Religion in College

 Posted by on 31 December 2006 at 11:36 pm  Academia, Religion
Dec 312006

While I haven’t been teaching long enough to notice any difference in the religiosity of my students over the years, this professor’s observations are consistent with my general knowledge on the topic. He writes:

More American college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of “political correctness.” But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche’s analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including “unacceptable” books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major U.S. universities have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.

At a time when universities are obsessed with public relations, faculty members can no longer be confident they will remain free to pose the questions that urgently need to be asked.

For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to consider the many functions they serve.

It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.

If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn — one that extends well beyond the academy.

Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life’s unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: Unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.

Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College, is the author of “Mystic Bones.”

(This op-ed was also printed in the NY Times a few weeks ago.)

Many serious Christians are genuinely committed to replacing the political correctness of today’s academia with their own Christian dogma. They are determined, they are numerous, and they are extremely well-funded. That’s not good news: rule of academia by religious correctness would be no better — and surely much worse — than rule by political correctness. Sadly, my general impression is that the conservative criticisms of academia’s closed doors will enshrine religious correctness, not merely overthrow political correctness. Too many in that movement aim to do just that.

Personally, I do worry that I’ll face serious student complaints someday, probably sooner rather than later, for my teaching of Christian ethics. I’m not similarly concerned about the leftists.

The Meaning of New Year’s Resolutions

 Posted by on 30 December 2006 at 11:34 am  Uncategorized
Dec 302006

I really enjoyed this New Year’s op-ed by Alex Epstein:

The Meaning of New Year’s Resolutions
By Alex Epstein

Every New Year’s Eve millions of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Whether the resolution is to get out of debt, to spend more time with loved ones, or to quit smoking, these resolutions have one thing in common: they are goals to make our lives better.

Unfortunately, this ritual commitment to self-improvement is widely viewed as something of a joke–in part because New Year’s resolutions go so notoriously unmet. After years of watching others–or themselves–excitedly commit to a new goal, only to abandon the quest by March, many come to conclude that New Year’s resolutions are an exercise in futility that should not be taken seriously. “The silly season is upon us,” writes a columnist for the Washington Post, “when people feel compelled to remake themselves with new year’s resolutions.”

But such a cynical attitude is false and self-destructive. Making New Year’s resolutions does not have to be futile–and to make them is not silly; done seriously, it is an act of profound moral significance that embodies the essence of a life well-lived.

Consider what we do when we make a New Year’s resolution: we look at where we are in some area of life, think about where we want to be, and then set ourselves a goal to get there. We are tired of feeling chubby and lethargic, say, and want the improved appearance and greater energy level that comes with greater fitness. So we resolve to take up a fun athletic activity–like tennis or a martial art–and plan to do it three times a week.

Is this a laughable act of self-delusion? Hardly. If it were, then how would anyone ever achieve anything in life? In fact, to make a New Year’s resolution is to recognize the undeniable reality that successful goal-pursuit is possible–the reality that everyone at one time or another has set and achieved long-range goals, and profited from doing so. Indeed, not only is it possible to achieve long-range goals, it is necessary for success in life. To make a New Year’s resolution is also to recognize the undeniable reality that rewarding careers and romances do not just happen automatically–that to get what we want in our lives, we must consciously choose and achieve the right goals. We must be goal-directed.

Unfortunately, a goal-directed orientation is missing to a large extent in too many lives. It is all too easy to live life passively, acting without carefully deciding what one is doing with one’s life and why. How many people do you know who are in the career they fell into out of school, even if it is not very satisfying–or who have children at a certain age because that’s what is expected, even if it’s not what they really want–or who spend endless hours of “free time” in front of the TV, since that’s the most readily available form of relaxation–or who follow a life routine that they never really chose and don’t truly enjoy, but which has the force of habit?

Too often, the goal-directedness embodied by New Year’s resolutions is the exception in lives ruled by passively accepted forces–unexamined routine, short-range desires, or alleged duties. It is the passive approach to happiness that makes so many resolutions peter out, lost in the shuffle of life or abandoned due to lost motivation. More broadly than its impact on New Year’s resolutions, the passive approach to happiness is the reason that so many go through life without ever getting–or even knowing–what they really want.

It is a sad irony that those who write off New Year’s resolutions because so many fail reinforces the passive approach to life that causes so many resolutions–and so many other dreams–to fail. The solution to failed New Year’s resolutions is not to abandon the practice, but to supplement it with a broader resolution–a commitment to a goal-directed life.

