Pablum for the masses

An Angry professor led me to an article on Inside Higher Ed, which discusses a document by the Wingspread Conference by the Society for Values in Higher Education (pdf). I knew when I saw the word “Values” up there that I was in for some platitudinous academe-speak slathered around a set of bland pieties, and I was. Poking around on their website, I see that the Society for Values in Higher Education seems to consist of a lot of well-meaning and rather wordy types who see religion as an important “value” to inculcate in higher education—a nest of those liberal Christians everyone tells me I’m supposed to appreciate more, I think.

I think I’d like them much more if they’d just practice their religion, and stop telling me it’s so important to get their sanctity into my classrooms and politics.

We recognize and value the contributions of religious studies scholars and programs at many universities, yet they alone cannot achieve these objectives. We challenge colleges and universities to examine their courses and curricula to put into practice new ways to educate students about religion’s dimensions and influence. Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines – sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences – and the professions.

Sciences? What, exactly, am I supposed to tell my students about the relevance of religion to biology? I suppose I could tell them that it has been a corrupting influence, that dogma, revealed knowledge, and obeisance to authority are the antithesis of scientific ideals, and that religion has an astonishingly bad track record on scientific issues. I could sit down with them and tell them to apply a little critical thinking to their favorite religious myths, and I could give extra credit to everyone who rejects organized religion.

But no.

I already know that that particular rational point of view is not what they are looking for, and I’m sure it’s not what the SVHE is thinking of—they want only respectful comments about religion. Different points of view are welcome, but only as long as they reinforce religious indoctrination. Take a look at what they really want:

Higher education must direct more attention to teacher education. American public schools avoid the study of religion partly because it is viewed as too controversial and also because of the scarcity of adequately trained teachers, texts, and tested curricula. Of primary importance is the need to train teachers to infuse religion in student learning without overstepping First Amendment freedoms and limitations.

That emphasis is mine. I find that a repellent suggestion.

It has a whiff of that old Indian school mentality about it—”if only we teach them White Christian values, they’ll abandon their savage, heathenish ways”—there’s that implicit assumption that their way is the only way, that religion needs to be smuggled into the classroom (carefully, carefully, though—mustn’t break the letter of the law!), that others lack values. They want to insert virtue into the university, their religious values are the path to virtue, therefore, they must teach religion. Hey, why not teach virtue without the contradictory nonsense of religion?

Higher education must foster a spirit of tolerance and actively champion an attitude of mutual respect and affirmation of the value of pluralism in a democracy without implicitly or explicitly privileging secular-rational worldviews or particular religious perspectives in the search for truth.

Here’s a translation from religious speak: “respect and affirmation” means “you aren’t allowed to poke holes in my ridiculous ideas.” Promotion of religion doesn’t mean letting students pray or practice their faith—they’re already fully allowed to do that as they will—but protecting weak ideas from the inquiry and skepticism that is supposed to be the natural environment of the university. We already mollycoddle everyone’s religious beliefs enough in this country.

And I’m sorry, but I will privilege the secular-rational worldview. It works. It provides the tools we need to work towards the truth, and is central to the role of the university. Religion already claims to have the truth—too bad it’s wrong.

And guess what? You can be a practicing Christian or Muslim or whatever, and still adopt the secular-rational worldview. Our problem, I think, is with those religious people with the strange idea that praising Jesus requires a rejection of rationality and secularism.

The study of religion and its public relevance is a crucial dimension to liberal education for all students that should be pursued in ways that affirm academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and reason. It should never compromise rational discourse on campus nor should it subvert knowledge attained through disciplinary inquiry. Challenges to disciplinary or professional knowledge and practice should be raised through reasoned debate and academically accepted methods that enrich student learning.

This is just wrong—it’s not crucial in the sense they imply at all. Sure, it should be studied as a slice of history or sociology, like we study the Black Plague, wars, and the afflictions of drug abuse; an atheist can study religion, no problem. But that’s not what this group wants. They want religion on a pedestal, as an implicitly desirable attribute in our students, and they want to inculcate religious beliefs in our students.

I reject that. If they want faculty to “infuse religion in student learning”, they’re going to get my uncompromising views as well as the soppy views of the indoctrinated. Do they really want to open that door?

