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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1997

Can Universities Tolerate Religion?

Keith Cassidy, University of Guelph

The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship & The Soul of the American University

George M. Marsden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; 152 pp.; hardcover $32.95can. / George M. Marsden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; 480 pp.; hardcover $51.95can.
These books may one day be regarded as part of the beginning of a truly profound reassessment of the assumptions on which the modern university, and indeed most current intellectual discourse, are based. The appearance of The Soul of the American University elicited sharply divergent reactions in a wide variety of publications, but all reviewers agreed that the issues raised by Marsden were serious and fundamental. Together with the works of other scholars, such as Yale law professor Stephen Carter, whose The Culture of Disbelief appeared in 1993, these books place squarely on the academic agenda the issue of the role of religious belief in scholarship and public life. Given current debates about inclusivity and diversity in the university they have particular salience.

In The Soul of the American University Marsden attempts to find the route by which the universities of the United States, almost all of which were founded for explicitly religious, i.e. Christian, purposes, became bastions of secularism, in which religion holds, at best, a marginal place. Ironically, he argues, the exclusion of religion had its origins in precisely the American Protestant insistence on creating a single model for education, marginalizing those who, like Catholics, chose to have their own schools with their own ethos.

Marsden observes that "such universality was attained by defining intellectual aspects of the enterprise as excluding all but liberal Protestant or 'nonsectarian' perspectives." This dominance was short-lived, however, as "the logic of (its) nonsectarian ideals ... dictated that liberal Protestantism itself should be moved to the periphery to which other religious perspectives had been relegated for some time" (p. 5)

His account begins with the founding of Harvard and its attempts to reconcile Christian theology with the study, first of the pagan authors of the classical world, and later of the newly emerged natural sciences. The core of the study, however, is the crucial period in the nineteenth century which saw the creation of the modern university. Marsden focuses on a handful of these, such as Chicago, Michigan, California, and Johns Hopkins to establish his theme. Often led by pious liberal Protestants, these institutions adopted a view of religion which rejected doctrinal rigour and instead stressed a core of nonsectarian ethics. Believing that the advance of science could not create problems for liberal Protestantism, they embraced without reservation the scientific method as the road to truth. "The value-free ideal declared religion irrelevant to scientific inquiry" (p. 154). This, together with the emergence of an industrial, consumption oriented society in which the university's role was seen as serving the values of professionalism and specialization, meant that religion became fundamentally irrelevant to the university's functions. The outcome was implicit by the late nineteenth century, but it took decades for the logic of the situation to work itself out fully.

Marsden's stress on factors internal to the liberal Protestant viewpoint is persuasive. He acknowledges the importance of the social context in which the university functioned, but more attention to those pressures would have strengthened the book.

Marsden's account is thorough, well balanced and well written -- professional history of a very high order. What is novel is his "Concluding Unscientific Postscript," in which he notes that "no historical interpretation lacks an agenda" and then makes his explicit. Having earlier made clear that he was "a fairly traditional Protestant of the Reformed theological heritage," from that perspective he asks if there are any compelling reasons for continuing the academic exclusion of religion.

Since the "scientific objectivity" in the name of which religion was marginalized has itself now attracted a host of critics, is it not now time, he inquires, to reconsider that result? Few academics believe in this "neutral" science, "and most would admit that everyone's intellectual inquiry takes place in a framework of communities that shape prior commitments. Such prior commitments might be arrived at on formal religious grounds or in some more informal way," but they are still prior commitments. "Hence there is little reason to exclude a priori all religiously based claims on the grounds that they are unscientific." (p. 430)

Admitting religion to the academy does not mean that anything goes: "What might be called procedural rationality is still necessary." The rules of evidence and logic still apply, and "private revelations" cannot preempt argument, yet while these principles "may preclude some extreme religious attitudes and viewpoints, there is no reason ... that no religious viewpoint shall receive serious consideration." (p. 431)

He argues as well that a real commitment to pluralism means an openness to religious perspectives and notes the irony that "pluralism" is often conceived of "almost as a code word for its opposite, a new expression of the melting-pot ideal. Persons from a wide variety of races and cultures are welcomed into the university, but only on the condition that they think more-or-less alike." (p. 432)

Marsden argues strongly for pluralism among, as well as within, universities. Society's "highest intellectual life" does not need to be "pressured to fit one monolithic mold into which all subtraditions are poured." (p. 439)

Concerns about religion's implications for academic freedom were valid when "an informal Christian establishment was still in place" (p. 434), but there is now little danger of a dominant religious belief imposing a general restriction on free inquiry. Indeed it is now usually an unstated insistence that only naturalistic viewpoints be taught which represents a creedal restriction on employment. While Marsden is probably correct in seeing religious believers as currently less dangerous to academic freedom than various secular ideologues, a fuller discussion of the nature of academic freedom in institutions with explicit religious commitments would have been in order.

