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11 January 2005

Secular academics and religion

Some advice for my fellow academics, gleaned from several days of
conversation made and overheard.  Sometimes I feel like a tour
guide.  Others I wonder at the lack of knowledge.

  1. Please know something about the terms you use
    Don’t just throw them about because they sound aspersive and will get a
    particular hoped-for reaction from your listeners.  Know that
    fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Christians may and do all refer to
    separate groups of people.  Similarly, just because”Methodist” and
    “fundamentalist” end in the same ending, “-ist”, this does not mean
    that there’s any synonymity there.

  2. Overall, it might help to know something about religion in general
    What do people actually believe?  How do we account for the
    significant diversity within religions?  Ask yourself this
    question: “Do all [political scientists, sociologists, economists,
    etc.] believe the same things?  Do they fight over what things are
    important?”  Assume that religions might operate similarly. 
    Remember that religion is a social phenomenon, albeit one that’s
    possibly more widespread than any other in time or place.  So to
    generalize about religion unknowledgeably allows only the demonstration
    of ignorance.  Case in point: the Roman Catholic Church no longer
    celebrates Mass in Latin, nor does it teach that Jews were Jesus’s
    killers.  In fact, in the case of the latter, just the opposite is
    true: the RC Church goes to great lengths to apologize for its role in
    anti-Semitic activities through the ages, teaches (at least in the
    Western World) its adherents lots about Judaism (some might even argue,
    more than it teaches them about Catholicism or the Christian Bible),
    and has formally apologized for its complicity in many evils
    perpetrated about Jews and asked for forgiveness.

  3. By the way, you have to understand religion
    It’s a massive, forceful (good and not), and affective.  It’s here
    to stay.  If you are interested in the world, you have to learn
    about it to make sense of the world that we live in, where the
    non-religious are an extremely small group.  We now know that
    “progress”, “liberalization”, and such do not automatically secularize
    people; the opposite may in fact be the case. But even in religion’s
    non-extreme versions (i.e., most of it, but what does not generally
    make the news), it still explains a vast amount of what’s going on with
    people, why they live as they do, why they act consistently or not, who
    they see themselves as, and all the repercussions that can come from
    those.  As an educated person, it would simply be irresponsible to
    not know something substantive about religions and their adherents.

  4. Your negative experience with some congregation, denomination, or a religion may not be generalizable
    It’s a good bet that it is not. 
    Yes, it’s true that those were formative experiences for you, but that
    doesn’t mean that you can say much beyond that.  Example: you may
    have found Christianity intellectually unsatisfying in your youth or
    even be discouraged from being intellectual in your faith (just
    as I did and was told), but that does not mean that the whole religion
    is devoid of
    intellectual content nor that you would still find it such.  You
    have changed, the particular congregation you grew up in may have
    changed, and the world may be more complex than the community in which
    you had experience.

  5. “Religion” does not equal “stupid.”  I have noted this before
    Plenty of very intelligent people are religious; I’d like to think that
    I am a decent example here.  Plenty of the religious aren’t
    particularly dumb.  In fact, they may be more educated in some
    forms of social life than many secular academics.  Many Christians
    and Jews know more about literature than secular people, because they
    have a background in the scriptures that provide much of the
    inspiration for that literature.  Could many contemporary American
    Christians stand to bring more intellectual rigor and questioning to
    their faith?  Yes, of course.  But who is there to teach
    them, if we as academics tell them that their religious life is
    incompatible with the life of the mind?  For one thing, it’s not
    true, and for another, we fail them if we don’t teach them how to think over what to
    think. Finally, academic credential or progressivism or both do not
    equal intelligence — I’ve heard plenty of stupid, stupid, stupid
    reasoning come from the pens and mouths of the progressive and the
    academically credentialed.  Sometimes, my fellows academics, “the
    Christians” are smarter than you.

  6. Stereotype and disdain for the religious verge on the hypocritical
    Look, I’m not trying to accuse any person of actually being a hypocrite
    here.  But there is more than a small disconnect when we
    stereotype the religious as [fill in the blank] or we look down on the
    religious because they are not open-minded.  These are precisely
    the sins I hear the religious most often accused of committing. 
    But there’s no power in the criticism if we have to do such to make the
    point.  What I think this comes down to, often, is that some of us
    academics are unhappy that those who are religious don’t share
    our values.  But some of us who are religious could complain that
    intellectuals (and, I might add, other co-religionists) don’t share our

This is not to say that academics and intellectuals are anti-religious,
anti-Christian, or anything like this.  I’ve found many of my
fellow academics who are interested in religion, and for whom I provide
a safe person to talk to about the matter.  And this is not to say
that similar criticisms and suggestions don’t apply to many of the
religious people in our society.

But to hold each other to standards that neither will live up to itself
strikes me as more than just ignorance — it is an active violation of
the standards that each community professes to live by, whether it be
the quest for knowledge and discovery, the Law, or the Gospel.

UPDATE (17 January): While wandering about the interweb, I found an article that says some of the same things as I did.

Posted in IvoryTower on 11 January 2005 at 12:23 am by Nate

What do you do when you are in Arizona for a weekend?

You go to Sedona, and several different people take pictures.

I imagine more IQRM photos will go up at Andrew’s.

A couple of the ones of me are objectionable, simply because I got caught looking bad.  Hmm.

Posted in Day2Day on 11 January 2005 at 12:20 am by Nate