Thursday, June 17, 2010

Humanity's Belief

A few weeks ago I came across this chart on someone's blog:

It's made the rounds here and there to bolster the argument that science and studying science doesn't make one an atheist. Usually, this comes up in the discussion of Creationism and Evolution.

What I found most striking, however, was the large correlation with studying the humanities and social sciences and the drop-off in religiosity for people in those fields.

My initial stab at explaining this is to posit that science is about facts while the humanities are about ideas. And nothing is quite as disturbing to one's own preconceived notions as encountering other people's well-argued, preconceived notions.

While scientific discoveries can lead to people re-evaluating their religious beliefs, it is usually not at the hands of scientists that we falter and rethink our assumptions, but at the hands of people who try to integrate those scientific discoveries into far-reaching ideas.

Those people tend to be writers, philosophers, social other words, people who dabble in the humanities.

Most students arriving as freshman have only been exposed to a basic sweep of ideas and a general overview of literature and philosophy. Plunging deeper into that pool will naturally expose students to ideas they have never considered or arguments that are more powerful than what they have gotten at home.

On the negative side, it only takes one or two confident, authoritative professors to completely undermine a student's wavering faith....and humanities professors are more prone to see it as their duty to strip away and challenge their students' ideas.

Science professors are more concerned with teaching their students the facts and theories of their particular fields. While a science professor might spout off his or her theist/atheist philosophy in the midst of a class, it isn't the main subject, or even relevant to a student's understanding of how DNA works.

A humanities professor, on the other hand, has a much more powerful position because they work in the trade of explaining concepts and ideology through Literature, or Philosophy, or History, or Language, etc. Completing a humanities course and getting a good grade will inevitably involve regurgitating an interpretation of a particular text or idea that meets with the professor's approval.

Anyone who has ever had a terrible humanities professor, or perhaps better put, a biased humanities professor, can testify to how frustrating it can be.

I recall one Dr. Stanley who gave me my first ever D on a World Lit. test because he didn't like my answers. I was mortified and a little outraged because I felt that the answers he marked wrong, weren't wrong. I was shocked until I heard that almost everyone else had failed the test. I had to take him again the next year for European Lit. The first test gave me a C+. Once again everyone else did worse than me....and these were small classes filled with bright students, many of them smarter than me. However, we had run up against a professor who was certain of his interpretation and wasn't open to anyone else's. We survived the only way we giving him what he wanted, even if we didn't believe it ourselves.

Dr. Stanley wasn't very charismatic, so he didn't win any converts to his ideas, but it isn't hard to see how if he had been more charismatic he might have been able to convince everyone to take a particular view of the subject matter, especially if it had been about something more substantial than literature.

BTW....this isn't an indictment of all Humanities profs. hate mail...OK!? ;-)


Donna B. said...

The study of religion would fall under the humanities. That sort of makes this chart similar to a double-edged sword.

Retriever said...

Too true, Terri. And Donna, few things will skewer one's wavering faith faster than a course at a PC seminary these days. Places founded to train Christian ministers churn out more social activists, depressed dropouts and political ministers than faithful servants of Christ's body these days.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis in the essay "Christian Apologetics" in the collection God In The Dock “The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and textbook undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. . . . It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”

As a humanities graduate, I would concur that there is an enormous social consensus in the humanities that there is something - not so much wrong, for then it would require an argument - but ridiculous about the Christian faith and the noisier people who adhere to it. I think the message is clear: "If you want to belong here, there are several types of belief that are acceptable only with extreme modification. But we have many, many others to choose from, so you need not worry."

In my undergraduate years, and in my conversations after that, I never once encountered a reasoned argument against Christianity, only sniggers. I have read many, and those have been more challenging and fruitful. But these are against a social background of the implied "you must choose one of these others or we will know you are not intelligent. No friends, no mate, no status."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I would also add that mathematics, at least, has a further division: applied mathematicians are much more religious than theoretical.

David said...

Ironically, the professors who think they are boldly challenging their students' beliefs are actually often reinforcing the things the kids have been told all their lives. The professor thinks: the kid's dad is a small businessman and a Rotary member, and mom is active in the church and the PTA. Actually, Dad is a high school principal and mom is a shrink. Both are fervent PBS watchers and NPR listeners. The only "church" they are active in is the environmental movement. The bold ideas the prof promulgates are entirely consistent with everything the kid has ever learned to believe.