This New Year’s, resolve to think about how to make your life better, not just once a year, but every day. Resolve to set goals, not just in one or two aspects of life, but in every important aspect and in your life as a whole. Resolve to pursue the goals that will make you successful and happy, not as the exception in a life of passivity, but as the rule that becomes second-nature.

If you do this, you will be resolving to do the most important thing of all: to take your happiness seriously.

Alex Epstein is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand–author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” Contact the writer at [email protected].

What concrete purposes would you like to achieve this year? What will you do differently to achieve them?

Change of Plans

 Posted by on 29 December 2006 at 7:58 am  Uncategorized
Dec 292006

Well, I won’t be attending the Ayn Rand Society meeting (at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Meeting) today as planned. I was particularly looking forward to it since it was an “Author Meets Critics” session for Tara Smith’s new book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.

While in Maryland visiting my family the past few days, I grew increasingly worried about the reports of a major snowstorm approaching Denver: not just one to two feet of snow (again!) but winds up to 40 miles per hour and temperatures in the teens. I was seriously worried that Paul would get stuck at work (after his night shift) and Melissa (our in-neighborhood housesitter) would be unable to get to the house. With the high winds, I worried that my mare Tara might really suffer (if not die) without regular attention. (She’s far less hardy than Jackson — and both suffered in the last snowstorm.)

So yesterday morning, I decided to change my flight so as to return home to Colorado as soon as possible. To my amazement, that worked: I arrived in Denver at 4:15 pm. The snow wasn’t bad when I began driving at around 5:00 pm, but after my two and a half hour drive home (normally 50 minutes), the roads were as bad as I’ve ever driven. (My car, a four-wheel-drive Mazda Tribute, performed fabulously.) The snow continues to fall, although it’s fairly light at the moment. According to the news, the roads are in generally good condition. Paul can’t get home yet though, since the last mile and a half to our house hasn’t been plowed yet. It’s a road with steep hills and sharp turns, so his four-wheel-drive wouldn’t be sufficient to navigate it safely, I don’t think.

I hope the Ayn Rand Society meeting goes well. I’d love to hear reports of the discussion from anyone who attends!

Update: Hooray! I just walked down the driveway to Rainbow Creek Road. It’s more plowed than I thought, so Paul is headed home!

Women and Minorities

 Posted by on 28 December 2006 at 9:35 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 282006

I was recently forwarded an academic job announcement that began with the following preliminary note:

I am writing to you because I hope you will bring the job advertisement below to the attention of qualified women and minorities who work in 18th and 19th century history of philosophy.

Sheesh, that might as well say: “Don’t bother forwarding this announcement to white males; we’re not interested in them, no matter how qualified they are.” The note definitely says more than the standard boilerplate at the end of job announcements to the effect that women and minorities are encouraged to apply. I still object to that version, particularly since it reflects academia’s now-standard reverse racism and sexism in hiring. Still, it doesn’t convey the impression that white males are unwelcome, as the above note does.

Oh, but just imagine the uproar that this version would create: “I am writing to you because I hope you will bring the job advertisement below to the attention of qualified white males who work in 18th and 19th century history of philosophy.”

Question: The Third World

 Posted by on 28 December 2006 at 7:13 am  Uncategorized
Dec 282006

I’ve been quite behind in posting my various “Questions for NoodleFood.” On the principle of “better late than never,” here’s one:

what would ayn rands’ answer be re people in developing countries like south africa who have no income at all for reasons beyond their control,who require medical treatment, but can’t afford even a token payment? also what about education for there children? i’ve tried hard to find the answer to this question in her writings, but am still no wiser. as an admirer of her ideas,i would like someone to give me an answer. could someone e/mail me to fall[email protected] i’d realy appreciate it.

My quick answer:

Ayn Rand’s answer to your question would be the same as for any other question of charity. If individuals wish to freely donate their time and money to help such people, that’s their right. They ought not do so at the price of their own welfare or happiness, nor are they morally obliged to do anything to help someone simply due to that person’s need. One person’s need is not a claim on the wealth or resources of another person.

In any case, the condition of the third world will not change with some alms from the first world. To thrive, the third world needs capitalism, i.e. governments that secure the freedom of individuals to act upon their own independent, rational judgment for the sake of their own lives and happiness.

