The Perils of Lazy Pluralism (Should Harvard Divinity School Still Exist?)

by Matt B. on January 24, 2015

During my second year at Harvard Divinity School, I listened to a classmate describe a challenge she’d experienced as a Sunday school teacher. She had planned a lesson on Noah and the Ark; instead of listening, her students galloped around the room, knocking things over and making a mess.

My first reaction was “Good!” This wasn’t to spite my classmate; it was a response to the lesson she had hoped to teach. To me, the Noah story is one of the most repugnant episodes in the Bible. Reading it might help us understand how myths functioned in the lives of ancient people, but it certainly isn’t moral teaching. When the end of the sentence is, “and then God drowned nearly every living thing on Earth, babies and little children included,” then it really doesn’t matter how the sentence starts – and only a combination of gauzy piety and intellectual laziness could suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, these traits dominate life at Harvard Divinity School.

*          *          *

As my classmate described chasing her students around the room, I found myself rooting for them: Run for it!

This feeling created some dissonance. The seven or eight of us in that classroom were supposed to support one another, to help each other sort through the challenges we faced in the course of our individual ‘spiritual development.’ Depending on the day, that could mean a lot of things – asking questions about our feelings, offering textual resources, and so on. What we never did, though, was call each other’s basic goals or theology into question. That was very clearly out of bounds, and it left me confused: how could I support my fellow student if I couldn’t support what she was trying to do? And why weren’t we talking about exactly this?

Perhaps it worked differently in other sections. But I suspect not, and here’s why: during my three years at HDS, I didn’t find myself in a truly open-ended, existentially exploratory conversation more than a handful of times – and then only with people who already saw the world pretty much like I did. For a divinity school, we almost never talked about whether god is real, or whether training people for the ministry is a good idea.

*          *          *

I once suggested to a professor that we invite Christopher Hitchens to campus for a debate about his book, God Is Not Great. She wasn’t enthusiastic: Hitchens’ problem, she said, is that he “reduces religion to propositional statements.” In a sentence, she had swiped away some of my longest-held cobwebs about religion. Religion, she was telling me, is far more than a set of true-or-false claims about god or the afterlife. It’s also about building communities, about the stories, rituals, and practices that give shape to our lives. Religions are as capacious as any civilization, and much longer-lasting than most.

Hitchens had missed some of this, and my professor was right to point that out. But I wondered if she hadn’t swung too far in the opposite direction, associating propositional inquiry with religion-haters and then dismissing it entirely. Much of the school pretty clearly had, and it helped explain why we didn’t talk about god much – because for many students and professors, doing so would have seemed simplistic, even dangerously naive.

*          *          *

Anthropologist Michael Jackson once summed up the HDS ethos. “You don’t walk up to people and tell them their beliefs are wrong,” he said. “That’s just rude.” And I agree – not much good comes of interreligious dialogue if one party is only participating in order to convert the other.

Thankfully, I didn’t see that kind of evangelism at HDS. The school works hard to sustain a pluralist atmosphere, a space in which people are free – and even encouraged – to pursue their individual journeys. This is a nice thing all by itself, and it’s even nicer given the ignorance and aggression that passes for so much of our culture’s religious discourse. There is wisdom in HDS’ approach; at some level, we’re all figuring things out for ourselves, and it can’t really work any other way.

It’s Your Journey, Bro – But Don’t Make Me Come With You

But HDS isn’t just about providing a haven for ethical and religious exploration. It’s about something more – though it took me a long time to figure out what. I once shared my confusion with then-Dean William Graham in an interview for one of the school’s publications. “How do you think about HDS and its mission?” I asked. “Is there a cluster of things you hope students take with them when they leave?” In his response, a few lines jumped out at me:

“I refer to HDS as an advanced liberal arts institution. I like to think we are training people to do whatever they do with greater acuity and knowledge about the religious, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions of their careers and of society.”

“An advanced liberal arts institution” – in other words, a place for rigorous training in the humanities, that grand tradition driven by our desire to understand ourselves and the world.

