consciousness or rationality presupposes the existence of an underlying intelligence or a teleological dimension to reality. Some philosophers argue that while none of this evidence provides, by itself, a knock-down or convincing case for God, it is still reasonable to believe in God in light of a cumulative case built out of a wide range of complementary and mutually reinforcing evidence; such cumulative case arguments hinge on what I have called being reasonable, all things considered. Some philosophers and theologians, working within the tradition of Reformed epistemology, argue that we can have a basic belief in God, analogous in some ways to our perception of the physical world, in which our sense of God's existence is immediate, not simply inferred from evidence or as the conclusion of an argument.

(15.) Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 49, 52.

(16.) Alan Wolfe, “Higher Learning,” Lingua Franca (March/April 1996): 77, my emphasis.

(17.) D. G. Hart, The University Gets Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 250.

(18.) Ibid., 250–51.

(19.) Christian Smith, “Force of Habit,” Books and Culture (September/October 2002): 20.

(20.) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, ed. Francis Darwin, 53–54 (New York: Dover, 1969).

(p.306) (21.) Ninian Smart, Religion and the Modern Mind (New York: McMillan, 1987), 20.

(22.) Quoted in Simon Singh, Big Bang (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 267.

(23.) For a provocative (if occasionally frustrating) meditation on humility and the overreach of science see David Berliner, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008).

(24.) Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of (New York: Knopf, 2008), 24.

(25.) W. H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 14.

(26.) Robert Nash, “A Clash of Opposing Worldviews,” Religion and Education (Fall 2006): 110.

(27.) Some scholars have argued that rather than focusing so directly on religion we should focus on worldviews: after all, the issue isn’t religion in particular, it is worldviews in general. See, for example, Perry Glanzer, “Taking the Tournament of Worldviews Seriously in Education: Why Teaching about Religion Is Not Enough,” Religion and Education (Spring 2004): 1–19. This may indeed be a wise strategy; something will be gained by deflecting attention away from controversies connected with religion in particular. It is certainly true that there need be no special pleading for religion. In fact, my argument in this chapter regarding religion is simply one example of a larger case for taking various worldviews seriously as part of a liberal education.