Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Science in Religious Education II

973491Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 February 1887 — Science in Religious Education II1887Daniel Greenleaf Thompson





LET US now turn our attention to those higher seminaries of learning, which, though often assisted by public funds, or patronized in one way or another by the state, are not exclusively state institutions. Wherever a college or university happens to be under state control, precisely the same principles should obtain regarding the teaching of religion as we have found applicable in the case of inferior schools. Indeed, whether the institution be public or private, these principles equally apply, but there are some differences in situation of which we must take note.

Undoubtedly a religious organization has and should have the right to found and maintain schools to educate the young into its beliefs. Most of the New England colleges were established primarily to train young men for the Christian ministry, and in nearly all of them the promotion of the Christian religion (by which is meant the so-called evangelical religion) is the first object. As subsidiary to this come science, languages, and belles-lettres generally. Upon this basis, indeed, the greater part of the collegiate institutions in England and America stand to-day. With respect to all such, then, the question is, whether they are to be approved and supported; and, if not, what should be done to change their character so as to counteract whatever is unfortunate or baneful in their influences.

An ideal of education which sets up the attainment of truth before everything else, and claims not only the right but the necessity of questioning all things and proving all things, never can be satisfied with the constitution of any college or university whose first end and purpose is to promote any religion whatever, be it Christian, Mohammedan, Confucian, or Buddhistic. A theological seminary to be entered after general education, may properly be sectarian and be maintained for the special purpose of teaching any kind of dogma that its founders and patrons desire taught. Not so, however, with an institution for general academic instruction and study. And it must not be overlooked that an institution whose chief aim is "to promote the religion of Christ," though apparently this would include many sects, is, after all, necessarily sectarian and partisan. To begin with, it is sectarian, because, since there are many Christian sects and a great variety of Christian doctrines, some form of this doctrine must be selected and favored, if "promotion" be the chief object. Any organization for convincing and persuading must have something respecting which it is to convince and persuade. It thus can not avoid being sectarian, if it preserves any character as an effective promoting force. Such we find actually to be the case. Either by agreement at the outset or by a process of natural selection, colleges and seminaries whose chief aim is to promote the religion of Christ become inevitably Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, or something else, according to circumstances. However liberal they may be in selecting teachers for other departments, the religious teaching is all of a kind, just in the measure that they make the advancement of religion an object. Thus, though college authorities declare in their prospectus, for the purpose of attracting students, that their teaching is not sectarian, a person who reflects on the subject will not be deceived. It must be sectarian, so far as it is aggressively religious, although it may be very tolerant of all sects whose tenets are like its own. If the dominant sect differs from another only on the question of the mode of baptism, no very great amount of disfavor toward the latter would be discovered. But let the point of difference be the divinity of Christ, or the question of eternal punishment, and we shall soon see developed the strength of sectarian feeling in a manner suflicient to remove all doubts.

Even if there were unity of belief in Christianity, the existence of other religions in the world, supported by millions of people, is of itself sufficient to make the man who loves truth above all things demand for higher educational institutions something more truly catholic for an aim than the promotion of any one religion. If the highest truth be coincident with Christian doctrine; then, if truth in itself be made the chief end, the only result is to advance Christianity also, while there is no possible ground of reproach on the score of sectarianism. Such a reproach is not alone liable to come from atheists and agnostics, who may be considered possibly to have no rights which Christians are bound to respect. There happens to be in Christian communities a large class of people of the highest degree of enlightenment to whom the central doctrines of Christianity are repugnant, and who are devoted to a religion of their own—the religion, indeed, out of which Christianity sprang, but a religion which does not recognize any divine character in Jesus of Nazareth or any divine mission in his career. Such people are not atheists or agnostics. They worship the same God as the Christians do; and they adopt as a sacred book more than half the Christian Bible. In former times Christians used to treat them with the greatest contumely, scarcely as human beings, in fact; in some parts of the world to-day they are persecuted. But in countries where equality before the law is the rule, they have the same rights as other people; and their religious views ought to be recognized in those institutions to which they contribute. The existence of a large number of believers in the Jewish religion is certainly an additional argument against dogmatic religious teaching in any seminary of learning which seeks or obtains state aid. It is also conclusive against the claim that to promote Christianity is not a sectarian aim, for by the expression not alone practical or humanitarian, but doctrinal or theological Christianity is always intended.

