Outrageous Idea 2: Arguments for Silence

Cover of "Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship"

Cover of “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship”

In chapter 2 of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, George Marsden examines three “arguments for silence” common in the university for why Christians should keep their faith out of their academic work:

  • The argument of “science vs. religion”
  • The argument of multiculturalism and diversity
  • The separation of church and state

In case, Marsden summarizes the basic argument, then provides counter-arguments in favor of Christian scholars being open about their faith.

I’ll summarize chapter 2 below, but here are a few questions.

Are there other “arguments for silence” that Marsden overlooks?

Do you find Marsden’s counter-arguments convincing? How might one counter his counter-arguments?

More practically, do Marsden’s counter-arguments “work”? Have you seen Christian scholars win over opponents and open doors for the presentation of Christian scholarship?

Leave your thoughts about these questions – or about anything else related to this chapter – in the comments. My chapter 2 summary is after the jump.

Science vs. religion: Marsden cites an argument that religious belief is inherently “out of bounds” in the academy, because the work of the university is evidence-based, and (in the words of an Ohio State philosophy professor) “faith is, by definition, a belief in that for which there is no proof” (25)

Marsden observing that this is an Enlightenment-era perspective that carries virtually no weight anywhere else in the academy, including within science itself. The “science vs. religion” has a number of weaknesses, but perhaps the most notable is the absence for any intellectual foundation for the argument.

Some of the leading figures in American philosophy have addressed these very issues…Today many philosophers consider such preemptory dismissals of religious claims indefensible” (31)

The most arguments against Christianity along these lines seem to be stuck in 1927. Among the “New Atheists” who are currently the highest profile proponents of this “science vs. religion” argument, only one, Daniel Dennett, is a philosopher, and the others, so far as I can tell, do not even attempt to engage the academic philosophical literature. Dawkins has even said that he intentionally ignores the work of theologians and philosophers who believe in God, because he thinks they are irrational and therefore their work is meaningless. Try that at your dissertation defense when someone asks about a source that contradicts your conclusions! At least one atheist blogger has noted with frustration that the debate opponents of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig don’t even bother to prepare rebuttals for Craig’s standard arguments. (I can’t find the reference, but I’ve read a quote from Craig himself expressing frustration with the same problem.)

Multiculturalism and diversity: Here, the essence of the argument is that Christianity has been an oppressive force in history, that the university has labored for decades to escape its oppression, and that Christianity ought not be allowed a venue to renew its oppression.

Marsden says that proponents of this argument might have a point:

At least we can understand the fears of gays, lesbians, radical feminists, Jews, ex-fundamentalists, secularists, Marxists, and others who oppose any recovery of power for traditional Christianity. We should take these concerns seriously. (32)

Marsden goes on to note that there are core differences in belief between Christians and these groups. However, replacing one “imperialistic” worldview with another isn’t an acceptable option. Personally, I’ve been pleased to see Christian scholars forming friendships with members of these groups and sharing the love of Christ with them through personal relationships.

Further, Marsden argues, while some conservative Christians call for a return of Christianity’s complete dominance in culture, most Christians do not desire this, and conservative Christianity is so divided within itself that there is no agreement about what a new Christian dominance would even look like. This argument, Marsden contends, falls apart because a) it is hardly conceivable that conservative Christians could silence all other voices in the academy, even if they wanted to, and b) the argument for diversity, in reality, silences minority religious and ethnic voices by forcing them to conform to the academic mainstream. He gives as an example African American scholars, who are expected to conform to white culture of the university.

Church and state: Lastly, Marsden addresses the idea that religious voices must be silent in the university because of the “separate of church and state.” As many others have noted, this misconstrues the First Amendment as excluding religious from the “public square.” Moreover, the First Amendments’ establishment clause was written to prevent the institutional church from wielding too much power in government. Marsden points out that, except for a few local regions in the US, there is no single “institutional church” that could conceivably exert political control, much less control over the university.

Most often what we are talking about is individual scholars who wish to relate their religious beliefs to their scholarship. Their beliefs will likely be shaped by church or other religious communities, but they do not typically represent the “church” in any legal sense. The religiously shaped scholarship of these individuals is better viewed as an expression of their own constitutionally guaranteed rights as citizens to free speech and to the free exercise of religion. (41)

In this section, I was impressed with Marsden’s critique of the attempts of creation science proponents’ legislative activities. Briefly, Marsden’s argument is that:

  • The Christian doctrine of “creation is broader than any single scientific theory about the origin of life or the universe.
  • Creation science laws are based on a false dichotomy that there are only two options: atheistic evolution or young earth creationism.
  • There is no good reason to privilege one religious viewpoint about creation in law, while ignoring the views of other Christians or other religions.

To repeat my questions from above:

Are there other “arguments for silence” that Marsden overlooks?