Divine Command Theory

 Posted by on 27 December 2006 at 4:50 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 272006

As much reading as I’ve done on religious conservatism of late, I must admit that I’m still shocked to see a leading conservative intellectual — Dinesh D’Souza — openly defend divine command theory. (Divine command theory is the moral view on which God’s will determines right and wrong. On that view, if God commands rape, pillage, and murder, then rape, pillage, and murder are morally obligatory.) In the course of his argument that the crimes of atheistic totalitarian governments vastly outstrip those of religious governments, D’Souza writes (with my emphasis added):

The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth. Of course if some people — the Jews, the landowners, the unfit, or the handicapped — have to be eliminated in order to achieve this utopia, this is a price the atheist tyrants and their apologists have shown themselves quite willing to pay. Thus they confirm the truth of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dictum, “If God is not, everything is permitted.”

Without a doubt, communists slaughtered millions of people — due to their communism, not their atheism. The slaughter was made possible by the idea that individuals can and ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the “higher ideal” of the collective. Notably, serious religionists share the same basic view, although their “higher ideal” is the Kingdom of God. If they fully accept that the good is defined by God’s arbitrary will, they will commit any atrocity to achieve it, so long as they can find some rationalization in their barbaric holy texts. (Given what the Bible actually says, that’s easy enough!)

Fantasy Football

 Posted by on 27 December 2006 at 10:09 am  Uncategorized
Dec 272006

Hooray! I’ve made it to the finals in the Boulder Philosophy Department’s fantasy football league! Just one more game to win to get to the Super Bowl!

Arrian on Justice

 Posted by on 26 December 2006 at 6:50 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 262006

I recently read Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. I enjoyed it immensely, particularly for Arrian’s concern to clearly portray Alexander’s moral qualities, for better and for worse. I found much to admire, both in Alexander and Arrian.

The following story is just a small example, at least of what I found admirable in Arrian. The basic context is that Arrian has just told the chilling tale of Alexander’s murder of his beloved friend Cleitus in a drunken rage for insulting him. (Cleitus himself was justly peeved by the fawning flattery heaped upon Alexander by others in his entourage.) Alexander was immediately horrified by his action, so much so that he reportedly considered suicide in the moments immediately thereafter. He was disconsolate in his grief and guilt for many days, even refusing food and drink. Arrian then says:

There is a story that Alexander sent for the sophist Anaxarchus, in the hope he might give him comfort, and was still on his bed, bewailing his fate, when he came in.

Anaxarchus laughed. “Don’t you know,” he said, “why the wise men of old made justice to sit by the side of Zeus? It was to show that whatever Zeus may do is justly done. In the same way all the acts of a great king should be considered just, first by himself, then by the rest of us.”

This was some consolation, at any rate for a time–though in my opinion he did Alexander a wrong more grievous than his grief, if he seriously, as a philosopher, put forward the view that a king need not act justly, or labor, to the best of his ability, to distinguish between right and wrong–if he really meant that whatever a king does, by whatever means, should be considered right.

That’s a rather different view of justice in governance than found in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:1-8).

For Paul, subjection and obedience are themselves good. The rulers need not act justly; they need not earn obedience by governing well. God is in charge of such matters, since rulers only rule by His will. Moreover, according to Christian principles of judgment, mere mortals ought not dare judge the fitness of their rulers, lest they be judged for their inevitable faults in return. (On that point, see Matthew 18, for example.)

Given these ideas, it’s little wonder that Christian rule in Europe entailed a reversion to the very kinds of despotic and arbitrary rule so reviled in the Greco-Roman world.

Naked Animals

 Posted by on 26 December 2006 at 7:31 am  Uncategorized
Dec 262006

Wow, I must admit that I never imagined the following scenario as a consequence of the claim of equality between humans and other animals.

DEAR ABBY: Am I a “sicko” because I step out of the shower naked in front of our dog? My wife thinks so. The trouble started when we got a female dog, “Taffy,” from the local animal shelter. Taffy sleeps in our bedroom and is there in the morning when I take my shower.

My wife insists that I cover up in front of the dog and that Taffy is no different from a child. This has created a lot of stress between us because, to me, a dog is a dog. Is it wrong to be naked in front of a dog? — IN THE DOGHOUSE, TEMECULA, CALIF.

DEAR IN THE DOGHOUSE: Even though many people treat their dogs like children, the fact remains that dogs are canines — not homo sapiens. Your wife appears to be either jealous or have an overactive imagination. It is no more wrong for a human to be naked in the presence of a dog than it is for a dog to be naked in the presence of a human.

Really, that’s just freaky.

Merry Christmas

 Posted by on 25 December 2006 at 7:16 am  Uncategorized
Dec 252006

Merry Christmas, NoodleFoodlers and NoodleFoodleDoodlers!

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha