On Western Religion and the Humanities, Critical Literacy, and the Evil Secular Academic Strawman

So again, this post comes from an interesting Facebook discussion I thought worthy of extending into a small post. (EDIT: “small post” apparently now means a 3,200-word article. Strap in.)

I’m not sure if any of you have seen the heartwarming, creepifying trailer for God’s Not Dead, the movie that somehow manages to star both Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain, thereby bringing all of my mid-’90s TV muscleman nostalgia bubbling to the surface at once.

Here is the trailer; it bears watching.

As you can see, TV’s Hercules has cleaned himself up and got himself some book learnin’. Kevin Sorbo has donned his very best Luke Maynard-style suit, grown a dapper-looking Luke Maynard-style goatee, and presented himself as the classic enemy of the 21st-century evangelical narrative: a figure my friend Bridget has accurately termed the Evil Secular Academic Strawman.

For added points, watch him quote Macbeth in spite of being a philosophy professor, because really all Evil Humanities are the same. For added points, watch him put his hands on a student at 1:44 in the trailer, in a manner that could and should have ended the movie with his being fired right there.

The Evil Secular Academic Strawman is a domineering bully, a figure of imposing embodied privilege. Can you imagine this film with a woman cast as a teacher? Or with a person of colour? No, the Evil Secular Academic Strawman must always be white, heterosexual and cismale, because in this world, we academics do not enforce our view of the world by sensitivity, curiosity, or inquiry, but by inborn power. What we want to establish in this film is that the underdog, an also-middle-class white hetero cismale, has someone even more privileged above him abusing that power.

I can’t even begin to illustrate all the problems with this character. I’ll simply say that anyone capable of understanding what they are doesn’t need me to explain them, while anyone incapable of understanding probably stopped reading all these words when I directed them at the corner of the Internet that has shiny video. (More on illiteracy in a moment).

But then, I’m cultivating another stereotype in my disdain: the stereotype of the Belligerent Zealous Idiot Strawman—the stock negative stereotype of theists—and herein we see the problem that the movie unwittingly represents. It points to a social struggle in which belligerent zealous idiots are pitted against evil secular academics, even though very few people matching these descriptions actually exist or are actually involved. It points to a social war that really has nothing to do with religion—a war against the Humanities themselves.

Let me clarify that. I don’t mean a war against teaching the Humanities, or a war against Humanities programs in universities, even though both of these things are related casualties. No, I mean a larger ideological war against the whole idea of the Humanities—a war against critical thinking, against humanistic methods (and all methods) of inquiry, a war against asking the questions that are, from the perspective of a real status quo and a real plutocracy, bad for business. I don’t think I’m being paranoid when I say that the way things are going in North America are very, very good for the people on top of the whole system, and rather less good for the rest of us, and that the people on top have a vested interest in quelling the kind of knowledge-seeking and critical questions that threaten the stability of that system. It’s a flawed system, but not for them, and part of ensuring this flawed system will continue involves shutting down the kind of thinking that will make its flaws easy to see and impossible to ignore.

This is what the Harper Government is doing with its climate scientists, for example. And by playing into the false idea that there’s a necessary war to be fought between Science and Religion—between people of fact and people of faith—it’s making religion a pawn of politics, and using people’s faith as a private weapon against the whole business of knowing dangerous truths and asking dangerous questions.

The people in power want people of faith to believe, incorrectly, that faith is synonymous with blind trust—that being faithful means not asking questions.

Here’s where religion comes awkwardly into the war on intelligence. Religious faith, except where it is in service to the temporal and political power of men, has never meant blind acceptance of information that runs counter to the verifiable facts presented in front of us. The oppression of Galileo’s round-world theory, for instance, was more political in nature than it was religious; after all, this was centuries after the Venerable Bede in pre-Conquest England discovered the same thing. And Bede was a renowned monk, and the only Englishman ever named Doctor of the Church, an enormous recognition which suggests that the pre-modern Catholic Church had no problem at all with his crazy 7th-century theory that the world was spherical, and if it was day on the side the Sun was on, that probably meant it was night on the opposite side.

Charles Darwin, in his own words, did not find evolution to contradict the existence of God, though Fox News would paint him as an Evil Secular Academic and whitewash the religion out of him. Neither should we forget the towering figures within the Humanities for centuries were, besides poets and philosophers, great religious thinkers, theologians, men of faith. Consider Samuel Johnson, or Immanuel Kant, or Gregory the Great, or the great Muslim surgeon Albucasis. Consider Augustine, one of those rare academics whose “terminal degree” was not Dr., but St.!

Contrary to what Fox News tells us, religion is not the opposite of learning. Contrary to what militant atheists like Richard Dawkins might tell us—and I think his work for the Men at the Top is just as vital as Fred Phelps’s is—science is not a weapon to be used against faith, but rather a tool to refine and empower and enrich it.

However, Science doesn’t tell us how to use itself to refine faith. That, after all, is the business of the Humanities.

