Do religious universities serve the public good? -

Do religious universities serve the public good?

If there was a God, he wouldn’t let me post this.


Some of my previous posts regarding the status of religious universities in Canada led to a very big question: do religious universities serve the public good? What follows is my attempt to answer that question. In addressing it, I will, no doubt, suggest things that may offend those of strong religious faith. While I do not apologize for such offense, I do wish to stress that my aim is not to insult or revile any individual or group; I present the arguments below because I honestly believe in them, and because I believe that matters of religious doctrine — at least when it comes to education — must be debated because they are vital matters of public interest.

To begin, then. Do religious universities serve the public good? I will argue that they do not. I contend that religious universities promote religious belief, and that religious belief is detrimental to the public good because it encourages belief in what is false and because it encourages belief without sound reason.

Most religious people mean well, of course. I have known many fine religious folk, and there have been many devout men and women whom I have admired. By the same token, I  have no doubt that there is much in the way of quality education that goes on at religious universities in Canada, because taken as individuals, I am sure the students and faculty there are mostly decent people. But religion is bigger than the details. When humanity was at a loss to make sense of the universe in any other way, religion was understandable, but we have crossed a threshold, philosophical and scientific, whereby we no longer need the ancient baggage of faith in invented deities. As we face an uncertain future, we must marshal every intellectual resource we have to see as clearly as we can, and those who promote religion are holding us back.

That religious universities promote religious belief is probably not particularly controversial, and I will not spend much time on it. The mission statements of Canada’s religious universities make this clear enough. They do not aim merely to educate students about religion, but rather to lead them to a deeper conviction in their religious beliefs and attitudes.

On to the claims that are more controversial. To suggest that religion teaches that which is false will sound naive, if not absurd in the ears of some, either because they themselves have been so thoroughly immersed in religion that it has come to seem natural, or because our notions of cultural tolerance intervene. But the plausibility of a holy Savior existing today in any literal sense would seem plainly false to everyone if not for the centuries of Christian belief itself. The sheer long-standingness of Christianity has given it a glossy patina of intellectual respectability, so that its claims are difficult to view objectively.

But if you had a difficult problem and asked a friend how she handles her difficulties, you would be taken aback if that friend replied, “Well, I believe that there is a magical carpenter who lives in the sky and communicates with me telepathically. When I am confused I send my brainwaves out through space where the magic carpenter picks them up and beams messages back to me. Then I do what the carpenter tells me.” Indeed, if your friend said that, you would quite likely think she had gone off her medication — or badly needed to be on some. But suppose she said the following instead: “Well, I believe that Jesus is in Heaven and He answers prayers. When I am confused, I pray to Jesus and He answers me. Then I try to follow His will.” In that case, you might find your friend’s piety surprising, but, if you are like most people, you wouldn’t see the claims as crazy. But of course, the two utterances are effectively the same. Magic telepathic carpenter in the sky sounds nutty but is inherently no nuttier than Jesus, the son of God in Heaven. It’s just that the latter has centuries of indoctrination and tradition behind it and the former does not. If I told you I saw a man turn water into Coca Cola you would laugh in my face; never mind if I told you I was going to find a man who could bring my dead brother back to life. But because similar stories are in the Bible, we accept them as, well, gospel.

Let me put it another way. Imagine three scholars were proposing to start new universities in Canada this year with mission statements that included the following:

Canadian Olympian University is an innovative university dedicated to the fearsome Gods of Olympus, rooted in the classical faith tradition, moved and transformed by the life and teachings of the epic poet Homer. Through teaching, research and service COU inspires and equips women and men for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite and their followers.

As a polytheistic community, Atlantic Egyptian University upholds pagan standards of behavior to which faculty and staff are required to conform. These standards derive not only from ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, but also from the culture of the Pharaohs, the priesthood and their slaves.

