MAXWELL:  Truly higher education

9/21/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


From the beginning, America’s public universities were uncomfortable with religion in the classroom.

That discomfort increased over time, especially during the 20th century, as our top universities embraced modern science and Germany’s rigorous standards of scholarship, writes Boston University sociology professor Alan Wolfe in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

While universities abandoned religion and stopped, for example, requiring professors to take confessional oaths and forcing students to attend chapel, they were becoming thoroughly secularized. At the same time, divinity schools became a dumping ground for true believers, those deemed second-class intellectuals.

Secularization pushed moral philosophy, the bedrock of liberal education, into the background. Denominations, having lost much of their uniqueness and many members, bowed to the new emphasis on facts and logic.

Religious academics had to settle for “civil religion,” a kind of virtual faith that Wolfe and others describe as “a vague, generally non-denominational effort to link God with America.” Civil religion held sway until the 1950s. While it lasted, it gave the rest of the academy an excuse to tolerate the faithful.

Today, however, religion is experiencing a revival on many of America’s elite campuses. Wolfe, an academic secularist, claims that the “century-old truce between the forces of faith and the demands of knowledge is no longer holding.” Why this revival of religion? After all, we are in the nuclear, space and computer age, a time when precise, scientific thinking is sine qua non.

Wolfe, along with other secular academics, such as George Marsden, a University of Notre Dame historian, believe that the liberal-led secularization of the academy is now under attack because it became too extreme and fostered too many deleterious effects. For starters, it marginalized religious professors. Many remain afraid to speak publicly about their beliefs and the role of religion in their professional work and, fearing outright rejection, hide their religious beliefs when applying for academic jobs.

Secularization harms students, too, who long have been afraid to talk about their religious beliefs in class. Wolfe contends that their voice would enrich, not hurt, all areas of the university, including dorm life, sports and student newspapers.

Wolfe writes that “the academic culture would become more amenable to religion” and would truly resemble real America _ where religion is at the center of millions of households. Marsden agrees, stating that religious “ways of knowing” are as valid, say, as feminist or lesbian or Marxist ways of knowing.

Many other secular academics agree that the time has come to upgrade the role of religion in the contemporary university. “Some philosophers are giving new attention to philosophy and religion, delving into the spiritual thought of writers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger,” Wolfe said.

“Literary critics are beginning to explore the fact that, although modern societies may be predominantly secular, the novelists they produce _ John Updike, Harry Mulisch, Robertson Davies, Iris Murdoch _ deal with age-old religious themes, such as the origin of evil or the promise of redemption.”

Social scientists also realize that for all of their number-crunching, they still cannot explain how religion affects society or what makes a person believe or how those beliefs impact habits and decisionmaking. Even natural scientists now acknowledge that Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot account for the tapestry of human existence.

“Religion was central to the investigations of (Emile) Durkheim and (Max) Weber, the great founders of modern sociology, not because of their own commitments to faith, but because of a restless curiosity about all things human,” Wolfe writes. “It is precisely that driving curiosity that is missing in so much of the formal modeling and mathematical precision now sought by social scientists.”

Will religion return as a legitimate player in the intellectual life of the academy? Should religious professors and students be able to voice their beliefs and show how religion influences their academic development?

“I believe that universities are properly governed by the rules of science and the mind-set of liberalism, both committed to an avoidance of dogma and a respect for facts,” Wolfe said. “Yet there are at least two reasons to welcome, rather than to ignore, the revival of religion in the academy: Religion can extend the pluralism that liberal values cherish, and it can expand and enrich knowledge.”

Indeed, given the constantly emerging transgressions of religious leaders, secularists may be forgiven their wariness. But in their smugness, they also should know that they have established a separate orthodoxy, Wolfe writes. Theirs is little better than the religious one they disparage.

Ironically, religion is the interloper that challenges the sameness of today’s liberal dogma. It is the newest skeptic. Moreover, Wolfe and Marsden argue, secularism has become too comfortable with its own sense of objectivity.

And therein lies a warning to those who would ban religion in the name of objectivity, who automatically pit faith against knowledge. Wolfe writes that “objectivity should never be taken for granted. Those who value it need those who question its premises.”

Religion, then, the new devil’s advocate on campus, is questioning the old premises.