So we arrive in situation where we do have Evil Secular Academics—Dawkins is a well-spoken example—and we do have Belligerent Zealous Idiots like Fred Phelps, and while they could not be starker opposites, they are both batting for the same team: those parties who want there to be a war between religion and education. They are the ones yelling the loudest, the ones representing two artificially polarized “sides” of an idea-war whose foot soldiers are not half so narrow-minded as their figureheads. And yet the more they become representative of a manufactured argument, and the more we take delight in the pundit champions of “our” side crushing the other side in debates, the more their hostility comes to infuse the way we conduct ourselves.

Kevin Sorbo’s Evil Secular Academic is a representative of this manufactured war. The film can only end in one of two ways: in one case, the heroic kid converts his class at the expense of failing the course, siding with Faith over Thinking, and proves to believers everywhere that Critical Thinking Is For Saps. In the other case, we have the sugar-sweet happy ending, in which the mythic hero reconciles and reaches atonement with his Dark Father—that is, the kid convinces his God-hating professor to return to the Light Side of the Flock, and the professor in return has made an excellent student and rhetorician, and a first-rate apologist philosopher, out of the kid by being a tremendous dick to him, because yeah that’s totally how education works </sarcasm>.

The second of these, while still atrocious, seems more palatable, because it touches on the important idea that our religion is more valuable when questioned and engaged with, and it also reveals that no, critical thinking and faith aren’t mutually exclusive. But the damage has already been done. The lovely trailer has been cut and edited as if we’re gearing up for a Battle Royale between an unsullied champion of faith with the Almighty on his side, and some atheist dick of a teacher with severe behavioural problems and a petty axe to grind (really, who’s the underdog in this fight?). In either case, people will see the trailer and become further divided. The battle between the Assholes and the Idiots is about to rage. Pick your side.

The final insult is, of course, that the film is “based upon” (that is, it takes its title and not much else from) an existing book by a rather misspelled fellow named Rice Broocks—a book called God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty. Now, as any of you with a background in the Humanities will have already noticed, this book has a colon in its title separating the “soundbite” title from the “informational” title, a sure sign that yes, this book is written in and follows the methodological and polemical traditions of books in the Humanities. The book title has an “academic colon.” The movie title does not. We’ll come back to this.

The Rev. Dr. Broocks, as you might expect from his own title, is both a believer and an academic—a figure who by his very existence suggests things don’t have to be the way they are laid out in this movie trailer. His book is neither groundbreaking nor especially brilliant, but it is a clear, well-informed, and well-ordered introduction to Christian apologetics. Broocks has a knack for writing about complicated ideas of theology in a way that the people coming to this book with no background could actually make sense of. And ultimately, his examples point to one important truth:

Religious faith does not, and must not, require ignorance. His second chapter title, “Real Faith Isn’t Blind,” says it in a nutshell, both to lazy atheists who presume all theists are blind, and to lazy theists who like to think they can get away with it.

Which brings us back to the Humanities, and especially to something I call Critical Literacy.

On one hand, everybody knows how to read and write. The CIA World Factbook in 2008 pegged the American literacy rate at 99.99%, meaning one out of every 10,000 Americans is deemed “illiterate” by its federal government. But what does this statistic really mean? Compare it with this article from 2009, appropriately subtitled “1 in 7 U.S. adults are unable to read this story.” [EDIT: Subject-verb error, dear smug journalist: One in seven adults *is* unable.]

Again in the interest of the War on Humanities, the literacy rate is artificially inflated by setting the “literate/illiterate” bar at about the level it takes to read a children’s picture book, sign your name, or skim the menu at McDonald’s.

When I teach Introduction to Academic Reading & Writing, I ask my students how many of my first-year students already know how to read and write. Then I ask them if they know how to walk and run as well. Then I ask them what their 10K time is, and what kind of interval training they use to keep their time so low.

They get the message quickly: basic competency, putting one foot in front of the other or knowing what sound the letters make when you say them together, has almost nothing to do with the skills you need to do something at a functionally professional level. They know how to run, but not like a runner. They know how to read, but not like a reader. They lack critical literacy, and that’s what they have come to my liberal arts college to learn.

Now, here’s the thing: all three major monotheistic religions in the West have, at their very core, the veneration of a centuries-old holy book. The story varies between Christianity/Judaism/Islam, but in all cases, it is something like this: God has provided us with a sacred scripture to tell us the history of His dealings with us, and to provide a manual of sorts for how we should live in relation to God, and in relation to each other. There is a widely-available, widely affordable document, available in our native language, which explains to us, in words our human minds can understand, important things about God and His Creation.

How can any person who professes to be a religious follower of one of these three religions do anything but seek out the level of literacy required to actually READ THE WORDS GOD WANTS YOU TO READ?! If you believe in an almighty, benevolent Lord who wants you to do something, and then you choose not to bother with it, what does that make you?