The mission of Canadian Mesopotamian  University, as an arm of Taimat and Abzu, is to develop sky-respecting leaders: positive, goal-oriented university graduates with minds dedicated to Enlil, god of storms; growing disciples of Nin-Khursag, the earth goddess,who glorify Enki, water god and patron of wisdom.

These all sound silly, of course, and we would all think twice before hiring a graduate from any of these schools to teach our children or treat our diseases.  But they are all real statements from Canadian religious universities (Canadian Mennonite, Atlantic Baptist/Crandall, and Trinity Western) with the Christian references removed and other real, if ancient, religions put in their place.

But no one believes in those ancient gods any more, so what is the point? Well, that is precisely the point.  A thunderbolt-hurling Zeus is no more plausible than a Sodom-smiting God. Apollo the Sun is no less credible than Jesus the Son. It’s just that Zeus and Apollo no longer have a broad social endorsement. As my fellow humanists are fond of saying, all religious people are all atheists who make one exception.

Still, isn’t it possible that all the other ancient religions are wrong, and Christianity (or perhaps Islam) is correct? Couldn’t there still be an all-powerful, loving God watching over us? No. Why not? Because there is no sensible way to explain the horrors and suffering of history and the present in a universe ruled over by a just, powerful, and loving God. My detractors have accused me of not knowing any theology, but I have studied enough theology to know about the Problem of Evil, and to know that all the suggested answers are insufficient. We might say that good is only possible if there is evil, but that is dubious (surely the possibility of evil is enough), and that doesn’t account for so much evil. We might say evil is necessary because of man’s free will, but no just ruler allows his subjects the freedom to commit murder, let alone genocide, let alone to do it repeatedly. In any case, what of the suffering of animals? We might fall back and say that we cannot know the mind of God or his ways, but that means that God might very well simply be evil (but then we can’t explain why there is so much good).

Nevertheless, if religious people want to believe that the rainbow is a sign from God or that an angel spoke to Mohamed or that Thor dwells in Valhalla, what harm does it do? It does two kinds of harm.

For one thing, the nature of religion — because it claims to have ultimate truth — leads its believers to try to impose their views on others. After all, if the truth has been revealed to you by the Almighty, why not insist that others live by it too? If religious believers did not seek to have books banned( incredibly, even the Bible), if they did not evangelize to children in public schools, if they did not seek to have the national anthem removed from classrooms, if they did not try to censor their opponents, if they did not promote discrimination against gays and lesbians, if they did not hinder efforts to stop AIDS or polio by banning condoms and vilifying foreigners, if they did not  blow up buildings, or buses, if they did not seek to destroy their enemies utterly, I might feel more accommodating to religion. But they do these things. These and many more. They have always done them. And they do them because they think they are right, and they think they are right because their teachers told them so.

But wait, don’t non-religious people do bad things, too? Wasn’t Stalin an atheist? Certainly, atheists do bad things, typically when in the grip of an extremist ideology. And yes, there are extremist ideologies that are not religious, but there are no religions that are not extremist — some are just more extremist than others. In any case, there is a key difference between Stalinism and religion. The horrible excesses of Stalin’s regime served to discredit its underlying ideology, and rightly so. But the horrible excesses of religion are, inexplicably, not connected to its underlying belief system, but shrugged off as the failings of religious people, not religion itself. Right: and Stalinism itself wasn’t the problem, just the people who believed in it.

But beyond all this, there is an even greater danger to encouraging religion, and it is this: because religion finds ways around ordinary rules of reason and evidence, it encourages irrational thinking in other areas of thought, with consequences for everyone. Research shows that religious believers are less likely to believe in evolution, despite the evidence, and so school children are put at risk of growing up with their science instruction hobbled. Even Canada’s science minister refused to acknowledge that evolution is a fact. The same is true for climate change — where even more dire consequences may await. The link is not hard to see: if we can accept the existence of an invisible superhero who created the world, we can accept anything. If the world’s ultimate standard of truth does not require evidence, why should evidence convince us of anything we don’t want to believe?