Do you find Marsden’s counter-arguments convincing? How might one counter his counter-arguments?

More practically, do Marsden’s counter-arguments “work”? Have you seen Christian scholars win over opponents and open doors for the presentation of Christian scholarship?

Leave your thoughts about these questions – or about anything else related to this chapter – in the comments.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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  • tobingrant@gmail.com'
    JTG commented on October 17, 2009 Reply

    My issue with Marsden’s arguments and counterarguments is simple: what he’s discussing is intellectual history but I can’t see how it actually works in practice.

    Is “scholarship” a book, grant application, fellowship letter of inquiry, syllabus, journal article, or what? What he’s talking about makes sense, I guess, but I’m trying to imagine a conflict as it would occur in practice.

    If he would just give an example of a book or class or scholar who was actually “silenced”, then I would take his argument seriously. Not some book critiquing religion, but someone who had their journal article rejected because of it was “Christian”.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on October 18, 2009 Reply

      I believe that Marsden isn’t talking about the historical “silencing” of specific Christians in the university. Instead, he’s responding to criticisms he received after publishing The Soul of the American University. He cites at least two critics by name – Bernard Rosen and Randall Balmer – in his footnotes to chapter 2.

      With that said, I’ve had a number of conversations with Christian faculty and graduate students who have certainly felt silenced. Whether they actually have been silenced by an authority figure – well, that’s a whole other matter. Frankly, I can’t imagine someone being dumb enough to say that they were rejecting a journal article or tenure application because of the person’s religious faith.

      One of the top questions I hear from Christian faculty and graduate students is how “open” they should be about their faith before they earn tenure. Most of them express anxiety about their career if they cross some imaginary line between their faith and their scholarship. Self-censorship based on fear accomplishes the same goal – silence – with much less risk for the ones who wish Christians to remain silent. Considering how competitive the academic job environment is – and how hard it is to get back “on track” after your career has gone slightly “off track” – I don’t think much pressure at all is needed to encourage Christian scholars to keep their faith to themselves.

      But I’m open to hearing different perspectives. The environment for Christians has clearly been getting better since Marsden wrote this book, so perhaps his concerns are outdated, and a bolder stance can be taken by Christian faculty and students.

    • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on October 21, 2009 Reply

      JTG, I think that you would have interest in my post regarding the Fall 2007 interdisciplinary panel discussion of “God, Evolution, and Racism: A Perfect Storm” at Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), http://groshlink.net/archives/2007/11/07/god-evolution-and-racism-a-perfect-storm, which discussed the removal of a recently recovered and re-hung dedication plaque for the first science building. The plaque features a quote attributed to Louis Agassiz, “A laboratory is to me a sanctuary; I would have nothing done in it unworthy its great author.”

      This conversation is a sample of what can ‘come to the table,’ particularly at college desire to clarify how it has moved on from it’s religious heritage, such as what George Marsden researches/writes about in “The Soul of the American University” (Oxford University Press, 1994). BTW, who would have remembered F&M’s connection to the Reformed Church, later part of the United Church of Christ, which was “severed” when “the College became a secular institution” but “remained committed to ‘liberal learning'” in 1969 (see http://www.fandm.edu/x20902, accessed 10/21/2009, 1:30 pm)? Note the Provost’s emphasis on putting the religious heritage behind in order to be secular and her concern regarding Agassiz’s rejection of evolution.

      Too much in the post to copy here, but here’s a pertinent section regarding how followers of Christ perceive/experience the environment of a liberal arts college such as F&M. Note: At the time, Michael Murray was a Philosophy Professor at F&M (http://www.fandm.edu/x11310?id=204, accessed 10/21/2009, 1:36 pm) now he is the John Templeton Foundation’s Vice President for Philosophy and Theology (http://www.templeton.org/about_us/who_we_are/leadership_team/michael_murray/, accessed 10/21/2009, 1:36 pm).

      “In the conversation afterward several Christian students shared their feelings of being marginalized on campus because of their faith. Michael [Murray] affirmed that he has seen this in the lives of a number of students and in his own as a follower of Christ during his 18 years at F&M. A number of students present emphasized their desire for more science-religion conversation. One student expressed concern regarding the erasure of [campus] memory — although a classmate disagreed. And one student even challenged the Provost as to whether concerns as to the allusion to faith and not Agassiz’s racism was at the core of the removal.

      As to concerns which those in the future might bring to our current scientific work, the following were suggested: scientism’s rejection of broader conversation regarding the origin of life, money directing scientific research, arrogance of science/technology (we need a dose of humility), atheism’s role in guiding science (it was confessed that we all bring a bias, but scientists propose a hypothesis with the ability to falsify as one follows the evidence where it leads . . . unlike religion).”

      Note: More response coming in the post on Chapter 3.

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