Armand Chancellor has argued that higher education had a radical, and harmful, shift away from the divine. But should faith actually play a role in academia? I argue not.

October 4, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Stay Godless

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I am responding to a recent opinion piece in the Sun, “CHANCELLOR | The Godless University”.  I found it disturbing and a little chilling. I have no connection with Cornell University, other than bordering some of its property.  I have an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, with an M.S. in Systems Science.  Although raised in a Catholic family, I have been an atheist since I can first remember thinking about the topic, around the age of 12. I have maintained a lifelong interest in the nature of consciousness and what constitutes belief.

The reason that God is not discussed as a possibility in academia is because the subject simply doesn’t merit serious attention. Decent evidence for Its existence has never been presented.  Moreover, the philosophical arguments, such as Aquinas’ five proofs and their descendant interpretations by William Lane Craig, have been debunked repeatedly. They are silly word games that try to define a God into existence, glossing over important epistemological distinctions.  Take Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological argument. The first premise is sloppy.  If the wording were to be clear, it would change from “everything that comes into existence has a cause” to “every observable natural thing that comes into existence has a natural cause.”  That doesn’t smuggle in an opening for a supernatural cause through equivocation.  If theologians had in fact established proof of any sort of God, then Nobel Prizes would have been awarded and the notion would be accepted by the academic community.

Gods and beliefs are in fact discussed in a number of disciplines, particularly in the humanities, where the ideas have influenced art, music and literature. I had an undergraduate minor in Religious Studies, where I studied the New Testament as literature, the effects of religious thinkers on Philosophy, Art and Literature in history. This is the proper treatment of the subject.  If this is what the author is referring to as missing, all well and good.  But I believe this is not his goal; the apologetics he broaches indicate that he thinks that God concepts should be elevated beyond that.

The first argument raised in the article is that the explicit articulation of the notion that God is dead would be met by a vehement backlash because 7 in 10 Americans still identify as Christians — an argumentum ad populum fallacy.  How many people believe in something has nothing to do with the truth of the claim (e.g., Galileo and heliocentrism).  The serious study of God is rightly dead, until such time as decent evidence is presented.  A great number of people believe in alien abductions, fairies, homeopathy, crystals and jinn, but we don’t study those either, except in their effects on culture. The implicit part of the author’s claim, regarding how people will react if the statement “God is dead” is made out loud, sounds like a veiled threat. I find this chilling in the current national environment of crazed billionaires, mega-church and YouTube demagogues who are able to raise up small armies of seditious shock troops. Are they coming for academia now?  While it is important to respect people, to be inclusive and to respect freedom of thought, beliefs themselves don’t automatically merit respect. They need to stand up on their own to be included in serious discourse.

The “snickers from relativists” aside in the article entails a strawman view of atheists and a myopic view commonly held by believers.  There is an apparent belief by many Christians and Muslims that having a God-based, command-based morality is somehow objective, somehow moral, and somewhere well-articulated. The fact that a single powerful Being would make certain claims is, by definition, subjective.  The idea of submission to following commands rules out actual morality. Is it moral to blindly accept and follow authority? We know where that can lead. Further, a supernatural objective framework underlying morality has never been demonstrated by any believers.  Yet atheists (e.g., Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty) have made decent attempts in that direction. Their models are derived from assumptions about agreement on the goals of personal and collective well-being.  They may not be perfect systems, but they are visible and logical. They can be refined since they were not literally written in stone.  Since they are not based on magic, they deserve to be elevated to the level of serious discourse.

The author touts Abrahamic religions. References to their scriptures to support an objective morality would be absurd, since the God depicted there is devious, capricious, violent and jealous. He encourages rape, slavery, torture, murder and genocide, as detailed by Dan Barker. He hardens people’s hearts to get them to do his bidding, then punishes them for it. The Christian New Testament adds infinite torture in Hell for finite crimes, including failure to believe to round out its morality (Matthew 25:41). The message of the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran: Love Me or else (John 3:36). Whether they are taken literally or figuratively, the failure to see the barbarity of these scriptures for what they are is an academic failure, a failure of critical thinking. Buckling to these sorts of beliefs because they are popular is the last thing that should be done in a college or university environment.

The author’s statement that lack of belief in God “opens up a large can of assumed premises that have no logical grounding” is just wrong.  The only assumptions required for not believing in God magic are those of logical reasoning itself: the laws of identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle. I would add Occam’s Razor as well. Those assumptions are required by anyone wishing to have a meaningful dialog, including believers. It is not logical to believe without evidence or demonstration.

The author then goes on to ask: “If the world is completely natural, what makes things such as logic and reasoning objective, since those things do not seem natural and seemingly have no existence outside of the human mind?”  Despite his claim to the contrary, this is apologetics, and a demand to elevate belief in the supernatural to philosophical respectability.  I would suggest that he take some courses on evolution, which easily explains how an objective logic can arise through responses to environmental factors. The first eukaryotes instinctively sought out light from dark, wet from dry, developing the capability to make logical distinctions regarding life and death decisions.  These reasoned characterizations could also be considered primordial roots of morality, where good is existentially defined as anything that promotes well-being, while evil is the opposite. The supernatural has never been demonstrated to exist, so it cannot be considered to underlie anything; invoking it is an appeal to a panacea that is so broad it loses its meaning.  The failure of imagination by the author to see natural alternatives is not sufficient warrant to wish it into existence; it is an argumentum ad ignorantiam.

Reference in the piece to “a God shaped hole” is like referencing a missing cancer.  It has been excised for good reason; nothing is missing, and nothing is missed. It would be a shame if universities were forced to incorporate superstition back into their curricula. An ancestor of Ezra Cornell, Thomas Cornell, was convicted of matricide based on spectral evidence in 1673.  That sort of evidence was rightly banned from the courts in 1692 in favor of reason and demonstrable fact. Likewise, irrational beliefs don’t belong in science or the humanities, except as a study of human development.

David Quinn-Jacobs is a resident and property owner in the local Ithaca community, a retired software engineer and entrepreneur. He is a singer/songwriter, often found playing at musical venues around the Finger Lakes under the stage name David Graybeard.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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