Religion opens up a space where we can say it is okay to believe what we want to believe because it appeals to us. And into this vast cognitive vacuity pours all the hucksterism of our time: crop circle enthusiasm, psychic readings, healing crystalsThe Secret and more, more, more. All trading money for false hope with those who have been conditioned from an early age to accept that there must be higher forces guiding our destinies, that miracles do happen, that any explanation is better than no explanation, and that to expect solid, rational, evidence-based reasons for belief is to be cold and inhumane.

Reason, however, is neither cold, nor inhumane. Just the reverse. Religion has had its time and it has not impressed. It’s time to move on.


Do religious universities serve the public good?

  1. I am coming to understand the tremendous differences between Canada and the U.S. If Todd Pettigrew’s views were held by Americans, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, Yeshiva, Fordham and many other prestigious American universities would be deemed not to be in the public interest and would be ordered closed, or at least not eligible for indirect government funding.

    Or is it just that these new religious universities in Canada are all fundamentalist in some form and not the traditional Catholic and main line Protestant schools?

  2. These religious universities in question are neither new nor fundamentalist per se. That certainly doesn’t apply to something like ABU. There’s no shortage of publicly-funded universities with current or past religious affiliations in Canada, but they are run as secular institutions maintaining denominational connections and affiliations, rather than as explicitly “faith-based” organizations with religious missions. To name a few examples, consider at least half of the constituent colleges of the University of Toronto and most of the schools in Nova Scotia (St. Mary’s, St. Francis Xavier, Acadia, King’s). Interestingly, Acadia still has members of the Atlantic Baptist Convention on its Board of Governors, even though that same organization runs ABU. There’s a world of difference, however, between a religious school and a public institution that maintains a certain religious tradition.

  3. I agree with one of Todd Pettigrew’s premises: If a worldview is demonstrably false, it can hardly be credited with offering an education worthy of public support. I respectfully disagree with his second: Christianity is such a demonstrably false worldview. Thus I disagree with his conclusion, that Christian universities do not deserve public support.

    Professor Pettigrew believes he has marshalled a list of unanswerable arguments against the credibility of the Christian faith. I reply that I answer them all the time–I’m heading down to Stanford University later this week to answer some of them again, as I did at the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, and the University of British Columbia earlier this academic year.

    Do I answer them in such a way as to convince Professor Pettigrew? Well, perhaps: He prizes having an open mind willing to entertain serious arguments, so perhaps he would be persuaded. But perhaps not, in which case nothing follows except that we disagree. I’m certainly as well-credentialed as he is by the standards of academia, so we have two well-educated people disagreeing. So what?

    So this: It simply is not the case that Christianity stands on the same intellectual level as the other ancient religions he says are equivalent. Nor is it the case that Christianity cannot pass the bar of reason. Christianity cannot pass the bar of Professor Pettigrew’s own outlook, of course, but his can’t pass Christianity’s, either. But to observe that fact does not entail that Professor Pettigrew’s viewpoint is irrational, and I dare to say that the reverse is true as well.

    Perhaps I will have the opportunity to debate my colleague somewhere on these intriguing matters. In the meanwhile, however, I encourage readers, as I encourage Professor Pettigrew, not to give up on Christianity as a worldview just yet. And I offer my own set of arguments for his perusal, and yours, particularly on the Problem of Evil he raises: Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press, 1998; 2nd edition, InterVarsity Press, 2009).

  4. Todd: have you read Terry Eagleton, a highly influential, respected–and entertaining– literary critic (with whom you must be familiar), on these matters you are raising? I recommend Reason, Faith, and Revolution (New Haven: Yale UP, 2009). There he writes, in response to outspoken “dogmatic” atheistic believers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins:

    “The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than for the sign of a certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it. Because certain of our commitments [notice he says “our”–as in, all people] are constitutive of who we are, we cannot alter them without what Christianity traditionally calls a conversion, which involves a lot more than just swapping one opinion for another. This is one reason why other people’s faith can look like plain irrationalism, which indeed it sometimes is” (138-39)–but which it sometimes is not.

