The theoconservative magazine First Things has taken an interest, shall we say, in some of my blogs about secularism. They have stuck it to Berlinerblau here and here. And, once again, here, where a frustrated Oglethorpe University professor lamented, “Why do I read this stuff?” (to which I can only respond, “Duder, why do you write this stuff?”).
It’s not all negative. Here is a reasoned and thoughtful review of a previous book of mine by a colleague who is an Evangelical theologian. And since I am no wilting flower, I have sent up that erection lasting longer than four hours which constitutes First Things’ goofy obsession with baseball.
All of this is good clean fun. I harbor no grudges. I am, however, disturbed by a post on the First Things Web site in response to a profile in The Washington Post about me and a freshman seminar I teach at Georgetown entitled “American Secularism.”
The author of the piece, Matthew Cantirino, is a junior fellow at First Things, and, good Lord, does this junior fellow have strong opinions on both me and the field of secularism:
The article reveals the content of this particular course to be rather disappointing. “Berlinerblau’s classes focus on secularism as the study of relations between church and state,” reports the Post, which goes on to describe just how ragtag even this narrowly focused seminar can be on certain days.
Note to Mr. Cantirino: An exceedingly effective way to learn about the true contents of a college course is by actually reading the syllabus and maybe even reading the thousands of pages of scholarship assigned therein. Reading a short article about the contents of a class, by contrast, may be less helpful—assuming of course that junior fellows at First Things are actually expected to know something about that which they are excoriating.
Odder still is the schoolmasterly tone of Mr. Cantirino’s remarks on secularism, a subject as complex and dense as any I have ever researched. Our First Things author’s own analysis of secularism has led him to conclude:
But then, of course, there are issues surrounding this emerging field which even its leading proponents concede have not been resolved. What, for example, does a class on secularism study?
Fascinating question, that. My own way of engaging that problem was to spend a decade or so studying and writing about the problem. Then, I kind of figured, I might try teaching courses about secularism as a means of answering the query about what a class on secularism might study. Later on, plausibly, other scholars in other disciplinary areas might do the same.
But that won’t pass muster with Provost Cantirino, who proceeds to express doubts about the intensive study of secularism:
How can such a subfield avoid extensive overlap with courses in politics, literature, or sociology? And, given the endless proliferation of subfields at the university level in recent decades (with everything from area studies to zoological management becoming a seemingly distinct sector of research), is another spinoff dedicated to something as notoriously mercurial as ‘secularism’ truly the most prudent way of evaluating this topic?
I will let the folks over at First Things divine the most prudent way of evaluating this topic, outside of researching and teaching and developing “subfields.” But at the risk of creating even more overlap, I would like to gently inform Cantirino that the field of theology also informs secular studies: Many scholars of secularism trace its conceptual origins to the writings of Paul and Augustine.*
Most distressing, however, is our author’s final remark, which calls into question my integrity and that of my students:
And, so far at least, religious believers would do well to hold on to their recurring concerns about ‘academic indoctrination.’ At the conclusion of the seminar, as recounted in the article, “all but one” of his students raised their hands to describe themselves as “secular,” seems to have fallen prey to reiterating a sort of Habermasian distinction between “private” and “public” spheres rather than a fuller view of secularism as a spectrum, one in which it is possible to espouse a spectrum of belief ranging from full religious faith to agnosticism or atheism to all sorts of quasi-mystical or pop-philosophical thoughts.
How Cantirino drew Habermas into the equation is beyond me. Perhaps his musings on the “spectrum of belief” that characterize secularists are indebted to my own publications on the subject, where I have spoken of concepts like “the secularly religious” (or religious individuals who are wary of proximity between state and church and are content to keep their faith a private, joyous matter).
Yet I have no explanation—or tolerance—for the charge that I have indoctrinated my students, or the corollary that students as intelligent as these are vulnerable to indoctrination.
If Cantirino is so concerned about academic indoctrination—among the professoriate’s greatest sins—then he should substantiate the charge. While he’s at it, he might consider taking a class in secularism (but where?) and maybe a refresher course in ethics.
He owes me, my students, and Georgetown University (which he may have attended, I was surprised to learn) an apology.
* In honor of St. Augustine, I wish to make a gift to the First Things Junior Fellows Study Lounge of Robert Markus’s excellent Christianity and the Secular (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).