Knowledge and Religious Belief: How Secular Assumptions Can Sideline Heterodox Viewpoints
In humankind’s unending pursuit of knowledge, one of the great challenges is differentiating between assumptions and truth. We frequently believe and practice things that are colored by our culture, education, and immediate social group. Our way of viewing the world, and our habits in it, shape our perceptions as we strive to discern reality. And we often don’t even realize it.
Such influences are so pervasive that a new academic field — cultural psychology — has developed to map them out. As scholars such as Richard Shweder, Jonathan Haidt, and Joseph Henrich have shown, there are wide cultural differences in visual perception, spatial reasoning, induction, memory, how we perceive the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and many other areas.
This field’s most startling discovery is how oddly different Westerners in general — and Western secular middle and upper classes in particular — are from everyone else. Westerners are far more individualistic, far more likely to assume that each person is working as a free agent able to determine and follow their own personal preferences, and far more likely to be concerned with fairness and equality than people elsewhere. They emphasize logic in their problem solving and think more analytically than other groups, who tend to think more holistically.
As such, Western elites are the real outliers — so different from everyone else that Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan famously categorized them as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). This means that, as the three authors write, “Members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” Yet, their manner of thinking and conclusions are typically considered the point from which to examine and extrapolate knowledge. Indeed, these outliers are responsible for much of our published scholarship — with immense influence well beyond their social strata and outside the West.
This naturally begs a series of questions: What assumptions are scholars from this cultural group, in this time and place, making? How do these assumptions affect the state of our knowledge? How does the type of knowledge they produce affect our broader society — our sense of right and wrong, our idea of the good life, and our way of addressing various challenges? What blind spots and mistaken insights do they create? The failure of public policy to address many social problems, for example, may be due to a strong bias towards individuals and an insufficient focus on the social context.
Expanding Knowledge of Religion
One considerable blind spot is how the academy treats religious believers as outliers, though they are historically and globally the great majority. While religion is not the only marginalized area that goes unseen, it is likely one of the most important. For most of human history, religion was the water we swam in; it was not until the 18th century that it was seen as a distinct phenomenon, and the distinction itself emerged as part of Western modernity. Today, religion — and spirituality — continues to play a major role for most of the world’s peoples and countries. For believers — including Western believers in the academy — religion is not a field to be studied or categorized but a foundational lens for viewing the world and finding meaning as individuals and as communities. And yet, it receives only cursory treatment in American education. As Patrick Wolf writes, “From kindergarten through college, public schools do a miserable job of teaching students about religion, if they even make the attempt. They leave most young adults poorly prepared to understand their world.”
As has been well documented, religious beliefs and practices play a crucial role shaping how individuals and groups behave, and how societies evolve, with great implications for fields such as sociology, history, psychology, medicine, international affairs, and even economics. For example, research shows that those with a religious affiliation have lower suicide rates, alcoholism, and drug use; are more likely to describe themselves as “very happy”; and live, on average, four years longer than those without any religious affiliation.
Thinking more broadly, some scholars, such as David Sloan Wilson, provokingly argue that religion’s uniquely strong ability to help groups cohere, divide labor, and work together to promote well-being made it a powerful — even essential — force in the development of human societies. Others, such as Talcott Parsons and Nicholas Wade, go further and argue that there is a religious instinct built into our very nature. If they are correct, then what movements or impulses might arise to fulfill this instinct as institutional religion declines? In the absence of religious frameworks, how will citizens be instilled with virtue, an arguably essential component in democracy and self-government? Such questions certainly concerned many of our country’s founders, including John Adams, George Washington, and James Madison.
The pursuit of knowledge as currently conducted in American universities is distinctively WEIRD. And while it has produced great gains in scholarship, it comes with distinctive costs. Our impulse to endlessly sort, classify, and compare, for example, limits the ability of faculty and students to use more holistic approaches that examine cross-cutting or foundational issues. When WEIRD academics see religion as a topic of study purely for specialists or, even worse, as an artifact with little import, they are limiting their own — as well as their students’ — ability to pursue honest inquiry.