    Eagleton also refers to Nietzsche’s point that you, as an avowed humanist, might want to consider: “The death of God must also spell the death of Man.”

  5. While I concur with you, Dr. Pettigrew, that religious universities do not serve the public good, I find that your argument is flawed in several ways and at times borders on the bigoted, for it ascribes to all followers of religious faith the unsavory characteristics of a precious few fanatics.

    The fundamental problem with your argument, as I see it, is that you confuse religion and fundamentalism.

    While fundamentalists of all stripes take the tenets of their faith literally, many more followers do not. Nor do they view their religion as possessing “ultimate truth.” For many non-fundamentalist Christians (and Muslims and Buddhists …), religious identity is rather like a cultural identity. It is the framework they were given by their culture to interpret their spiritual life. They have no more problem with the existence of other such frameworks than they do with the existence of other races. In fact, their only reason for not converting to other religions is that, to them, it makes no difference which spiritual path they choose. Thus, they might as well go with the one they have the most lived experience with, and they might as well chose one that derives from their culture rather than appropriating someone else’s. These people do not take their religious texts literally, but rather interpret them with the same level of scholarship as any non-Christian (this is true to some extent even in fundamentalist seminaries). Suffice to say, these individuals also have widely divergent opinions on matters like homosexuality, and they are not trying to convert anybody to their way of thinking.

    This, of course, does not address your fundamental suggestion that god does not exist. All I can say in response to that is that you can no more prove that he/she/it doesn’t than others can prove that he/she/it does. Science has hardly answered all the questions of the universe except perhaps for the most uncurious among us. When it comes to explaining events that one might describe as supernatural–such as the incredibly common experience of loved ones reporting interactions with the recently deceased–science offers nothing but theories. And these theories often reek of desperation to uphold one’s own religious belief in science.

    With this in mind, I personally have no problem with schools that encourage the consideration of religious viewpoints in academic work. My problem with religious universities of the TWU ilk is that they are by nature fundamentalist. By excluding certain viewpoints from their campuses, their staff and students are adapting their learning to their faith rather than adapting their faith to their learning. These schools are designed by people who, away from a public forum like this, will sometimes freely admit that they do not want to have their beliefs constantly challenged by the secular world.

    It is in this regard, and not in their mere religious nature, that they fail to serve the public good. For in protecting students from the influence of a pluralistic society, they permit students who so choose to cling to the kinds of ill-informed perspectives that lead to the distasteful behaviors you describe.

  6. Easter greetings from the former Soviet Union.

    So if Todd Pettigrew is correct, and Christianity and all other religions are untrue and “harmful,” then what is the alternative? Has Todd Pettigrew, the Canadian humanist/atheist, found something better, something more rational, something that works?

    Todd’s post appears to draw heavily on Bertrand Russell, who expressed his humanistic atheism in a short 1927 piece called “Why I am not a Christian,” which later became a book of the same name. It’s a fascinating Easter weekend read. In it Russell proclaims Christianity, along with other religions, to be “harmful.”

    Todd writes; “as we face an uncertain future, we must marshal every intellectual resource we have to see as clearly as we can, and those who promote religion are holding us back.” I can imagine Bertrand Russell cheering along his disciple.

    “Holding us back” and “harm” are serious charges. Does evidence support Pettigrew’s claims?

    Pettigrew appears to be flippant in dismissing the words of many of the greatest minds in history cited in my earlier post

    Pettigrew responded “The fact that so many great minds of the western tradition have been Christian seems to me not the result of the any benefits imparted by that (or any) religion, but rather a reflection of the fact that since ancient times, Christianity has been forced upon the people of the west.”


    So one has to ask, has Todd found something better?

    Russell’s confession of faith, reads:

    [To] worship at the shrine that his own hands have built, undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.”