(Maybe they do. I know I’m outnumbered; maybe they’d welcome an opportunity to actively suppress freethought.)


  1. says

    Everyone go see the newest Lars von Trier film, “Manderlay,” when it is released. Like his first in the trilogy, “Dogville,” it is a commentary on the United States, particularly the war in Iraq, but “Manderlay’s” twist at the end hinges upon the heroine’s tragic display of just such “tolerance” for others’ views in determining a question of fact.

  2. Harry Eagar says

    Well, I wouldn’t mind if the history teacher taught the kiddies that in 18th century Scotland, a Christian college student was hanged for saying he did not believe in the Trinity.

  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says

    Higher education must foster a spirit of tolerance and actively champion an attitude of mutual respect and affirmation of the value of pluralism in a democracy without implicitly or explicitly privileging secular-rational worldviews or particular religious perspectives in the search for truth.

    What is the only viewpoint to be specifically modded down in their article? Secular-rational worldview. What viewpoint has been (historically and currently) most opposed to free inquiry, the advance of sciences, and social progress? Religious Fundamentalism.

    Some of the comments to the article on the Inside Higher Ed site are pretty good.

  4. David Wilford says

    I just want to bang my head against the monitor, as this is based on the mistaken notion that the secular POV is inherently anti-religious, when it is in fact even-handed with regard to ANY belief, including non-belief. All I can say is that if Christians want to have their religion (hey, which one, should we add Mormonism or perhaps Scientology into the classroom as well?) mentioned in any of the sciences, they should be prepared to have the tenents of their faith subject to a scientific level of scrutiny. I am pretty sure they don’t want to go there, but are instead hoping for religious correctness to spare them when some student complains that a Big Bad Professor is saying Mean Things about their religion.

    This is just stupid on the face of it anyway. I mean, Gregor Mendel was a monk and every student of genetics knows that particular fact about Mendel’s life. But Mendel’s faith isn’t related to the science involved, and to somehow try to make it otherwise is just nonsense.

  5. says

    Well, I wouldn’t mind if the history teacher taught the kiddies that in 18th century Scotland, a Christian college student was hanged for saying he did not believe in the Trinity.

    I would. That’s bad history.


    It was the 17th century. It’s still as reprehensible, but we should endeavor to get the dates right in history class.

  6. Melanie Reap says

    Sorry PZ, but, IMO, they’re not “liberal Christians” if they think they have to get “their values” slotted into every subject in the curriculum. They are fundies under the guise of liberality – I see them every Sunday at my church. They sound liberal but scratch them ever so slightly and hey, whammo – fundy time.

    I’m a lay eucharistic minister in the Episcopal Church. I teach science methods. They is no way I would ever teach anything but straight up science in my class. Science class is about science, period, and I do not need to insert my religious views into my class for any reason. That’s the viewpoint of this real liberal Christian.

  7. says

    Side comment on the idea of converting native Americans to Christianity: If you visit the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, even today you STILL find more Christian “missions” than gas stations or supermarkets.

  8. says

    Exactly. The real liberal/progressive Christians don’t say you should follow certain ideals because they are Christian, but because those are universal human ideals that will improve the lot of mankind, irrespective of their religious beliefs. There is just this certain kind of progressive Christian who advocates the same admirable goals, but thinks we should do so because it’s the Christian thing to do, and we should be particularly appreciative of their efforts because they are Christian.

    That rubs me the wrong way.

    I’ve known a few people who respond to good behavior by saying “that’s white of you.” Even more respond to it by saying “that’s Christian of you.” They’re both reflections of the same biased attitude, and it doesn’t matter that they are approving of admirable actions.

  9. steve says

    Well, I for one happen think that while the article makes some good points, it doesn’t address the elephant in the room, which is implied, but never discussed: the church’s inability to infuse religion into the community as a whole to begin with, which would make the whole infusing into the classroom thing unnecessary. Let it hereby be resolved that we see to it that all churches and religious institutions be utterly destroyed so that the valuable resources that they are apparently wasting in their self-admitted failed efforts can bed redirected to more profitable use. The clergy can then be sent to science education camps where they will forced to learn the biology and geology being taught in classrooms. In this way, surely they will see the flaws inherent in the evil secular-humanist “sciences” and will be able to more effectively charge back into battle against agents of Satan like PZ.

