Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 17, 2008
Good religion provides space for learned debate
The rise of the Christian right over the last 30 years in American and, to a lesser extent, Canadian politics has naturally given rise to detractors. This year's U.S. election drew forth not a few secular commentators such as George Monbiot who argued, "Religion – in particular, fundamentalist religion – makes you stupid."
There is a basis for such an assertion. The insistence by some that the Bible can refute evolutionary theory and scientific research and cultural funding are nothing but self-serving efforts by an atheistic liberal elite attempts to raise anti-intellectualism to a moral virtue.
The Catholic Church has long offered an alternative to both the atheistic detractors and religious fundamentalism. It is called liberal education.
Education that is catholic (and Catholic) does not try to reduce science or politics to theology. Nor does it reduce theology to science or politics. It allows each field of study to flourish in its own way.
This sounds like a simple enough task. But over the centuries, it has proved remarkably difficult. From the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece to the Christopher Hitchens and Pat Robertsons of today, the tendency has been pronounced to reduce the great diversity of reality to one thing.
"Everything is water," said Thales. "No, everything is fire," responded Heraclitus. "Christian revelation can answer all questions," say fundamentalists. "No, natural science can answer every question," say atheists.
The thousands of Catholic institutions of higher learning make a valuable contribution to human progress by saying with philosopher Etienne Gilson, "No one ever gains the whole of reality after locking himself up in one of its parts."
In the end, religious fundamentalism has not to bolstered the place of faith in society's debates. It has spurred a reaction that seeks to deny religion any place. That effort to drive religion out of the public square spurs a counter-reaction that instead of increasing our trust in rationality, stirs hostility to "liberal elites."
So it goes, each one-sided truth drawing an opposite one-sided approach. Perhaps there is a human tendency to be reactive rather than prudent, creative and balanced. If so, this is a tendency that a good liberal education will help the open-minded student rise above.
Catholic higher education, with its history of valuing each particular field of study for its own truths, is an antidote for much of the polarization that pits science against faith, reason versus revelation.
Religion can make you stupid. But so can reason. Good religion, however, provides the space that enables people to appreciate every truth for what it is and to conduct public debate free from narrow enthusiasms.
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