    Leonard Bernstein’s narrator also present’s a confession of faith at the climax of “Kaddish Symphony” (likely a profession of Bernstein’s own belief) where the narrator shouts out the words: “Magnified and sanctified be the great name of Man!” Leonard Bernstein one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century likewise has the narrator position “Man” as the new God.

    Russell rejects Christianity but then offers up a religion of his own making. Yet he ultimately assumes his existence to be meaningless, and maintains that he is a “weary but unyielding Atlas.” In the end, his own religion cannot meet the “rational” standard that he attempts to use when rejecting Christianity.

    Russell also had consistency problem with his “faith.” He passionately, even religiously speaks of goodness: a Christian hangover. In an essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” he writes “Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.”

    For Russell, all men are “kings,” “ultimate and irrefutable arbiters” of right and wrong, who each create according to their wish and word.

    Thankfully, that’s now how Canada works.

    Canada’s Charter of Freedom and Rights starts: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principals that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law. . . “ In the Charter there is at least a recognition of a (widely defined) deeper starting point.

    The problem for Russell was that his religion didn’t work. Ethics became arbitrary. While he claimed that the ills of the world could be largely solved through logic and reason, in reality he left a trail of destruction, almost legendary, in his family relationships. While attempting to be a pacifist (even arguing that Christ’s violence offended him deeply) he called for the US government to drop the bomb on Russia. In “Why I am not a Christian” he held Christ to a quasi-standard that he could not hold to himself.

    Fyodor Dostoevsky correctly and wisely said: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

    An ethical problem for Todd Pettigrew is that he is claiming that all religions do “harm” to Canadian society . . . except for his.

    When he writes “A university’s main goal should be the rational pursuit of knowledge and truth. Traditional religion, premised as it is on faith and revelation, is incompatible with that goal” he appears to be blind to overwhelming evidence that suggests that Christian scholars place great value on truth, knowledge, evidence and reason.

    Do Todd’s beliefs give him problems when grading a paper, written by a student of faith? Does Todd really believe that a student of faith who is in his class is not in “their right mind?”

    I appreciate Todd Pettigrew’s comment in an earlier post acknowledging that “many great minds of the western tradition have been Christians.” On this point, I agree with him. If many great minds of the western tradition have been Christians, including many today, it might be worth asking why, at a deeper level.

    Todd Peddigrew presents the problem of pain and evil question. It’s a fair question.

    Alternately, I present the beauty and order question. Did the beauty, creativity and complexity of Shakespeare, Bach, or DNA really happen totally by chance?

    Wes Janzen
    Professor of Music
    Trinity Western University
    Principal Guest Conductor
    Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

  7. Ah, the old “ethics and morals are arbitrary” without a (very specific type of Christian understanding of) God non-argument. I don’t really agree with Dr. Pettigrew, but Prof. Janzen is peddling a selection of fallacious appeals to “order” and “complexity”. Having problems reconciling literalism with science there?

    (I’d say that Bach didn’t write his concertos by chance incidentally, but the key is that *he* wrote them. I don’t believe in any kind of personal God.)

  8. I’ll make one more contribution to this discussion, namely, to indicate that I have answered Professor Pettigrew’s argument, at least in several respects, here, in the journal University Affairs that I trust he will find and consider:

    To be sure, I do not answer his concern that Christianity be demonstrated to be intellectually responsible and fruitful, therefore worthy of public esteem, but my previous post indicates that I have done so at length elsewhere (including on my own blog). But if I can show that Christianity is indeed to be taken seriously as an intellectually responsible and fruitful worldview, then public funding of a university governed by that worldview is, in my view, defensible: That’s what I argue in University Affairs.

  9. When TWU adopts policies comparable to a federated college like St. Mike’s (, it will be deserving of public funding. I don’t think UofT is preoccupied with promoting a certain “worldview”, yet it clearly provides space to everyone, religious and secular, and it is that very “worldview” promotion at TWU that, I think, Dr. Pettigrew objects to. And just how ecumenical is TWU?

