The End of the Beginning?

Michael Metzger

Higher illiteracy?
How many friends came over yesterday to watch the Pro Bowl? You’re kidding. Almost 100 million Americans watched the Super Bowl the Sunday before. Why does the NFL Pro Bowl – featuring a far larger galaxy of stars – draw such a puny audience? If you know the answer, you also understand why the exclusion of religion on college campuses and Corporate America might be good news.

In case you’ve been asleep at the wheel for the last 100 years, most universities have adopted a contradictory code with respect to religion. They are opposed to “imposing a morality” on students. Yet they cannot resist insinuating one that excludes Christianity. One example: A professor at the college our son Stephen attends reprimanded him for connecting Christianity to the course. “The higher you go on the social and educational ladder, the greater the resistance to and negation” of religious points of view, wrote the late Philip Rieff.1 A “radically skeptical knowledge industry has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth” that is “the exact equivalent of invincible ignorance.”2 Isn’t it good to know you’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to have your daughter or son indoctrinated in what Rieff calls the “higher illiteracy?”3

Yet this could be good news. The reason is that exclusionary practices create monopolies. Monopolies tend to be lazy. Congregationalism for example was king of the hill in Massachusetts in 1776. Taxes supported the ministers who excluded religious competitors. When Congregationalism was disestablished in 1833, it collapsed and other competitors won out. Vigorous faith occurs where multiple religious groups compete, writes sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark.4 Monopolies are less compelling.

Excluding religion in universities is essentially creating a monopoly. And that could potentially be a good thing. “Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek,” said John Taylor Gatto.5 You can’t discover the meaning of life studying a spreadsheet. But you can’t get very far in life ignoring a spreadsheet. By excluding religion, universities distribute degrees but have “no great visions to lure them on” said Clark Kerr, former president of the California university system.6 This might be why professor of history and theology Alister McGrath says aggressive atheism has peaked and is in decline on college campuses.7 When colleges brook no dissent in their exclusion of religion, sane students begin to smell a rat.

In the same way, sane human beings want work that is meaningful. Yet the straight line from the classroom to the boardroom means the barring of religion is a “virtual monopoly” in business.8 Uh-oh. If workers begin to smell a rat, the days of this monopoly might be numbered. In both cases this would be good news.

The fragility of a monopoly was never more evident to me than when I visited the Soviet Union in 1988. I was taken back at how many citizens groused about socialism. “Don’t buy that,” warned one tourist guide. “If we made it, it’s crap.” When I asked one man why he risked being so open in his critique of Marxism, he replied: “They lied to us.” By excluding all ideological competitors, Marxists created a monopoly that lied and became lazy all across Eastern Europe (do you think they built the Berlin Wall to keep people out?). The good news is that the agnostic ideology ruling universities and Corporate America will probably become intellectually indolent because they dismiss competitors.

I spent a long morning over the Christmas break in an Annapolis coffee house with a young woman on the cusp of graduating from an Ivy League school. She had pretty much left behind the Christian faith of her youth. “I want a faith that is more intellectually rigorous.” If this is true I told her losing her youthful faith was probably a good move. But I challenged her to consider whether her new flaccid agnosticism was due to the monopolistic policies of her college that excluded religion. If nothing else, she agreed that all she’s got now is a passport to privilege but not to purpose.

As the war situation improved in 1942, Winston Churchill rallied the British people by suggesting, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”9 The reason so few of us watch the Pro Bowl is because it’s not a competitive event. If it’s not competitive, it’s not compelling entertainment. The exclusion of religion creates a monopoly breeding laziness. If people begin to smell a rat, this might mark the end of the beginning.

1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p.10
2 Rieff, p.56
3 Rieff, p.xxiii
4 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776 – 2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ and London, 2005), p.11
5 John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992), p.2
6 David Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), p.259
7 Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 48, 149, 174, 186-187
8 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life, (New York: Free Press, 1996), p.4
9 Remarks made by Winston Churchill, “The End of the Beginning,” The Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House, November 10, 1942


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