Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Wishes Washed and Ironed

The Washington Post has an article by Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame and Thomas Burish, the university's provost, entitled "Reason and Faith at Harvard." It seems that a Harvard curriculum committee has recommended that properly educated college graduates should know "the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events -- personal, cultural, national, or international."

The Harvard committee hastens to explain that its proposal is not for "religious apologetics." Rather, the courses it envisions would offer an examination of "the interplay between religion and various aspects of national and/or international culture and society." They would deal not so much with the relationship between reason and faith as with reasoning about faith, religion and religious institutions and their impact in the world.
While agreeing that such courses are needed, the authors hope the university goes beyond that.
[U]niversities can do more than just familiarize students with the world's religions in survey-course fashion. The rise of religious fanaticism stems in part from a failure of intellectuals within various religious traditions to engage the faithful of their traditions in serious and reasoned reflection, inquiry and dialogue. The marginalization of faith within universities contributes to this failure.
A recent survey by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute found that 79 percent of college freshmen believe in God, and 69 percent pray and find strength, support and guidance in their religious beliefs. Religion will remain a powerful force in the personal lives of these students long after they graduate. If faith is shunned by the institutions whose role it is to foster reason and the life of the mind, if universities do not equip students to integrate their faith with the knowledge and reasoning skills they acquire, we shouldn't be surprised if unreasonable or fanatical forces gain influence in communities of faith.
It is an interesting argument. In effect, it takes the complaint of some atheists, that moderate people of faith are enablers of the sort of fundamentalists who fly planes into buildings, and turns it on its head. It is, the authors say, the secularizer and the atheist who are abetting the outbreak of religious violence by denying the majority of people who are disposed to faith the intellectual underpinnings to prevent the infiltration of unthinking passion.

I think, however, that Jenkins and Burish are, ultimately, wrong. If there is a dearth of intellectual support for believers, whose fault is that? And what does it say about Notre Dame and all the other religious universities and colleges that are out there? Do secular universities have to be all things to all people?

But Sam Harris and other atheists are wrong to blame moderate and law-abiding theists for the acts of terrorists. I'll take the Enlightenment seriously and treat people as rational beings (even if we know they are not) and hold them responsible for their own acts and no one else's -- at least without more in the way of proximate cause than, as Harris would have it, the mere fact that moderates insist that we respect people's religious beliefs.

I disagree with your final point. Sam Harris is right to accuse religious moderates of propping up extremists -- because the extremists themselves count on the moderates for such support, or at least for passive consent.

I was raised Catholic and even though I've been an atheist since high school, my name is still on the roll at the rural parish where I was baptized (impossible to get it struck off without a nasty argument with the priest). Now I don't care who goes to bed with whom, but when the Pope says "Catholics believe sex outside of marriage is a sin," he's speaking for about a billion people -- and that includes me, even without my consent. If it weren't for that huge and mostly-lukewarm crowd, the Pope wouldn't even have a job.
I hear some (understandable) complaints against a particular religion but no examples of extremists (are you really trying to make the Pope out to be one?) getting support from moderates. Unless you are saying that they are supporting extremists because moderates won't let you burn down extremists' churches (or worse)?

If you are not willing to burn down extremists' churches, aren't you "supporting" them in the same way as you are claiming moderates do, by not stopping them somehow?
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