  10. Ahhh, now we’re getting somewhere! This is a relatively thoughtful piece, and the central argument is much more persuasive than previous offerings. We get a concise and clear statement of the argument at the outset, with most of what follows in it serving as reasons to think that the main premises are true. The argument is basically that:

    1. Religious universities promote religious belief(s).
    2. But belief in God or gods is false.
    3. And belief in God or gods violates sound reason.
    4. So, religious universities promote belief that is false and that violates sound reason.
    5. If a university promotes belief that is false and that violates sound reason, then it doesn’t serve the public good.
    6. So, religious universities do not serve the public good.

    I’m going to comment on premises 2, 3, and 5, after which I’ll comment on the question of whether the fictional Canadian Mesopotamian University could serve the public good.

    Premise (2) asserts that belief in the existence of God or gods is false. But I think we can all agree that (2) isn’t obviously true–there have been and continue to be people way smarter than Pettigrew and I who have thought that his premise (2) is false. And I think a partial explanation here is the difficulty in trying to demonstrate that premise (3) is true–the one asserting that belief in God or gods violates sound reason. The difficulty for defenders of premise (3) is coming up with a principled and non-arbitrary criterion for reasonable belief that(a) excludes religious belief without (b) also excluding other sorts of beliefs that the objector wants to count as reasonable. So at the very least, whether premises (2) and (3) are true is the sort of thing that rational people can have polite and civil disagreements about, no? (I think a telling point here is that for any guild represented in the university (natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, professional schools, etc., further subdivided any way you like), there will be individuals operating at the highest levels within those guilds who think that premises (2) and (3) are false.)

    What about premise (5), the one asserting that “if a university promotes belief that is false and that violates sound reason, then it doesn’t serve the public good”? In my view, even this premise is worded too strongly. That’s because judgments about whether an institution, educational or otherwise, serves the public good need to be made by weighing negative contributions against the positive ones, and determining as best we’re able whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

    In which case, I’d argue that at this point it’s an open question whether the fictional Canadian Mesopotamian University merits public funding. Suppose Canadian Mesopotamian University teaches educational ministry approved curriculum in standard majors offered by departments that meet or exceed the standards set out by their guilds. Wouldn’t that be a positive contribution? Moreover, suppose Canadian Mesopotamian University credentials educational and health-care professionals who operate at the highest levels of their professions. Wouldn’t that be a positive contribution? Now suppose that someone thinks that with respect to its religious orientation, Canadian Mesopotamian University is mistaken–perhaps because one subscribes to a different religion or because one is an atheist or agnostic. There’s no contradiction for such a person in thinking that Canadian Mesopotamian University is mistaken in the flavor of its religious orientation, and yet on balance serves the public good and thus that Canadian Mesopotamian University merits a certain level of public funding.

    At any rate, it’s certainly not clear that premises (2), (3), and even (5) (the latter being the one that does most of the heavy lifting) are true. I think that on any plausible and non-question-begging account of what counts as a contribution to the public good in a liberal democracy, it would be exceedingly difficult to demonstrate that a university with a religiously informed mission cannot contribute to the public good. In fact, on such an account, I think it would be relatively easy to point to examples of religious institutions that do contribute to the public good.

    In sum, Pettigrew ups his game–good to see! Still falls short, but at least he’s aiming higher.

  11. Of course, the first thing Mr. Pettigrew is missing is a definition of exactly *what* the public good is. Without a clear definition no logical argument can be said to have been formed.

  12. Todd, on March 20th you wrote: “Let me be clear: I have no objection to religious professors, whatever their stripe, working at public universities and collecting a salary largely funded by the public (provided, of course, they do their jobs professionally and so on).

    Then, in this post you say such things as: “For one thing, the nature of religion — because it claims to have ultimate truth — leads its believers to try to impose their views on others.”

    and “But beyond all this, there is an even greater danger to encouraging religion, and it is this: because religion finds ways around ordinary rules of reason and evidence, it encourages irrational thinking in other areas of thought, with consequences for everyone.”