Yet this contention that they are in no wise sectarian or partisan continues to he made by distinctively Christian colleges. Under this declaration, they open their doors to the world and profess to give the youth all the higher instruction he needs. They claim to teach knowledge, science, truth. But they certainly would not allow anything to be truth which militates against Christianity as an exclusive religion, as the only hope for mankind—this hope lying not in the spirit of altruism pervading Christianity but in loyalty to Jesus Christ personally as the sole Redeemer and Saviour. The Jewish view of Jesus would not be tolerated for an instant; the Unitarian belief is not less obnoxious; the agnostic humility is thought blasphemous. The possibility of the "orthodox" principles and facts being error is not to be allowed or considered! The chief business of these institutions is to maintain the truth of their religious creed as a postulate not to be questioned, as an assumed point of departure for all acquisition of knowledge, and as the supreme end of all learning. For instance. President Adams, of Cornell University (1886), declares that the university "must always be on the side of Christianity as opposed to infidelity or unbelief." President Seelye, of Amherst College, declares in his inaugural (1877) that the college must be solicitous, "first of all, to continue Christian." "It will seek for Christian teachers and only these." On these principles, "it will order all its studies and its discipline." It is, then, idle to say that such institutions will teach science or truth, except as science and truth are in accord with "evangelical" Christian theology. Everything else is necessarily untruth, unreason, error. Said President Witherspoon, of Princeton: "Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ; cursed be all that learning that is not coincident with the cross of Christ; cursed be all that learning that is not subservient to the cross of Christ!"

While there must be liberty to establish denominational and sectarian colleges to "promote" religion; and if, while there are such, it is the best public policy to have as great a variety of beliefs represented as may be possible, in order to insure healthful counteraction, this condition of things does not fulfill the demands of a scientific educational system. When we send our young men and women to learn geometry or natural philosophy, it is geometry and natural philosophy as sciences, as matters of knowledge, truth, that we wish them taught; not Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Methodist geometry or physics. There are church schools where church creeds are inculcated, and in these the youth can learn the things that belong to their particular sect. Or, if it be desirable to have such teaching in the same school which teaches geometry, there is no serious objection to a professor-ship of the soundest kind of the special orthodoxy desired, so long as the opposite kind of orthodoxy is not denied similar privileges. By keeping the professorship of geometry or biology unfettered by any complications with the professorship of Presbyterian theology, both biology and Presbyterianism might be learned in the same college. Then the qualification for a teacher of biology would be that he knows biology, and his religious belief would be irrelevant. As it is, whenever we examine college catalogues we discover the title "Reverend" prefixed to the names of most of the professors, even of languages and science. This creates a suspicion which is confirmed absolutely when we find, as we do in many colleges, that no one who is not a professing Christian is eligible to the position of teacher! Charles Darwin would not have been "fit" to teach biology; nor would Huxley be fit to teach natural history, nor Tyndall to give instruction in physics! Institutions like these may be provisionally endurable; but they do not satisfy the highest ideals either of truth or morality. Unless the policy of the fagot should return and become successful once more, they must be superseded by something better.

The effort ought to be made, therefore, to establish and maintain a larger number of colleges and universities which shall be absolutely without any religious purpose or aim, but which shall furnish facilities to the student for obtaining instruction in the comparative study of religions, and in the tenets of the leading religious sects, such instruction to be critical, not authoritative. These universities should be broad enough to cover all branches of science, including religions, and each department should stand upon its own foundation. The teacher of Latin should be qualified by reason of his knowledge of Latin and ability to communicate it, and it should matter not whether he be a Christian. The government of the institution should be wholly impartial as regards religion, and its charter ought to forbid religious discrimination in any form. As to worship, the teaching of religion by insinuation, that should have no place in a university save as a matter of voluntary attention. Of a college church there can be no need; for in any college-town there are, no doubt, ample opportunities for the enjoyment of religious services among the churches of the neighborhood.

Such a scheme of collegiate institutions has commended itself to a great many thinking people, but the importance of creating and sustaining the like should be more sensibly appreciated. The Christian church has always been alive to the value of education for the promotion of its own interests. The monks were usually men of peace, but, through their care for the instruction of youth, they became more powerful than the men of war. Though they were working chiefly to perpetuate the power of their order, the world is greatly indebted to them for the preservation of learning and the interest in its acquisition. It is true enough that the church has been in times past the foster-mother of education, but it is not true, therefore, that education will not flourish except under the auspices of religious organization. Let it be impressed upon the community that for the preservation of the social organism education is necessary, for the life that now is; for good government and a larger liberty, and just as powerful a motive is created to promote it as any that loyalty to an ecclesiastical society can originate. To encourage this thought, and to secure its practical carrying out, should be the aim of those who believe in a stable social order; who appreciate, indeed, the value of knowledge in religious matters so well that they are not willing to rest content with partial truth and error. Some institutions of learning there are that foster such a sentiment, and which in their constitution are substantially free from religious partisanship; it is desirable to have more.

