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The Religious Skeptic


On the contemporary college campus, believers exhibit their own brand of skepticism.

The academics I know tend to be thoughtful, well-meaning types who, on the whole, expand knowledge and aspire to foster a pluralistic vision of society. But, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, “the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious.”

He continues: “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

Kristof points to University of North Texas sociologist George Yancey: “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black. But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.” Yancey’s own research suggests that about half of “academics would be less willing to hire someone they find out was a conservative Protestant.”

Within the academy, religion is often viewed as an outdated relic. Sure, it may have once served as a helpful mythos. But, like Plato’s “noble lie,” it’s an illusion—or, in Karl Marx’s parlance, an opiate to sedate the suffering masses.

More generous critics say religion provides humans with Darwinian advantages. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, for example, contends that even though religion can be metaphorically true (that is, it can produce positive outcomes) it will still be “literally” false.

And yet, not everyone within the Ivory Tower imbibes these or other emerging secular dogmas. There’s skepticism, it seems, regarding the skeptics.

Take Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor and the author of the new book “Why Religion?”

“My father gave up the kind of ferocious Calvinism of his family for Darwin,” she says in a recent interview discussing her book. “He basically said, well, religion is just a bunch of old folk tales, and we don’t need that. Educated people don’t need that. Only people who aren’t [educated] would ever bother with the Bible and all that stuff.”

Then something happened.

As a 15-year-old, Pagels attended a sermon by Billy Graham at Candlestick Park in San Francisco with a group of friends. While there, she felt something. She experienced something. Her “conversion” to evangelical Christianity lasted only a year. But her encounter with the numinous lingered.

It expanded her worldview beyond the strident Darwinism of her father. She began to doubt his doubts and discover the wisdom in Hamlet’s remark to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Within today’s prevailing academic posture toward religion there’s an inherent assumption—i.e., bona fide believers are woefully wrong. And, by extension, bona fide believers must be ill-informed, ignorant, or simply unintelligent.

This, perhaps, helps explain why some scholars express a bias regarding hiring conservative Christians. After all, aspiring academics must demonstrate intellectual acuity, a commitment to data and facts, critical thinking abilities, curiosity, and an unrelenting scholarly skepticism.

But what if, as in the case of Pagels and others, the skepticism cuts the other way.

Pagels describes a conversation she had with noted poet Marie Howe. While discussing Howe’s poem “Annunciation”—in which Jesus’ mother, Mary, suddenly “senses a divine presence of overpowering love approaching her”—Pagels asked how she came to write it.

“Well you know, it happened to me. But, of course, I couldn’t say that,” Howe responded.

Such experiences, Pagels implies, may be more common than we imagine.

A predecessor of the French philosophes of the 18th century, Blaise Pascal was a child prodigy. By age sixteen he had written his first influential work on geometry, and by twenty-one he had invented the Pascaline—what many consider to be the world’s first mechanical calculator. And yet, perhaps more important to him were the events that took place in his life on the night of November 23, 1654.

Sometime between 10:30 pm and midnight Pascal had an ineffable experience, a personal theophany—a revelation. Though the specifics of his mystical moment remain unknown, Pascal recorded the following words: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob not the God of the philosophers and of the learned . . . Certitude. Certitude. Joy. Peace.”
Pascal closed his lines by quoting the biblical psalmist, “‘I will not forget thy words.’ Amen.”

He placed the parchment containing these words in his jacket lining, as if to put it closer to his heart.

In academia, skeptics are revered as shrewd truth seekers. They stand in the grand tradition of scientists like Galileo, who was condemned to home confinement during the inquisition for his reasoned-based worldview. The orthodoxy of Galileo’s day refused to entertain the evidence. What of the orthodoxy of our day? To paraphrase Pascal, there are many truths—the only real heresy is excluding some of them.