    Do you see the contradiction between your one, more tolerant statement, and the things you are saying about religion in this post? Maybe you want to come clean and withdraw that first statement?

    • Kara, I don’t think there is a contradiction in idea, though perhaps there is in tone. My earlier posts tried to strike a conciliatory tone because I did not wish to offend anyone unduly. But I was challenged to lay my cards on the table, and I did so. Ironically, people seem less upset by this post than the others.

      When I said I had no objection to religious professors teaching at public universities, I did not intend to suggest that I did not object to some of their views of the world, intellectually and morally. Is there a danger that such professors might lead their students to unfounded and unfortunate conclusions? Of course, but in most universities that danger is mitigated by the fact that students have many professors with many points of view. Moreover, I would not wish to ban faculty members from a university because of their religious views, because I think no one — not even me — should be trusted to make such a call. Freedom of speech and thought are based on the fundamental principle that no one can hold any view with absolute certainty.

      Am I in favour of the government shutting down TWU and similar institutions? No. Why not, if they are not in the public good? Well, many things are not in the public good, but we allow them anyway, because it is not for the state to decide such things for everyone. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean they should be encouraged, either. Fortunately, as I said in my first post on the subject, the West is becoming increasingly secular, so I think, in the broad sweep of history, the days of the religious university in Canada are numbered.

      But who knows, maybe this afternoon the heavens will open, God will descend and explain to me the error my ways. If he does, I may not be posting for a while. God is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

  13. Todd, thank you for your response. However, if you really hold the view of religion and religious people as laid out in “your cards” here, it would be inconsistent (maybe even uncourageous) of you to not do everything within your influence to persuade Canadians to bar religious people from holding positions in universities or any other public institution, whatsoever. The way you have framed your argument here, religious people sound very, very dangerous, whether or not they mean to be, and whether or not their influence is mitigated. (There doesn’t seem to be a responsible way to hold a religion here.)

    But maybe you ARE doing everything within your influence, and–for whatever reason–you can’t quite bring yourself to say what you really think on the issue of a religious person being a professor. How could you possibly, given the hooey you’ve indiscriminately made religion out to be, think that a religious person could be qualified to teach in a kindergarten, let alone in a university?

    Hearkening back to my earlier mention of Eagleton and his invoking of Nietzsche on the matter of the “death of Man”–my point is that, if really followed all the way, not only would your reasoning lead to “the days of the religious university in Canada [being] numbered,” it would go further, to the days of the humanities in the university equally being numbered. Humanism, the humanities, and the human are metaphysical concepts and personal commitments that are under just as much skeptical scrutiny as is God these days–have you noticed?

  14. An edit to that final sentence: “Humanism, the humanities, and the idea of “the human” all involve metaphysical concepts and personal commitments…”

    And I’ll quickly add: Skeptical scrutiny doesn’t entail a closed case…As Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age effectively demonstrates. (The latter also cogently interrogates the “subtraction theory” of secularization articulated in the above post …).
    As someone who is keeping the case open in my own thinking at this point, these blogs and responses have been engaging. Thanks!

  15. Dr. Pettigrew, would you then object to the study of theology in public institutions?

  16. Todd wrote: “Freedom of speech and thought are based on the fundamental principle that no one can hold any view with absolute certainty.”

    I’ll refrain from asking the silly question (“are you certain?”) and treat your quote seriously.

    I’d be interested in hearing Todd comment on his certainty of his view that Christianity causes “harm” to society.

    I’d be interested to hear Todd comment on his certainty of the reality of the person that he most cherishes (that’s a “view”).

    Russell (in his credo statement of humanistic/aethestic faith) wrote: “[To] worship at the shrine that his own hands have built, undismayed by the empire of chance . . . “

    What is Russell’s “empire of chance?” It is, I believe, one logical consequence of his humanistic atheism. Exactly what does he mean?

