Secular studies is an important field of inquiry and the proposal for a new journal exploring “secularism and non-religion” speaks to a substantive area of scholarly interest and need. A. C. Greyling’s new university is potentially a different kind of animal as it brings together “some of the world’s most prominent atheistic thinkers.” As a religious studies professor teaching at a religious institution, I do have some advice for Mr. Greyling: if you want to do something really bold, you can learn from Catholic and evangelical institutions.
In commenting on his new university, Greyling insists that “it is not an atheist institution” but will be instead devoted to critical thinking. If this is the case, it’s hard to see how Greyling’s proposed institution does anything more than reduplicate the efforts of many mainline colleges and universities, including bringing in big name academics to add scholarly gravitas and increase customer appeal.
There is an assumed secularism in many universities in the Western world. Religious students find their spiritual needs catered to in circumscribed ways and discover the scope of their intellectual horizons paradoxically narrowed. For example, one might find a discussion of the economic and governing theories of the Hindu Arthasashtras in a religious studies class, but rarely in courses offered by the economics or political science departments. If you ask religious students in secular institutions whether they have avenues for integrating their faith traditions into their academic work, they would probably answer that they must do so covertly in most of their classes. Of course, the response would be that “faith traditions” are fundamentally different from value neutral “secular” disciplines. But explicit and implicit forms of secularism have their own assumptions, limits, and exclusionary boundaries.
But even within the secularist climate of academe, an avowedly “atheist university” would be something really different and interesting. One could imagine a collection of scholars bringing together the diverse strands of contemporary atheistic thought. Teachers who profess an “ethics without God” could dialogue with economists and political scientists about the means and ends of governmental policies. Overarching atheistic theories of the “common good” could be developed to integrate the curriculum and student life. Students who wish to insulate themselves from religion’s influence would most certainly welcome such an approach. We might even see a more intellectually serious form of popular atheism emerging — one that takes its intellectual lead from Friedrich Nietzsche or David Hume rather than from Ayn Rand.
An atheist university such as this would mirror the educational structure of a conservative Catholic or evangelical Christian institution. In these colleges and universities, there is a preeminent concern to integrate the religious tradition throughout the curriculum. The justification for this is both intellectual and cultural: religious traditions lay claim on the entirety of human life and religious students and faculty need a special kind of solidarity to resist secularizing trends in contemporary society. These institutions take atheistic thought quite seriously indeed. Presumably, an atheistic university would return the favor by taking religion seriously — as an enemy.
Of course, the choice need not be so stark. Another model can be found in Catholic Jesuit institutions as well as in many mainline Protestant colleges and universities. These institutions express and affirm their traditions in dialogue with the surrounding world. In such an academic environment, non-Christians and atheists are essential contributors to the overall dialogue that the institution seeks to foster. Admittedly, such a dialogue can be contentious and uneven but it has the virtue of being more self-aware than exclusionary religious or secular alternatives. A. C. Greyling might be well advised to take that model seriously and consider hiring some well-regarded religious scholars: they wouldn’t just add to the mix — they’d keep the curriculum honest.
Image courtesy of Russ London.