It’s a noble task, one I believe in perhaps more than anything else. But at HDS, it’s a mission that’s often confounded by another loyalty – to religion itself. In class after class, students and teachers analyze religion through a variety of interpretive lenses – historical, exegetical, political, literary, etc. What we almost never do is question religions’ central moral and metaphysical claims directly. In other words, HDS treats religion with kid gloves.

*       *       *

This tension is rooted in Harvard’s history. Founded in 1636 as a Puritan/Congregationalist institution, Harvard College spent the following decades preparing young men for ministry. In 1811, Harvard established a graduate program for ministerial candidates; five years later, Harvard Divinity School was inaugurated to ensure “the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth.” [1]

In other words, the contradiction – perhaps even the oxymoron – was built in from the start. We’re familiar with truth’s outer walls; now let’s examine the plumbing. Inquiry, then – but only to a point.

Like the rest of the university, HDS has secularized and ecumenicalized hard in the two hundred years since its founding. Today, the Divinity School has two major missions: providing a home to scholars of religion, and training students entering the ministry in over a dozen different faith traditions. (To be clear, HDS doesn’t actually ordain students. Instead, it offers classes and “denominational counseling” to complement the ordination processes in students’ individual traditions.)

In a series of “guiding principles,” HDS explains how this fusion between scholarship and religious leadership is supposed to work: “Religious and theological studies depend on and reinforce each other,” we are told. More pointedly, “A principled approach to religious values and faith demands the intellectual rigor and openness of quality academic work.”

The school seems to believe that “religious faith” is compatible with “intellectual rigor” and “openness.” Perhaps. But how, I wonder, did the school arrive at this conclusion? Via intellectual rigor? Or via a lingering faith in the value of religion, one that never quite permitted a “serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation” into religions’ basic claims?

*       *       *

On the whole, HDS holds religion in a glowy, uncritical light. This seems unnecessary, in part because its faculty members don’t agree on what religion is. If we were to poll the faculty on the following questions –

(1) Does a personal god exist?

(2) Does it matter?

– we would receive wildly divergent answers: everything from ‘definitely yes’ and ‘definitely no’ to ‘who knows?’ and ‘who cares?’

Now, if these voices came into meaningful contact with each other – if the faculty and the students tried to articulate big questions and tackle them rigorously – then HDS’s diversity of views would be a rich source of learning. Unfortunately, these conversations almost never happen. Instead, the diversity of views itself becomes the point.

In this way, metaphysical confusion becomes an ethical requirement. Every perspective on reality or human nature becomes ‘interesting,’ and none can be judged superior to any other. I once suggested that we could at least agree on some basics: all humans need to eat, defecate, and so on. A classmate jumped in to report that some Hindus believe in a saint who went twenty years without food. In the silence that followed, disappointment and frustration wrestled in my chest; no one, including the teacher, was willing to point out that believing in things doesn’t make them true, and that disbelieving things – or asking for evidence – doesn’t make you an asshole.

This is the Divinity School’s core problem. Because HDS conflates respect with affirmation and belief with truth, it becomes incapable of the very inquiry it claims to champion. This makes it very difficult to talk about ethics – particularly the ethics of training students to enter the ministry.

Like ‘god’ and ‘religion,’ ‘ministry’ carries a thousand connotations. (During my time at HDS, the school launched a “Buddhist Ministry Initiative” – a promising/perplexing/ridiculous idea, depending on who you ask.) At the very least, the role of religious leaders varies by tradition and sub-tradition, culture and sub-culture. And of course, it’s highly personal.

So let’s acknowledge, then, that there probably isn’t a productive way to ask whether ‘ministry’ is a good thing.

But let’s also acknowledge that some traditions encourage adherents (a) to believe things that aren’t true and (b) to do things that are harmful to themselves and others. Is it legitimate to support and encourage students who carry on those traditions – who plan to teach children, for example, that their lives are supervised by a moody and genocidal god? Or that women should defer to men? Or that priests who defend pedophiles and endanger children are trustworthy guides on sexual health?

