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  Ivy Schools Cause Strange Ignorance
by John Mark Reynolds [author, academic] 1/23/07

Ignorance of sophisticated religion is at the heart of much “anti-religious” nattering from atheists and skeptics.

It is hard to blame them since most schools don’t require reading sophisticated religious writings and will purge religious writers (like John Locke) of religious references when they are read.

Since most of the world’s population is religious, this is a serious gap in the secular elite’s understanding of culture.

Recently Harvard decided religion should not be a central topic in its General Education program. It did so under attack from a science faculty who demonstrated that though they may be world-class scientists . . . their General Education program failed them when they were in school.

John Mark Reynolds

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.info.
[go to Reynolds index]

This neglect of religion comes despite the fact that Christians founded Harvard, many of its traditions make no sense except in the light of Christianity, most of Western art, music, and literature makes no sense outside of an understanding of religion, and much of philosophy does not either.

The origins of science and the United States are also hard to understand without a grounding in religious thought. How can one understand Ockham and the origins of his Razor without understanding his religious world-view? How can one read Locke in context without understanding his very frequent quotations of Sacred Scripture?

This ignorance has an impact as a recent article by sort-of-conservative Heather McDonald demonstrates.

She is disappointed that her “arguments” against traditional theism are not taken more seriously.

It would be easier to take them seriously if McDonald showed any evidence of having read (or thought about) thousands of years of Western Christian literature on the subjects she discusses. By the second century, Christianity was producing fairly sophisticated apologetics and by the time of Augustine (just 200 years later) was setting the agenda for the Western world. Bluntly, my students deal with more difficult attacks on Christianity their freshman year than Ms. McDonald thinks are real stumpers.

Here is a sample of her prose:

Around that time, I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: “Oh, now I understand, this person’s life is important”? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.

I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.

As I was pondering whether any of these practices could be reconciled with rationality, the religious gloating of the conservative intelligentsia only grew louder.

First, McDonald attacks a “straw man.” It might very well be that Internet prayer web sites are absurd and prayer make sense. Prayer would not be the only topic not well served by the web.

Second, according to traditional Christian theism (as confirmed by Our Lord Himself) nobody is heard for their “many prayers.” Anybody who does not know this lacks even a rudimentary understanding of the Bible . . . the best selling book of all time.

Third, prayer asking God for things (”prayer of petition”) can best be understood as being for the good of the person praying. He or she is bringing deep hurts or desires to a God Heavenly Father who delights to meet needs and hear His children.

Since God desires a relationship with His children . . . He delights to hear them. He knows what is best for us, but also knows that it is good for our growth to make our needs known to Him.

In that sense, Internet prayer sites may be good . . . since they allow for a community of prayer which itself is of great value. God will not hear because ten thousand prayer . . . but the bonds formed in the work of common prayer are good for mankind!

As for the life of the cancer victim . . . I would suggest McDonald read C.S. Lewis Miracles or the first couple of books of Augustine’s City of God.

A thoughtful Christian knows that healing from cancer is good, but going to God is also good. God did not desire a world of sin or death, but does bring good out of it. Of course, He knows that we cannot avoid feeling that the loss of a loved one is “bad” and so hears our prayer.

Sometimes He has willed to bring a miracle and heal a person, but no Christian believes it is because he is better than the person not healed. In fact, it is most sensible to think that he is not yet fit for Paradise . . . and so must stay in this school of souls (life!) a bit longer. Miracles do not come based on merit, but based on what is best for soul of a human to lead to eternal flourishing.

If McDonald hears responses from traditional Christians as a bit impatient, then it is only because we wish she would do her homework before dismissing us with such facile arguments. We read our Darwin, Dennet, and Dawkins . . . she could at least read her Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and Lewis. CRO


copyright 2007 John Mark Reynolds



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