Where might such inquiry lead? We might discover alternative interpretations regarding the nature of knowledge and its origins. For example, is knowledge just a set of facts to be discovered through human reasoning? Or is it the product of a greater Order? Religious believers work from a different epistemology and therefore may perceive the idea of knowledge itself in ways that surprise their peers. An earnest pursuit of diversity must consider these alternative ways to seek understanding.
Some may argue that integrating a deeper study of religion more thoroughly into courses and curriculum somehow violates the principle of neutrality. But is excluding it any different? Is prioritizing a WEIRD framework over every other really advancing knowledge? As Warren Nord writes, “Students are indoctrinated when they are systematically and uncritically taught to accept one basic framework for interpreting reality over other major, live alternatives.” Is an exclusively secular approach liberal? Or is it better described as illiberal?
Expanding Histories of Religion
The disregard for faith in universities is especially surprising given its foundational role in establishing many of the august academic institutions that today neglect it. Many of the first universities in Europe and North America were founded with a religious purpose — such as to train clergy, as was the case with Harvard — and closely tied to religious authority. In fact, according to one account, “106 of the first 108 colleges [in the United States] were started on the Christian faith. By the close of 1860 there were 246 colleges in America. Seventeen of these were state institutions; almost every other one was founded by Christian denominations or by individuals who avowed a religious purpose.” What did the founders believe the end goal, or telos, of the university ought to be? Do scholars and students at Harvard wonder about the original intent of its “Veritas” motto?
Born into a world before the development of modern science — originally known as natural philosophy — these schools had different assumptions about the nature of knowledge than we have today. While this origin and these assumptions may seem an afterthought, or even an embarrassment, to many in academia today, and religion’s influence has sharply declined in all but the explicitly religious institutions, a commitment to pursuing truth evidently did not limit the expansion of these schools into the liberal institutions that they have become. On the contrary, such a commitment seems to have contributed to their success.
The founding of America’s great universities followed global advances in knowledge that preceded the modern era, much of which was led by institutions with a religious association. In India, for example, Hindu writings were both scientific treatises and religious scriptures. In Judaism, religious practice became oriented toward learning — as a way to reach closer to G-d — after the demise of the Second Temple, when religious leaders created the world’s first schooling mandates; Jews were the world’s best educated people before the modern era. The connection between religion and learning is, in fact, so close in many contexts that any attempt at division would seem imposed from the outside and not reflective of the underlying reality. Even in the West, the idea that the two are in tension or conflict with one another is a relatively recent one; as noted above, distinguishing religion as such is a modern development.
While there are surely ample examples of this tension, these do not reflect a universal reality as much as particular situations. The limits of permissible knowledge in parts of the Islamic world today or in the Catholic world during the Renaissance (a major reason for the current disdain of scholars for religion) do not represent these faith's long histories. It is quite easy to find examples of the exact opposite, implying the tension is not due to religion per se but to the ways it is defined and managed by those in power in a given time and place.
Marching To a New Religion
Religion has fostered a broad tradition of engaging life’s great questions throughout history. Why then is religion not studied in academia outside of a few specialties, and why is it only rarely considered a potentially constructive force to meet today’s challenges? Looking within Western scholarship, why are religious beliefs commonly set aside when approaching research or teaching — even when other beliefs (such as the pursuit of social justice) seem to infuse so many fields? Why do many religious believers report that the academy is hostile to their lifestyle, their arguments, and their job applications? How frequently do efforts to promote diversity consider the concerns of people of faith?
Academia’s influence on our country’s elites, culture, and government is immense. As traditional religion becomes less important on campus, much of the academy appears to be marching to a new telos — one now being compared with religion and critiqued for emphasizing beliefs at the expense of honest inquiry. Its WEIRD biases lead to an underappreciation of traditional religion, impacting student learning on campus and leadership in our society’s leading institutions. From the classroom to the courthouse, there will be deep implications for those these institutions serve.
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