Sommerville, C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chapter 5, “Trouble Judging Religions” pp. 61-73
Sommerville has previously demonstrated that religious thought of one kind or another is of great importance to humanity. He observes that at times academia has tried to deny this or embrace it, but that making reasoned judgments about religious claims is very difficult in the academy (Sommerville 2006, 61). The difficulties are compounded by the fact that religions disagree with one another. Therefore it bcomes necessary to weight the claims of various religions (Sommerville 2006, 62). Furthermore, adherents to different religions are an important mark of the religion in practice, though their behavior may or may not reflect the religion’s doctrines or tenets accurately. Even within adherents of one religion there may be vastly different ways of living out the religion (Sommerville 2006, 63). Sommerville further observes that in much of academia religious thought is ignored or ridiculed.
Sommerville observes “that a religion can be judged only on the basis of another religion (Sommerville 2006, 63). This is unsettling specifically because it forces one to formulate creedal statements which draw one’s own religious views as superior to others. Because of this tendency to elevate our own religion, we may look for a scientific or ethical, rather than a religious, reason to affirm one way of life (Sommerville 2006, 64).
Finding a nonreligious basis for belief is problematic. Sommerville observes that “intelligence is built on beliefs. . . Belief amounts to the assumptions, the prereflectve commitments, that lie beneath our thinking (Sommerville 2006, 64). For instance, scientific inquiry in the West is built on a presupposition that nature is essentially regular. The presupposition is a statement of faith. Evaluating the consistency of our presuppositions is one of the tasks academics must engage in. Yet Sommerville finds it a very difficult task for the academy.
We may assume that a religion or religious studies department would be at the forefront of evaluating religious claims. However, Sommerville observes that these departments prefer to take an objective approach, looking at religion from outside (Sommerville 2006, 67). In contrast to the objective view of a religion, Sommerville suggests a genuine seighing of actions and creeds. For instance, many of the common objections to Christianity speak against historical events seen by many as sinful. He mentions, among others, religious wars, persecution, slavery, racism, and the like. Bu why are these recognized as wrong? Who told us that they are violations? “The criticisms [of religion] were religious in their origin” (Sommerville 2006, 69). Sommerville points out that ethics are relative by nature, as they are built on different philosophical presuppositions. “In short, we judge other religions on the basis of our own religion. Indeed, we discover what our actual religion is by the judgments we render” (Sommerville 2006, 70). Our judgments will differ form those of others based n the presuppositions used. In the end, all our policy becomes a religious decision.
Sommerville maintains that the academy cannot adequately define what religion is, not to mention making an attempt to weigh religious claims (Sommerville 2006, 71). Because academics insist on objectifying religion, they can never expect to make adequate evaluations of it. It is clear that religions differ from one another, but academics are not well prepared to say how or why it would matter (Sommerville 2006, 73).