The Soul of the American University received numerous reviews, in a variety of journals. There was wide agreement on the substantial merits of the purely historical character of the book, but predictably it was the twelve pages of the Postscript which attracted the most attention. It figured prominently in a lengthy exchange between Stanley Fish and Richard John Neuhaus in First Things and was the focus of an article and numerous letters in the Chronicle of Higher Education.1 Many reviewers raised the same issues: one was the denial of the existence of a bias against religion in the academy, the other was to question just how religious perspectives could meaningfully be brought into intellectual discourse.

Marsden's reply to his critics is found in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, where the ideas of the Postscript are elaborated. While his focus is on specifically Christian scholarship he notes (p. 8) that his arguments are more generally applicable to a variety of religious perspectives. He makes clear that the issue is not primarily one of overt persecution, but of an academic culture which encourages self censorship by the religiously committed.

A crucial section is his reply to the arguments made by Stanley Fish, that those "of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas, but to shut it down." Marsden grants that this is true of some believers, but others he says, including religious conservatives, can "support the rules of liberal society" as part of God's plans. (p. 45) The core of his suggestion is that "there be room for explicit Christian points of view (just as there are explicit Marxist or feminist views) for those who will play by the other rules proper to the diverse academy ... I am simply proposing that the same rules apply to all." (p. 52)

He then turns to the question most insistently asked by his critics: given the adherence to the rules of the academic game, what difference can a Christian (or any) religious belief make? In reply he notes that the patterns into which we organize evidence are the product of our values and beliefs. As well the scholarly topics we pursue are in part a product of our commitments. This will be most evident, he suggests, in the humanities and social sciences, while less obviously so in the "hard sciences." Even there, however, there will be a subtle impact. A belief in God will shape our view of the universe, and specifically Christian beliefs will have their effect on our understanding of humanity and society.

Marsden does not see Christian perspectives (and he stresses that there are many such, not just one) as belligerents in a "culture war" but as participants in a discussion to which they have much to contribute and from which they have much to learn: "... it is important for Christian scholars to appreciate the positive value or insight that each of the "isms"of the age exaggerates ... they can learn from the spirit of the age they are ultimately opposing." (p. 100)

He concludes with suggestions about the institutional structures needed to sustain the scholarship he calls for, and reviews the resources and examples already in existence. While his focus is on Protestant scholarship, he notes the potential of Catholic universities to carry out the work called for. This may strike some as excessively optimistic, given the advanced secularization of most such institutions, or as Philip Gleason has put it, the "acculturation of Catholic higher education -- that is, its accommodation to prevailing American expectations."2

In The Soul of the American University Marsden mentions the Canadian example of the affiliation of church colleges with universities as an unexplored alternative to the approach Americans finally adopted (p. 73).3 Clearly there are differences between the situation described by Marsden in the U.S. and that prevailing here, but in general they are similar, and certainly in the widespread perception that the open discussion of the implications of religious belief (as opposed to, say, Marxist or feminist beliefs) is, at the very least, in bad taste.

In this country, as south of the border, a deep reappraisal of the role of religious belief in scholarship is in order, to move us beyond long held, unexamined beliefs which stand as barriers to a truly inclusive scholarship and university curriculum. While not without their limitations Marsden's books are essential reading for anyone -- whatever their religious beliefs and opinions -- concerned with the nature of the university.

Keith Cassidy is a member of the history department at the University of Guelph and past president of the University of Guelph Faculty Association.

1 First Things, February, 1996 (Number 60), Stanley Fish, "Why We Can't All Just Get Along," pp. 18-26; Richard John Neuhaus, "Why We Can Get Along," pp. 27-34; Stanley Fish "A Reply to Richard John Neuhaus," pp. 35-40. This exchange led to a number of insightful letters, First Things, June/July, 1996 (Number 64), pp. 2-8; Carolyn J. Mooney, "Devout Professors on the Offensive" Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 1994, p. A18. Letters on this appeared in the Chronicle June 1, 1994, p. B4.

2 Philip Gleason, Contending With Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 322.

3 See George Rawlyk, "Protestant Colleges in Canada: Past and Future" in George Marsden and Bradley Longfield, eds., The Secularization of the Academy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 278-302.

Professor Alan Andrews (Dalhousie) is the Bookshelf page editor; facsimile: (613) 820-2417; e-mail: