On Campus

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.