My good friend, Dr. Michael Murray, Executive Vice President, Programs & Vice President, Philosophy and Theology, The John Templeton Foundation and former professor of philosophy at Franklin and Marshal College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) is a distinguished author and lecturer, well-loved by his students.
A number of years ago, I joined Mike for an Inaugural Lecture he titled, “Who’s Afraid of Religion?” Mike addressed the discomfort in the Academy regarding religion. The Academy, as he described, has an irrational fear of religion or “Theo-phobia.” It’s not that religion never makes an appearance in academic settings.
“We are perfectly content,” Murray explained, “to have a discussion about claims like: ‘The oppressive political agenda of the right wing is fueled by religious mania’ or ‘Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century BC with the appearance of the Mahayana sutras.’ Not only are we happy to have discussions of that sort–they go on in courses and across lunch tables all the time. What makes us uncomfortable are rather first person expressions of religious commitment. It is acceptable to speak of religion and religious adherents from a safe distance, treating them as a historical phenomenon or a socio-cultural influence. It is something else entirely to discuss religious commitments that one owns. That is the sort of religion that troubles us.”
What kind of discomfort does this type of religion evoke?
“It’s not the sort of discomfort we experience when we read accounts of the downward spiral of the political situation in Haiti or when we look at the statistics revealing the devastation wrought by the HIV virus in Africa. That is the discomfort of felt injustice, of resignation to the plight of the disadvantaged, or of helpless frustration in the face of natural evil. No, the discomfort we feel in the face of expressed religious commitment is something different.”
“It vacillates between pity – when we feel that the commitment arises from harmless ignorance-to those feelings we experience when a student in one of our classes defends the notion that African-Americans under-perform whites on most academic metrics for genetic reasons, or that female college students who are raped are partially, or fully, to blame. Those latter feelings inspire at least intolerance and at most rage. Polite and well-informed folks just don’t say those things – in fact, polite and well-informed folks don’t even think them.” (Murray).
Four excuses that academics offer for their Theo-phobia
- Religion supports oppression, violence, and tyranny and is thus best ignored, excluded or perhaps even actively opposed.
- Religion is a personal or subjective matter and as a result can’t be subjected to canonical standards of rational scrutiny. It thus has no place in the academy.
- Religion can’t have a role in scholarly inquiry since it at best plays a balkanizing role in the scholarly world.
- If religion is allowed to have a role in the academy, it will quickly intrude into domains where it does not belong.
After carefully exposing the fallacies underlying each of these excuses, Dr. Murray pointed to an equally potent cause of Theo-phobia in academics. “The truth of religion implies that there is something in the universe over and above the natural which deserves my attention, allegiance, or honor and I find that distasteful or irritating.”
I hope there is no God
As an example of this, Dr. Murray quoted the eminent New York University philosopher Thomas Nagel:
“In his, to date, penultimate book, The Last Word, Nagel wrote the following: ‘In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.”
“It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.’”
“In truth,” stated Dr. Murray, “many academics are naturalists or atheists as much or more on the basis of such wish fulfillment as they are on the basis of any reasoning or evidence.”
Conversely, Murray concludes (quoting Christian Smith from Moral, Believing Animals) that perhaps “a God really does actually exist, and many humans–especially those not blinded by the reigning narratives of modern science and academia–feel a recurrent and deeply compelling ‘built-in’ desire to know and worship, in their various ways, the God who is there.”