04/8/13

Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.