Last week, Tom and I attended the national staff meetings for InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, which continued the theme of Campuses Renewed from our national staff conference in January. Our speakers could not have been better: historian George Marsden, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, who wrote the seminal book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (see our online book discussion for more details), and University of Cincinnati Provost Santa Ono, who serves on the InterVarsity Board of Trustees and impressed us all with both his vision for higher education and his bold-yet-winsome faith. Their talks were recorded, and I hope that we’ll be able to share them with you soon. Today, however, I want to share a question generated by Dr. Marsden’s talk. Next week, I’ll have a second, related question.
Is ideological natural losing its hold in the academy?
Dr. Marsden spoke on “The Soul of the American University Revisited,” updating the conditions he identified in his landmark history of Protestant higher education, The Soul of the American University, a 1994 book based on a 1991 essay published in First Things. In Soul, Marsden traced the path of American universities “From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief;” in this talk, Marsden asked “What has changed in the past 20 years?”
Again, I hope that we’ll be able to share the audio from the talk with you, because there was far more in the brief talk than I can reproduce here. Instead, I want to focus on just one of Dr. Marsden’s points:
Today, there is good reason to think that ideological naturalism is losing its monopoly on higher education.
Marsden, like many others, distinguished between methodological naturalism, which sets aside religious considerations temporarily for the purpose of research or teaching without making claims about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas, and ideological naturalism, which rejects religious claims outright. From Marsden’s perspective, ideological naturalism is losing steam within the academy, with more and more academics recognizing that science, though powerful, has clear limits and that a full understanding of human nature requires some degree of spirituality. Despite the sound and fury of the New Atheists, Marsden feels that, in general, the academy is becoming more open to spiritual concerns.
I’ve seen some evidence on this trend in my own research:
- The growth of projects like UCLA’s Spirituality in Higher Education and the SSRC’s Essay Forum on the Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates
- Increased awareness and acceptance of the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi on the philosophy of science
- Theistic philosophers like Alvin Plantinga becoming part of the philosophical mainstream
- Researchers like Elaine Howard Ecklund and Neil Gross finding greater interest in spirituality among university faculty than previously thought
- Stanley Fish’s prediction that religion is the “next big thing” in the academy
The profound postmodern skepticism of the humanities and social sciences undercuts ideological naturalism as well, since all truth claims — e.g. “Science can explain everything” — are interpreted as claims to power. This skeptical stance doesn’t necessarily help religious claims, except so far as it exposes problems with ideological naturalism.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t counter-trends. Sometime soon, we’ll publish a review of George Yancey’s new book Compromising Scholarship, which finds evidence of bias against evangelical and fundamentalist Christians within sociology, and the Martin Gaskell case demonstrates that opposition to religious beliefs is alive and well in the academy.
What has been your own experience? Do you agree with George Marsden that ideological naturalism is losing steam?