Are there Christians who don’t believe in the Bible? People who believe that Christ was the Saviour and Redeemer—but at the same time, have their doubts that the books chosen by the consensus of some power-hungry 4th-century council are the ones most representative of their Messiah’s real words? Absolutely. There are reasons to take such a position. But by and large, the people who say, “homosexuality is a sin, look, it says so in Romans” are taking as divine truth a book they lack the literacy to read with anything past basic grammatical comprehension. That does not amount to “scriptural literacy.” The only thing that does is the ability to engage with the text critically. As Pope Gregory laid out at the beginning of the 6th century, you only reach scriptural literacy when you can read literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically. This was not a guy who believed that being able to sound out words you didn’t understand, like the schoolchildren of Tom Sawyer collecting their Bible tickets, was anywhere near good enough.

In other words (look at me using the skill of paraphrasing), the kind of reading that makes you “literate” in the CIA Factbook’s eyes just doesn’t do the job.

In other other words—the duty of any thinking religious person (in the monotheistic West) is not to shun or revile the Humanities, but to embrace them. Not only can people of faith hold a respect for education, and inquiry, and questioning, and knowledge-seeking; they must.

This does not mean formalized academic study, of course. It does not mean you have to sit through a semester of listening to some atheistic Dr. Hercules vent about how his male privilege is being eroded by Dr. Xena’s Women’s Studies class down the hall. It does not mean that three degrees are required before you’re “allowed” to have an opinion, or before you’re “licensed” to read and revere your Scripture.

On the other hand, it means you must read critically, think critically, actively engage with the text. And this is more true, not less, with Scripture than it is with ordinary literature. If you are a Christian, The Bible is so much more important than Hamlet (this must be, at heart, why Harold Bloom is an atheist)—but where, now, in society, do we furnish people with the skills to do this? Do we teach anyone, outside of the liberal arts classroom, how to read works critically? Exodus isn’t written like a technical manual, you know. That first-year course in remedial technical writing isn’t going to cut it.

If you are a Muslim, does jihad really mean violent war to you? Most modern Muslims find this idea abhorrent, and interpret the word to mean a different, and better, sort of struggle altogether. Interpreting! That’s the work of the Humanities. How do Judaeo-Christian women reconcile their comfortable surburban lifestyle with their holy obligation to kill two pigeons every time they have their period? (Lev 15:28-30) How do we reconcile the supposed size of the Ark with known and verifiable zoological fact?

There are ways to do it. There is no way that disproving the “young Earth” theory also disproves the existence of God. But living with both knowledge and faith requires people to think critically, to search both their souls and their minds, and to alter their personal theology in accordance with what it’s now verifiably clear is true about God’s creation. Any personal theology that hinges on there being no cats in the world, for instance, on the grounds that there are none in the Bible, is going to run into serious crisis in this world in which all cats (except Schrödinger’s) verifiably exist. So it goes with dinosaurs. Ignorance of reality as we know it is ignorance of Creation itself, which seems a poor way to go about religion.

This reconciliation, this process of resolving the relationship between the Creator and the Creation, is a part of critical reading and critical response. This is the work of the Humanities. Learning more about Creation through observing what we have been given—that’s called Science. Neither of these pursuits needs to be conducted atheistically. But they need to be conducted with a faith that can be changed by new revelation, whether that revelation be divine or scientific. Because Science, remember, is just “knowing.” And if you believe in any sort of universal Creator, than everything created, and all evidence thereto, is part of something divine. Evolution as divine revelation? Why can’t it be?

Revelation, knowledge itself, is both sacred and secular. It is the business of everyone to learn, to engage, to think critically. And don’t take my word for it; after all I’m an Evil Secular Academic. Think about it. Really think. If the merest act of thinking is enough to endanger your faith, drop it and get a new one. The wisest believers I know are those whose faith is not endangered, but enriched, by thought.

This thing called Thinking is how religion used to work, at least to people like Augustine and Gregory the Great—and the Venerable Bede, who knew and cared more about how the world worked in the 7th century than many people calling themselves Christians do today. I like to think that critical thinking is how religion still does work. Places like the Westboro Baptist Church, where there’s no thinking at all going on, may be multiplying. But that doesn’t mean they’re working. And we’ve spent too long letting them stand as the representatives for religion. We’ll do a lot better, as theists and atheists and gnostics and agnostics alike, if we all go back to the shared belief that wisdom is good, and ignorance bad.

Truly religious people are, in fact, lifelong academics of the best sort. They are lifelong seekers of knowledge—fearless ones. They are people whose desire to know their God, and to know Creation, kindles the fire of curiosity in them. They do not need teachers to keep learning—although, as always, there is something good to be learned from teachers. The prevailing myth of God’s Not Dead, the idea that our teachers become prestigious by being petty and out-of-touch with the world and with us, builds a wall between one source of knowledge and its seekers. The message carried by this film is bad news for educators, bad news for thinkers, bad news for believers. It is no less than a hate film levelled against academia, against everything it means to be learnèd.  In short, it’s feel-good fluff for zealots who’d rather not read a book about the Son of God–not when they can just watch a Hollywood movie starring that guy who used to play the son of a god on TV.

Intelligent academics and faithful Christians deserve so much better than this. So, especially, do the many, many people who are both of these at once.

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One thought on “On Western Religion and the Humanities, Critical Literacy, and the Evil Secular Academic Strawman

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