(RNS) — Christmas — which, as the pretentious among us will remind us, began only this week — is a season of hope. As someone who has spent a great deal of time working at the intersection of religion and academia, I admit to losing hope occasionally in recent years. For those who hold traditional religious views that don’t line up with secular academic orthodoxies, the life of an academic can be quite difficult. It can even lead to a kind of despair.
Traditional religious view on, say, our duties to the poor or on our stewardship of the environment fit nicely with the prevailing secular orthodoxy. But on sexuality or marriage? Well, here are your options: Get ready to fight and be made a pariah, or try to hide your point of view. (The latter doesn’t necessarily work, however: If you aren’t positively saying all the right things, you’ll likely come under scrutiny anyway.)
I came to academia as a Catholic moral theologian and a bioethicist, but with a background in philosophy that taught me that what matters in arguments is the evidence presented and clarity and consistency in reasoning. These principles are why I got into academia in the first place.
Over the years, however, I learned this was a terribly naïve approach. On every level of academia — from those accepted into graduate programs, to those who get jobs, to those who accepted for promotion and tenure — there is very often a weeding out process whereby the dominant ideology (especially, but not only, when it comes to sexuality and gender) is defended against those who might call it into question. The strength and quality of arguments takes a backseat to ideology.
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It has gotten to the point that some in my circles are wondering whether orthodox Catholic theology has a home on American college campuses. Academic theology initially moved from the seminary to the university in the Middle Ages — but obviously, the university was a very different animal then. Perhaps the time has come to move academic Catholic theology back to the seminary or some other institution?
What a despairing question.
I felt this despair recently when the philosopher Peter Singer invited me to speak to his last graduate class at Princeton this past fall. Titled “Peter Singer’s Ethics: a Critical Assessment”, he used the course to invite a series of thinkers into his class to challenge his views in conversation with him and graduate students.
It was a wonderful two-and-a-half hours of scintillating debate, with thoughtful and opinionated-but-open-minded thinkers totally committed to argument and evidence. I left with the kind of intellectual buzz I’ve rarely felt on a college campus in recent years.
My despair sunk in when I contemplated that this was among Singer’s last acts as an active academic before he retires next year. It felt as if an era of academia was coming to an end.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Singer is profoundly wrong about many things, including and especially about the inviolability and sanctity of human life. But I think he is wrong in interesting and instructive ways, that he, better than almost anyone outside of the pro-life movements, clearly understands what is at stake in these debates, and that his errors are actually very important for pro-lifers to highlight.
Furthermore, he is fiercely committed to evidence and argument and totally willing to change his opinion in light of new information. Sometimes dramatically so: In part due to prodding from moral theologians like me, he has changed his position that traditional Christian theology is the central problem in why we humans treat animals so poorly to say that traditional Christian theology can be a powerful ally for kindness toward animals. (This shift will be made clear in the forthcoming new edition of his classic book “Animal Liberation.”)
It is difficult to imagine something like this happening elsewhere in contemporary academia. Philosophical positions tend to be held in such a way that argument and evidence simply don’t matter.
But there are some reasons for hope.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, group that protects free speech on campus, recently tweeted out that “Christmas came early” for MIT when their faculty approved a statement in favor of robust expression and academic freedom. “With a tradition of celebrating provocative thinking, controversial views, and nonconformity, MIT unequivocally endorses the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom,” the faculty statement said.
In late January, several outspoken and religious pro-lifers will present at a major Harvard Radcliff conference titled “The Age of Roe: The Past, Present, and Future of Abortion in America.” I have little doubt the conference organizers will take heat for bringing us to campus this January, especially in our combustible post-Dobbs moment, but it is another sign of hope.
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Then there is the case of Dr. Kristin Collier, a pro-life member of the faculty at the University of Michigan Medical School, who was invited by her peers and students to deliver the prestigious 2022 plenary address for their “white coat” convening ceremony for new students in June. Yes, some folks walked out as she began her speech (which had nothing to do with abortion), but the administration ultimately protected her right to speak as a pro-life academic even in the midst of extreme pressure to cancel her.
In a different context, perhaps one looks at these as the exceptions that only prove the broader hostility in academia. But this Christmas season, we can look at examples like this and not totally despair about the future of traditional religious thought.