  10. MJ Memphis says

    Bullet points from a proposed presentation on the influence of religion on science, part I (Christianity):

    1) Roman Catholicism- Official church policy is to be on the wrong side of any scientific issue initially, murder anyone who opposes official church dogma (optional), then change sides approximately 100-400 years later and claim that the new stance has always been the official church position.

    2) Mainline Protestants- Mainline protestants don’t actually disagree with scientific conclusions; they just worry about how the lower classes would behave without the proper fear of supernatural punishments.

    3) Baptists, Evangelicals, Charismatics, etc.- For these particular branches of Christianity, being wrong on science is practically a sacrament, and one which should be repeated as often as possible. If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are pygmies + dwarves?

    4) Mormons- WTF???

  11. CanuckRob says

    We don’t need no religication.
    We don’t need no thought control
    No dark superstition in the classroom.
    Hey, preacher, leave them kids alone.

    With apologies to Roger Waters.

  12. says

    It’s not clear to me what people mean by “real” liberal Christians, or who these people really are.

    My impression is that many if not most liberals in the U.S. are liberal Christians who more or less buy the premises of this stuff; in particular that religion is a Good Thing, worth promoting if you’re not “intolerant” and “judgemental” about which religion to promote. They see an important association between religion and values, and think that the secular worldview is missing something important; they think that we need more religion, not less, even if they don’t want the fundies cramming their awful version of religion down everybody’s throats. They tie together liberal religion and social justice, because they think atheists are not as nice as religious people.

    Many of these liberal Christians think that Christianity is the best religion, and that it would be a good thing if more people were no just religious but specifically Christian. They would be happy to for government to promote generic Christianity, but are afraid of the fundamentalists doing so in a doctrinaire and just plain mean way. So they’ll settle for pushing religion in general, to avoid giving power to the wrong Christians. (Partly because they know that fostering religiosity against secularism in the U.S. largely amounts to fostering Christianity; other religions are minor players, so it’s a net win for Christianity.)

    Unfortunately, there is a lot of variation among liberal Christians, making generalizations difficult. At one end of a spectrum you have pretty-much-agnostics who take a Joseph Campbellized approach to scriptures: “Yes, these are just myths, but myths are important and valuable, and these are the stories our people tell, so we work within that framework.” (I know two liberal mainline Christian ministers like that.)

    At the other end of that spectrum, you have people who think that the Bible is basically true, just not literally and inerrantly true. (“Interpreting the Bible is difficult, but that’s because a lot of it is metaphorical, and the fundies misread it.”) These people have no idea how much stuff in the Bible is outright false and/or systematically evil, and how much of that is not the least bit metaphorical—it was written plainly and utterly seriously.

    In between you have a zoo of people who pick and choose various bits of the Bible and Christian theology, or simply have no real knowledge or understanding of either; they think Christianity is the Let’s Be Nice religion, and that it’s more or less true, and that that’s all that’s really important for them to know. They are mostly unaware of the profound conflicts between science and religion, and the irrationality of their basic beliefs, or they don’t have a lot of respect for science and rationality anyway. Many believe that all religions tap into some spiritual font of truth, another “way of knowing” that yields knowledge that science can’t touch, and that rationality can only go so far. They just think the fundies mess it up and get hung up on the wrong things.

    A lot of social-justice-oriented Christians are like that. Many accept the pablum new-agey idea that all religions are really mostly about the same basic, deep spiritual truths, and that science has nothing to say about it. (Atheistic scientists are just geeks, not “spiritually developed” like them; atheistic scientists are useful for some things, but they just “don’t get it” like well-rounded spiritual folk, who can tap into deep truths with their own hearts, or with common sense about ancient wisdom…)

    These people really trust their own instincts to tell them what “sounds right” about spirituality and morality; they discount science and rationalism about such things almost entirely.

