How Should An Academic Regard Religion? On the First Chapter of Buckley’s "God and Man at Yale"

This is only based on the first chapter of God and Man at Yale. I’m using Buckley as a straw man for some other arguments I’ve encountered – “Why can’t a university have a completely Christian faculty?” etc.

1. Perhaps the directness of the argument of God and Man at Yale is most shocking to us: Buckley proclaims himself a Christian dedicated to free enterprise, and then goes on to document Yale’s hostility to Christianity and free markets, a hostility given enormous leverage by the words “academic freedom.”

Yale, at the time of Buckley’s writing, was presenting itself as a religious place to the (presumably not poor) alumni. Buckley notes that there were indeed a lot of religion scholars at the University, and plenty of extracurricular options for religious students. Yet attending Yale at that time seemed to make quite a few undergraduates either non-religious or openly hostile to religion. After a small section on how a popular Sociology professor spent an incredible amount of time knocking Christianity through slurs and one-liners, one realizes that it is only what the academy is perceived to take seriously that stays with students. The University could devote all its resources to religious activity, and none of it would mean anything if religion itself were not taken seriously in a public way by the faculty.

So Buckley makes it a point to note that even professors who were very Christian hid their faith and presented material in an “objective” way, and that this was not helping things at Yale.

2. I have said in previous posts that the logic of capitalism hurts the University. I have also said the life of the mind ultimately conflicts with religion. I don’t think there’s a way around these tensions.

But I don’t think the way to fix the problems that arise from the tensions is to eliminate the tensions altogether. The academy has found it profitable to teach courses in what would be called socialism in economic and political thought. Its attack on free markets is less in good faith and has more to do with trends – that it creates true believers in such causes, of course, is an unfortunate consequence, as radical groups tend to be a headache for any campus administration devoted to the bottom line.

The academy has solved the religion problem more simply: even at a time when American universities were purportedly more religious, Buckley’s work stands as a documentation of how resources ostensibly devoted to religion stood hollow.

I haven’t finished reading Buckley’s work, but if God and Man at Yale is a failure, it is because it is far too trusting of populist forces to stand up to the academy. You can’t expect people who believe in God and liberty to care for what goes on at Yale or any school, for that matter, when you are offering no demonstration of what the academy offers finally (of course, it is not clear how this demonstration can be had, given that the knowledge I personally pursue is “useless” on purpose). Plenty of Americans know others are opposed to their values – why should they care, even if the future is at stake? God and liberty stand well enough in the private sphere for most of us.

My suspicion is that Buckley’s “solution” (again, haven’t finished reading the book) is too direct: a rededication to religion by professors and a trumping of free markets would fall apart not only because of internal inconsistency, but because he underestimates the power of the latter. Only when you realize that Chomsky sells can you understand what really drives the academy, now and then.

3. So how should a professor teach students to be appreciative of religion without bullying them or slipping into relativism?

I think a good answer lies in God and Man at Yale’s first chapter, but not directly in the text. The examples he cites of administrators that are hypocrites, professors that know better but are cowards in the face of their more voiciferous colleagues, and professors that are thoroughly unprofessional in their denigration of others’ beliefs and inability to present another side show the real failure of the academy. We make people intellectual frauds (unwilling to stand up for beliefs, or dedicated to the “bottom line” more than anything else) or bullies, and do not insist that a scholar stand above in some sense.

A scholar should always be sympathetic to religion, since it is a belief that knowledge is ultimately for the better that founded the academy. We don’t know that knowledge is for the better – we could all be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust by an accidental missile launch. Knowledge might be something that is beyond our own power to wield, when all is said and done (you might ask how it is possible to live ignorantly. Proof: Look around you). But in the end, it is the only real comfort as we grow older, and it helps us give to others when we have nothing. Heck, it sometimes comprises the best things we give to others.

A scholar need not preach. If he does his job and makes the best arguments he can for those he engages, and if he is willing to hear and voice opinions other than his own, then the academy can be fundamentally secular but aid people in seeing the importance of religious life. The proof of an academy that was doing its job would be a people that was more religious even as book knowledge retained an essentially secular character. Such an academy would make it clear that questions of value could not be compartmentalized: the essentially secular character of knowledge is what allows us to declare Scientology a cult, yet does not allow us to proclaim what the one true religion is. As it stands now, religion belongs entirely to our private lives, and is withering away there, and our public life is in shambles as our various gods fight it out for supremacy with us as mere tools, not even followers.

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