Sommerville, C. John. The Decline of the Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Chapter 4 “Trouble Eliminating Religion” pp. 47-59.
Sommerville points to educational challenges which relate to secularism, a removal of religion from all disciplines. However, he has not yet clarified what he means by “religion.” In Summerville’s paradigm it is not a system of creeds and dogmas. Those are normally present in religion, but Sommerville takes religion to be broader than that. He includes the idea of the traditional intellectual virtues to be included in religion. There may be numerous different religiously held philosophical points of view in academia. Not all are clearly religious sects (Sommerville 2006, 47). Sommerville treats as religious those questions which “elicit one’s ultimate concerns and commitments” (Sommerville 2006, 48). Because these are important questions they deserve exploration. However, he finds they are merely dismissed by academia, eve though many of the important trends in Western thought can be traced to religious, and often distinctly Christian, roots. Because so many ideas in the academic traditions are derived from Christianity, Sommerville suggests it would not be harmful to allow Christianity to speak in the academy.
Sommerville notes the alarm with which this idea is received. This alarm is often based on the fact that Christianity still thinks it has answers for this day, as opposed to being simply historically useful (Sommerville 2006, 49). Sommerville points out that while Christianity is not very helpful in developing data points and proof of events, it can b very illuminating as we try to interpret the significance of the evidence. This is the bulk of the work in many areas of academia (Sommerville 2006, 50). For the most part, the university population is pursuing disciplines which seek the human good. Therefore, they often work outside the realm of definitive proof. This allows room for debate about what human good actually is.
Religion, then, stands apart from secularism. Yet as we pursue a secular naturalism, we find less room “to express human values” (Sommerville 2006, 51). These expressions of human values are still needed and commonly used. Sommerville fears that removing those values from academia will simply drive more of a wedge between the academy and common life. Rather, he would like to see more of the diversity which is found by open discussion of ethical and value-laden topics. Sommerville further finds that Christians have typically been willing to discuss these issues with secularists but that the secularists have not been willing (Sommerville 2006, 52). Sommerville goes on to discuss the objections of postmodern pioneer Stanley Fish, who found secularists too closed-minded toward historic religions (Sommerville 2006, 52ff). Fish’s analysis concluded that the secularists were committed to analysis which discounts all traditional authority, while the Christians viewed traditional authority as something valuable and profitable (Sommerville 2006, 54). In sharp contrast to this pattern, Sommerville cites John Stuart Mill, who was a staunch secularist, but who urged education for training the will in moral and religious values (Sommerville 2006, 55).
Because humans continue to think and speak in terms of values and morals, Sommerville concludes that there is an important role for religion in our research and discourse about the sciences and humanities (Sommerville 2006, 56). In history, the religious or moral value which has often held intellectual discourse together has been a concept of honor. “Honor depends on pride and class prejudice, being the focal point of a self-regarding value system. Scientists had to invest honor with an importance that makes strange reading today. It served its purpose in guaranteeing and enforcing scholarly standards when they were new and unfamiliar” (Sommerville 2006, 57). The codes of honor which could protect truth claims and prevent fabrication of evidence were very helpful in terms of guarding academic integrity, at least for some time. Sommerville suggests that the condes of honor may have been replaced, at least partly, by the assumption that intelligent people will abandon religious faith at an early age, then teach others to do so (Sommerville 2006, 57). This leaves a strong impression that religion is childish and useless. It also actively discourages teachers of religion from urging young people to pursue challenging intellectual topics (Sommerville 2006, 58). This weakens both the religious organization adn the academy.