    In my experience, when you scratch a liberal Christian who’s especially interested in liberal “values” and social change, you don’t usually get a fundie. You get anything between an almost-fundie and a new agey agnostic. And sometimes you get a bizarro postmodernist who thinks it’s okay to believe a bunch of contradictory stuff because there’s no true knowledge anyway—just go meta enough and it’s all deeply sorta-true.

    (I had a ridiculous experience being blindsided in a public debate with a gay Catholic seminarian a few months ago… it was very sad and very funny how far this guy would go to salvage some scrap of Christian theology, because he thought that without it, he couldn’t use Christianity as a vehicle for social justice.)

    So I have to disagree when you say

    You can be a practicing Christian or Muslim or whatever, and still adopt the secular-rational worldview. Our problem, I think, is with those religious people with the strange idea that praising Jesus requires a rejection of rationality and secularism.

    (Which doesn’t really sound like you, and doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of what you say in the same article; I likely misunderstood something, perhaps about a distinction between practicing and believing.)

    The problem is that praising Jesus does require some rejection of rationality, if it’s anything like religious praise or worship. (As opposed to appreciating some of the better things he allegedly said, on their own merits.) There is no core of Christianity that is clear and rationally tenable, such that we can draw any reasonable line between between the part of Christianity that’s compatible with rationalism and the part that’s not.

    That’s exactly why liberal Christians are such a theological zoo. They have to pick and choose, in order to compartmentalize, and everybody does it in a different way, depending on what they care about, what they maintain ignorance of, and what they manage to gloss over.

    There is no coherent core theory of Christianity, and no non-trivial candidate that isn’t quite controversial among thinking Christians. (Liberal Christians don’t even agree on the central concepts of whether there’s a God who’s a person—or whether the crucial “salvation” thing depends on free will, or on substitutional punishment, or is just a metaphor, or what it’s a metaphor for, or why we should care. Strip away the mantle of scriptural authority, and you can see that the emperor has no legs.)

    Christianity largely thrives on its profound incoherence. This is pretty obvious from the way people are forced to pick and choose from the Bible, and therefore can construct a Biblically-based theology to justify anything they care to justify. But it goes deeper than that. The core of Christianity is a recombinant theology generator, making Christinity easy to adapt to a vast space of memetic niches.

    Even without specific Biblical nonsense, the core handful tenets of Christianity—about God, Jesus, sin, and salvation—are so looney that they alone suffice to generate a zoo of theologies, with a little picking and choosing among the contradictory implications.

    I have to say that liberal Christians are just as nutty as fundamentalists; they’re just more politically helpful because they side with science in most of the clear cases. We can find Christian evolutionary biologists and “religious” philosophers of science to say that there’s no conflict between science and religion, and help us draw a politically convenient line. But the loony fundamentalists are right that there is a real conflict, and that the people who don’t see it are just picking and choosing to find a convenient compartmentalization; they’re mostly giving away the store. (And for us, that’s a good thing; as long as they give away the parts of the store we’re currently shopping in, we can worry about the rest later.)

  13. ivy privy says

    I’ve known a few people who respond to good behavior by saying “that’s white of you.” Even more respond to it by saying “that’s Christian of you.” They’re both reflections of the same biased attitude, and it doesn’t matter that they are approving of admirable actions.

    This can be turned around to good effect. A few years ago, I was undercharged at a supermarket. The total didn’t seem right, so I looked over the receipt and informed the clerk that I had been rung up for only two items when I had purchased three. The guy behind me in line said, “Must be a Christian”.

    The snappy response I didn’t come up with until later* was, “No I’m not, but it’s mighty Christian of you to say so.”

    Here’s an obnoxious, ignorant Christian pretending he knows what atheism is about


    * See, I’m too honest even to lie about this.

  14. MJ Memphis says

    He’s stupid as well as an asshole. However, his “experiment” in nonbelief isn’t really all that uncommon. Back when I had to be around Southern Baptists on a regular basis (dated a SB preacher’s daughter), I heard similar little adventures in unbelief all the time. It seemed like just about every guest speaker- and many congregants- was a former atheist of some sort, by their telling. My theory is that it is kinda boring to say, well, my grandparents were Southern Baptist, my parents were too, and, well, so am I; it’s more exciting and impressive-sounding to the rubes if you are (ostensibly) a convert- even if you were really born into the faith.