Modifying influences are everywhere at work upon existing colleges and universities, and they are nearly all in some degree susceptible of improvement in the directions I have indicated. They desire students and must have funds. The best method of making them understand their short-comings is to cut off their supplies of both. But the higher education must be had, and if it can not be obtained in a non-sectarian institution, the conditions are often such that with proper antidotes the sectarianism inculcated may not do much harm. It is a significant fact that in some of the American colleges, founded to train young men for the Christian ministry, a very small and continually decreasing number of graduates embrace that profession. Emotional revivals are growing less in favor and are of less influence. The strong tendency of public sentiment, at least among the patrons of colleges, is toward the abolition of compulsory worship, and this has been effected in the largest American university. Thus, it may be said that there has been in America a progressive secularisation of colleges, spite of the resistance offered by their boards of government. The university systems of Continental Europe already allow much greater freedom from coercive influences of religious creeds. The American college system must give way to the broader plan exemplified in Germany, and to some extent in England, and proceed still further in the direction of making religious instruction only a department on equal footing with other departments. Those who are interested in existing collegiate schools, and who esteem it to be a higher, nobler, more truly religious ideal of education, that truth, verified knowledge, be sought persistently, and be inculcated regardless of its consequences upon a religious system maintained by authority, should not rest until the narrower object of promoting any religion ceases to be the chief end and aim toward which all the teaching in the institution converges.

This result can scarcely be brought about so long as the government and instruction in such institutions is confided in a controlling degree to clergymen. Now in this class there are, of course, many learned, catholic, truth-loving men; but the trouble is, they are all under retainers and have necessarily a professional duty which they must first perform. Doubtless they have in each case espoused a cause in which they fully believe; but their opinion, upon any point which touches the interests of their churches or their church, is of no more value as regards truth than the statements before the court of counsel in a law case. It is to be hoped that falsehood will not be practiced or countenanced either by the clerical or the legal advocate; in both instances what is said is probably believed to be true; but the mind of each is necessarily shut to anything that militates against the party for whom he appears, except for the purpose of refutation. It would not be just to allow one of the attorneys in an action at law to decide the case. This is what we are doing, however, when we put clergymen in control of educational institutions. As judges of truth, they are not "fit" to pass upon any question which concerns the welfare of their respective religious systems. They are disqualified by reason of interest. But such judges we need in our schools and colleges. If it were not for religious bias and intolerance we might have them; if the scientific method of instruction in religion were adopted, we certainly should have them. But until such a happy day arrives, so long as we must have advocates without judges we shall get at truth much faster and with greater certainty if at least we hear both sides. Let clergymen be appointed to professorships relating to their calling. Then they are in their place. Let them also be represented in boards of government; but to give them any longer the controlling power either in faculty or among trustees, or in the presidential office, is to interpose the most effectual means to arrest progress in higher education, to defeat the healthy growth of intelligence, and to dwarf and shrivel the characters of the students, who ought to receive from such institutions a thoroughly enlarging and ennobling influence.

If this seems ungracious, as doubtless it will to some, it must be insisted, with courtesy, indeed, but with firmness, that a necessity exists for reducing the too extravagant claims of the clerical profession to authority by reason of their office. They consider that their position, as representatives of a higher power than man, makes their anger righteous, and renders opposition to their declarations impious. Hence they attack with great vigor and often vituperation, but, if the objects of their wrath turn in self-defense, the rain of anathemas is increased tenfold; and should it happen that they are worsted in the conflict, they begin to cry out that they are persecuted I Now, patience is a virtue, and ought to be exercised; it is the weak rather than the strong who are intolerant; but surely people who claim more than they are entitled to must not expect that their claims will be recognized. Much less, when their demands for respect involve the stoppage of progress in knowledge and inquiry, can they reasonably anticipate acquiescence. Clergymen often complain of the increasing lack of deference shown to their order by the laity, while they bitterly lament their very conspicuous loss of influence. Reflection, however, ought to make the causes plain to them. The simple truth is, that they have latterly been growing to be of less value to the community. Many, indeed, are most excellent and useful members of society, and such do not fail of receiving full recognition. But, on the other hand, many are obstructionists to the advancement of civilization. And it must be said, also, that far too many are substantially paupers. They are supported by the community's earnings, and give nothing in return. They do not even express thankfulness for what they receive. If offered a crust of bread, they cry out for the best the table affords, and threaten the good housewife if they do not get it. Until they become moral and intellectual producers, they have no right to consume. If, therefore, when they are rebuked, they think those who rebuke them to be arrogant, in justice they must be plainly reminded of their situation. Clergymen must neither ask immunity from criticism because they are clergymen, nor must they expect to dominate the educational sphere through any "inherent sacredness" of their profession. If they attack, they must not complain if they are attacked. If they think more highly of themselves than they ought to think, they must not feel aggrieved if they sometimes find their pretensions ignored or treated with contempt. The gist of this whole matter is, that the doctrine of inherent authority in any statement, principle, profession, or office must be abandoned.