    Or as Kara wrote: “Hearkening back to my earlier mention of Eagleton and his invoking of Nietzsche on the matter of the “death of Man”–my point is that, if really followed all the way, not only would your reasoning lead to “the days of the religious university in Canada [being] numbered,” it would go further, to the days of the humanities in the university equally being numbered. Humanism, the humanities, and the human are metaphysical concepts and personal commitments that are under just as much skeptical scrutiny as is God these days–have you noticed?”

    Kara asks a fair question. I’ve noticed this.

    Josh wrote; “(I’d say that Bach didn’t write his concertos by chance incidentally, but the key is that *he* wrote them. I don’t believe in any kind of personal God.)”

    Josh, Bach believed in a personal God. Bach also believed that “he” alone was not doing the writing. Many of Bach’s original manuscript scores bear the inscriptions “J. J.” at the start, and “SDG” at the end (“Jesus help me” and “Only to the Glory of God”).

    Bach was a Christian, he was in his “right mind,” and he did no “harm” to society.

    My work is with the great orchestral/choral masterpieces. Last night, I enjoyed dinner with two of the top conductors of the former Soviet Union. Each are at the top of their discipline. They both had their training under a communist system which attempted to eradicate faith. For example, the communists banned Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, one of the great musical masterpieces of all time! The authorities believed that expressions of faith were harmful to society.

    We discussed some of the greatest masterpieces of all time and agreed that the top masterpieces have something in common. Each is a great and deep expression of Christian faith (broadly defined); Bach, Stravinsky, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff etc. and yes, each of these composers was in their “right mind.”

    I can’t help but notice that much recent creative work in my field has come out of former Soviet countries that attempted to eradicate faith (often with great brutality) – and that many of these compositions are deep statements of Christian faith.

  17. People can write beautiful music without an invisible sky wizard’s help.

  18. I am of the opinion that there are far more creative people: artists, painters, musicians who have homosexuality in common, not religious belief. Religion is a waste of time, money and young lives. If it helps to believe that living your life being obedient to your particular god’s desires will get you to heaven after you die, then bless you. What would be great is if over the years so many good people had not been persecuted, blown up and otherwise wasted in the name of these ridiculous idols, just so that the religious brotherhood did not have to fear final death.

  19. Slowly (especially after 9/11), I think people have started to realize that religion causes far more problems for humanity than it solves. At least I have.

    More and more, I feel comfortable saying that I don’t feel comfortable around people that are very religious. For years, I feel that I’ve been told to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs. Why?

    • Greg, I think it is worth drawing a distinction between tolerance and respect. I would say it is important to tolerate the religious beliefs of others inasmuch as we should not seek to prevent others from holding or expressing them. But we can still argue against those beliefs and urge others to have the courage to reject them.

      The problem is that many people who call for tolerance don’t mean “tolerance” in this sense, they mean “respect” or even “celebration.” Well, if a man’s religion teaches him that women are inherently inferior to men, I will not force him to think otherwise, but I do not respect or celebrate that view. I think it’s narrow-minded, uninformed, and hurtful. To say so should not be deemed intolerant.

      People interested in this issue might find the CBC Radio series, The Trouble With Tolerance worth listening to. I know I did.

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  21. Does this mean that Mr. Pettigrew considers that the various professionals who graduate from Christian universities – nurses, teachers, human services workers, etc. – do not serve the public any good because where they got their education from a Christian school?

    To people who think that Christians do not serve the public good:
    Are you disregarding all the works of faith-based social services, even just in the history of Canada? Are you forgetting that Canadians benefit from the universal medical care system because of Tommy Douglas, a Protestant Christian?

    If you say to Christians, “Hey, your faith isn’t real so any contribution you make to society isn’t real so just quit” – then you are dismantling all the services and works that Christian schools, services, and individuals have put into society – faith-based services have taken up work that the government is too busy or unwilling to spend money on.