    On second thought, maybe his idea has some merit. Maybe you really can just doff off deeply held convictions for a few hours and really see what it is like on the “other side”. I think I will become a Republican for a few minutes to test the idea.

  15. Frenchdoc says

    So, when do we create a Society for Reason and Critical Thinking in Higher Education? With PZ as 1st president?
    I’m serious.

  16. David Wilford says

    Heh, I know atheists are getting a bum rap in the U.S. when even my own wife once questioned me about how atheists can know right from wrong. I mean, you’d think that if the “atheists are just amoral” line was the case she’d have never married me in the first place as she’s no fool. I told her that like most everyone else, I learned right from wrong no later than Kindergarden. Morality isn’t a matter of religious instruction as much as a a process of socialization. The fact that we have fervent believers who happen to also be pathological liars illustrates how mere belief does not inculcate a sense of morality.

  17. ivy privy says

    It’s also funny how the fact that Christianity is nothing without this “Jesus” cult figure, as if that were a plus.

    They could get guests to substitute for him: Mithra, Jehoshua ben Pandira, Zoroaster, Brian, etc.

  18. Caledonian says

    I object: it most certainly isn’t possible to be a “practicing Christian or Muslim or whatever” and accept the rationalist worldview simultaneously.

    No one can serve two masters if those masters make contradictory demands. Either you’ll follow one and ignore the other, or ignore one and follow the other.

    You have a choice. You can follow religious doctrines and compromise rational thinking, or follow rational thinking and compromise religious doctrines.

  19. says

    The article reports how she was ‘mad at God’ for much of her life. That’s not atheism. How can you be mad at someone who doesn’t exist?

    That is, of course, maltheism. Also known as Pat Robertsonism, with all the hurricanes, dead miners, strokes for Middle-Eastern leaders, and other violent acts performed to coerce political change… What did we call that form of violence, again? I recall that we’re supposed to be having some kind of war on it or something.

  20. says

    You might like this bit from Gandhi (even though he was religious)

    I do not believe in people telling others of their faith, especially with a view to conversion. Faith does not admit of telling. It has to be lived and then it becomes self-propagating.

  21. says

    Well, they don’t much like it when I teach history because I teach a lot about the history of religion and I blow holes in their pet theories and beliefs like the absence of women in the early church (on the contrary, many prominent church patrons and figures before the fifth century were women — that it became increasingly unseemly is another truth with which they’re uncomfortable) or that it wasn’t until the second Lateran Council in 1139 that the Church forbade the marriage of priests altogether, declaring all existing marriages involving priests null and void. (Thomas Aquinas chimed in, later, to note that said ruling was not divine law, but merely Church law which could be repealed at any time.) And don’t get me started on the way that many Protestants believe that the 16th century reformers were channeling some mystic “purified early church” mumbo jumbo or the like.

    No, many of these people positively despise it when we teach the subjects with historical rigour. . . . Unsurprising, I suspect!

  22. Graculus says

    I don’t know about “that’s white of you” – does it really descend from the white race?

    Oh, yeah.

    I only ever heard it used sarcasticly, though.

  23. Efogoto says

    I read the entry from the Christian who decided to put his Christianity away to walk around the world and see what it felt like. He put away his humanity as well, though this was a fact he did not care to share except through the statement “Don’t let your conscience be your guide.”. It was this that leads him to want to ignore those in need of help, to imagine that it is all right to act against his community and society in general.

    To put ourselves above the animal kingdom without the existence and rules of a creator is just plain silly. Like dogs and cats and mosquitoes, atheists should embrace their freedom and act accordingly.

    Exactly. We are free to choose to live in a society where we make laws based on our respect for ourselves and others, where we do not seek to hate and ostracize others because the Good Book tells us so.

    We are all human beings sharing a single space. Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?

  24. Efogoto says

    Oops, messed up my blockquote. I’ll try to do netter next time. You don’t ban for poor style, do you PZ?

  25. Magnus Malmborn says

    Efogoto, it’s a matter of policy not to answer such questions, but I promise he doesn’t and you should trust that.*

    (*Sorry if my imitation of Condi Rice sucks…)