"Where we find the position taken that anything or anybody must not be questioned or criticised, we may be sure that then ignorance, error, or oppression exists, as latent if not patent evil.

It will be a great pity if religious men and women misapprehend the meaning of modern scientific criticism of Christian doctrine and of religious organization. If they did but know it, the salvation of present organized religion depends upon this criticism. The most serious question which weighs upon the thought of earnest men who are lovers of their kind is, how to save the good which there is in Christianity and perpetuate it for the human race. The edifice is at present in danger of ruin, through the folly of its guardians. No one can deny the service which Christianity has rendered; but people will not see what it is in Christianity which has brought about the benefit. It is the altruistic element which, affecting character, has caused men to seek growth through assimilation, instead of pushing their way in the world by mechanical impact. It is the encouragement to natural development produced by Christianity, and by other causes as well, which has worked the change in humanity. It is the ideal of human perfection, and of organic connection in society as the only way to realize that ideal, which has given its glory to the Christian system. It is the general doctrine and the special dogmas of authority which have constantly interfered with and nullified its beneficent tendencies. It may be that, in days gone by, the supernatural machinery, the stringent ecclesiastical organization was necessary, to keep alive the Christian, humanitarian spirit; for, in past times, force and fear ruled, and nothing could be sustained without physical power behind it. The present situation, when an industrial civilization is superseding the militant, is altogether different. It is no longer possible for religious authority to sustain itself; its day has gone by. The clergy do not see this; they will not recognize environing conditions. They can not be made to understand that what was good is now passing to better, and that the soul of things is, after all, sweet. They sorrow and are angered; but their hell is really of their own making. Upon the world the blessed light of a new and a more perfect day is dawning. They must either flee away with the darkness, or they must let the light penetrate their souls. If they will allow the latter, they will behold a much more glorious vision of Beauty, Truth and Goodness, the three sisters "never to be sundered without tears," The good in Christianity will not die, though errors be found, acknowledged, and discarded. Religion will not pass away, because it is inbred in the human mental constitution. The men who are accused of seeking to destroy Christianity are its best friends. There is not a Christian church which may not stand, increase its membership, and become a much more active power for good, if only it will abandon its superstitions. The clergy say that to do this is to abandon Christianity. A great many of the laity do not think so. That is the issue. In the absence of some effective counsel of reconciliation, more destructive work will have to be done. Meanwhile, I cordially invite the clergy to become scientists. If existing religious organizations are to be preserved, the scientific method must be unqualifiedly adopted and prosecuted in the study and teaching of religion. By this method, ecclesiasticism may be transformed, and organized religion saved. Without it, deterioration will go on till the ruin is complete. If the present system of organized Christianity perish, however, the men who are responsible for its destruction will be those officially in charge of its interests; who might have saved it if they would, but were not wise in time; who would not believe in the power of social forces; who refused to perceive the necessity of adaptation, the certainty and the beneficence of change; who had not faith in the God of their worship, as he works in and through Nature; and who would not allow their own minds to awake from their dead selves and rise "to nobler verities."

To conclude, now, these remarks upon religious education, let me sum up what I conceive to be the scientific position. Religious truth should be taught in schools and seminaries of learning as far as it is a matter of scientific knowledge, but critically and not with the purpose of promoting any religion. The utmost care should be taken to present arguments for and against any statement of fact, or any inference, judicially and without the arts of persuasion. Doubt and inquiry should be favored and stimulated, not discouraged or repressed. If this can be accomplished, it is desirable to have religion, as something to be studied in its relations to truth, to character and conduct, taught in public and other schools. But if this method can not be followed, then, until there is unanimity of opinion as to what is true in religion, all teaching on the subject must be excluded from the public schools. In other institutions effort should be made to introduce and develop the scientific, the critical, the comparative method in this sort of instruction, while every encouragement should be given also to the establishment of schools, colleges, and universities, where its adoption and consistent practice shall be insured.