Difficult Scholarly Dialogues on Religion

I look forward to the responses garnered by Toby Coley’s Rhetoric Review article “Opening a Dialogue about Religious Restraint in Graduate Professionalization,” though not without some trepidation. Coley presents a careful argument, and I don’t doubt it could help spark the productive dialogue he seeks, but dialogues over religion (as with many deeply held beliefs) tend to go awry quite easily.

This post isn’t offered as a response to Coley’s call for dialogue.  Instead I wish to reflect on the pitfalls that attend dialogue across worldviews. I am not well versed in the research that would allow me to engage at length Coley’s proposition that Christians occupy a marginalized position within the academy, though I do want to note that similar feelings of marginalization have been expressed by explicitly non-religious students.

The research on atheist students is sparse, but in one example student affairs professor John A. Mueller and doctoral student Kathleen M. Goodman discuss perceptions of marginalization held by atheist students. Education professor Robert J. Nashquotes an atheist graduate student who asks, “We talk a lot about pluralism and tolerance in higher education. But where is the acceptance of non-believers? When will atheists like myself feel that it is safe for us to state our ideas without believers’ feeling sorry for us, or worse?”

At the least it seems that perceptions of negative attitudes towards one’s worldview can be found on different sides (and my short consideration here takes no note of non-Christian religions). I’ll leave the question of whether systemic bias operates against one or more religious identifications in the academy to researchers more familiar with the study of the operation of privilege.

One rhetorical issue that interests me is whether reluctance to engage frank discussions of religion, in addition to any restraint that may be operating against or within any particular worldview, might also result from hesitance to raise a topic which experience tells us can be difficult to discuss productively, but this question too is beyond the scope of this blog.

There is one particular element of unproductive dialogue, though, that I would like to discuss, and that is the difficulty of Marsden book coverfairly describing the views of those whose positions differ from one’s own. Coley cites George Marsden as part of the “ample evidence that such a marginalized position has been thrust upon religion in general and Christianity in particular” (410). Marsden’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship provides examples of just how difficult it is for different sides to approach opposing views fairly.

Marsden’s positive articulation of Christian scholarship is impressive. It is detailed, considering disciplinary differences between the sciences, social science, and the humanities, and it is well qualified, taking into account potential objections. When it comes to differentiating Christian scholarship by comparing it to non-religious scholarship, however, Marsden’s argument falters.

Marsden is skeptical of scholarly approaches that employ methodological naturalism, approaching the world and the humans who inhabit it as naturally occurring and uncreated by a deity. He believes that without a foundational anchor in the ultimate nature of God “current philosophies which absolutize the self pose a real danger of fostering lawlessness” (79).

Yet those who work with frameworks that aren’t explicitly religious don’t advocate “absolutiz[ing] the self.” Both the sciences and humanities have long left behind the positivist assurance that all problems can be solved if only we gain enough knowledge, though Marsden doesn’t accept that to be true. He argues, “with consideration of the divine ruled out as unacademic or unprofessional, it has been widely assumed that humans can solve their own problems—as in the cult of psychotherapy, the cult of technological progress…” (97).

The academy is no stranger to fads and insular communities, but “cult” is hardly the most productive terminology here. More importantly, Marsden’s argument should be engaging the best of scholarship that leaves out the divine, not its worst, cultish instantiations. The best secular scholarship does not, as Marsden suggests, set out an “alternative theology—one in which humans are at the center” and where “the human spirit is supreme” (78).

Humans may be the object of study for some academic disciplines, and most disciplines recognize the influence human cultures and psychology have over our perceptions of the world, but it is unfair for Marsden to contrast his Christian scholarship with a scholarship that putatively replaces God with Humanity and worships it like an idol. After all, there is a difference between thinking that human problems are imminently solvable and thinking that our problems are manageable. Karl Popper’s method of continually testing ideas, for instance, does not envision some future date when all truths are known and all problems solved.

While Marsden doesn’t cite Popper, he does paraphrase the first line of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as arguing “that there is no reality beyond the physical universe,” and notes that “most scholars are not as blunt as Sagan and may not even believe that physical reality is all there is” (74). Being a Sagan fan myself, I need to note that the proposition that “there is no reality beyond the physical universe” is hardly coextensive with the proposition that “physical reality is all there is.”

Sagan book coverSagan would be the last person to suggest either secular extreme Marsden criticizes—that because physical reality is all that exists there is no ground for meaning or feeling or that because humans exist without being created by a deity we must see ourselves as all-powerful god-like beings.

There are more options than the false dilemma Marsden sets up between the humility of Christianity and the hubris of illusory masterful control over our condition in the world, and Sagan’s arguments offer one of those options. Sagan offers a humility that arises from awareness of our contingent nature. Though “we are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self awareness,” as Sagan says in Cosmos (286), he also notes that we need not have existed in the first place, and there is no guarantee we will continue to exist in the future (especially if we fail to address social, political, and environmental problems that threaten the quality and continuation of our lives).

Marsden judges that Sagan’s arguments do not meet the standards of his religion, but others find that Sagan’s arguments surpass those of Christianity, and others still find little inspiration or consolation in either the good astronomer or the Good Book. The point here isn’t that different people have different worldviews (though I think this point does get overlooked in some perspectives), but that Marsden’s arguments don’t describe the views of those he disagrees with in a way that they would say is fair.

Marsden would likely still dismiss as insufficient even these better-argued non-religious approaches when compared to Christianity, but their absence from his argument speaks to a considerable blind spot. Identifying and remedying these blind spots is a necessary but difficult part of keeping dialogues on religion productive.


About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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