I suspect that the administration and faculty would acknowledge some of this tension, and that they’d respond with something like, “It’s always a good thing to learn from each other. If we can provide a space in which devout religionists nuance their faith by studying the humanities, great. And if non-believers can come to a greater understanding of how faith works in the lives of their classmates, that’s great too. We can’t tell people what to do with their lives – and if we tried, it wouldn’t work anyway. All we can do is provide a space for kindness, decency, and mutual respect as we trip along our own paths.”

Maybe. But kindness and decency don’t demand that we endorse each others’ views. And unfortunately, this is exactly what HDS does. At the yearly Seasons of Light ceremony, for example, HDS leaders celebrate each of the traditions represented at the school. The message is clear: we don’t need to worry about each faith’s specific views on reality or human nature, because all religions are ultimately just vessels for human goodness. Your song, my elegy – what’s the difference? After all, isn’t each tradition just a kind of poetry, dancing on the surface of life’s perplexing waves? You can almost feel the distinctions being elided; wishfulness fills the room like a censer’s smoke, and faculty members cover their eyes and hope for the best.

*       *       *

Our world can be gratuitously unkind to religion – mocking its traditions and even oppressing its followers. The Divinity School provides a refuge from such nastiness, a religious farmers’ market in which students get to share their wares and sample others’. In other words, HDS embodies a certain kind of democratic ideal.

I enjoyed much of my time there. I met lovely, brilliant people, learned a great deal about traditions familiar and un-, and got introduced to the meditation practices that would change my life.

But there’s something missing – a concern for truth. Now, for anyone educated in higher education’s dominant paradigms over the last half-century, that word alone can bring snickers. (I once heard an HDS professor invoke Harvard’s motto – ‘Veritas’ – only to chortle and move on without explaining himself. In that lecture hall, he knew he didn’t need to.)

But that word is still above Harvard’s gates, as it should be. And weirdly enough, our lingering investment in truth explains why HDS students have so few serious conversations about big questions – because traditional religions aren’t primarily about truth. As William James pointed out, religions are born out of our existential unease. They don’t exist to conduct a clear-headed investigation into the nature of reality; they exist to help people respond to the ecstasy and terror and sheer weirdness of being alive.

Can we imagine a school that does both? That seeks to understand the psychology of religious practitioners and evaluates religion’s truth-claims? In which we acknowledge each other’s spiritual commitments and feel comfortable enough to ask serious, caring questions about why we hold those commitments (and safe enough to answer them)? In which unfettered intellectual inquiry leads to profound personal confession, and vice versa?

In another of its guiding principles, HDS claims that this is what it wants to create: “An exemplary scholarly and teaching community requires respect for and critical engagement with difference and diversity of all kinds.” But on the whole, this isn’t how the school operates. Much of the time, my classmates and I feigned respect for each other through patience and false openness; when one of us said something nonsensical, the rest of us held our tongues in silent condescension. (Wait him out, wait him out – there’s no way he’ll be able to hear my question.) Critical engagement took place on the surface of things, but the real action was down below.

*       *       *

Could we do better? Could we create and sustain authentic critical engagement that would live up to HDS’ ideals? I think we could.

It wouldn’t be easy, of course. Doing so would require an extraordinarily mature culture, a school-wide devotion to honesty, respect, and compassion in equal measure.

It would also come at a cost. A school this committed to honest inquiry would have to be willing to shine a light on itself. In particular, it would mean asking whether midwifing young clergy is always ethical. It would mean squarely addressing what those clergy believe and what they aim to do with their powers. And it would mean considering the possibility that HDS, in its zeal to support its students, has become an enabler instead.

*       *       *

If a psychology student wrote a thesis suggesting that babies should be beaten every time they cry, his department would push back. If an engineering student believed that two plus two equals five, she’d probably have a tough time graduating (and we certainly wouldn’t let her build a bridge). But if a theology student believes that a personal god created the world a few thousand years ago, that human beings are damaged from the moment they’re born, and that we require a relationship with this god to avoid spending the rest of eternity in a pit of fire, Harvard Divinity School says, Interesting! Tell us more. And if the student thinks that he’s ‘called’ to don robes and teach these things to other people, HDS says, How can we help?

Thankfully, most HDS students don’t believe all of these things. As long as they’re sort of nice, however, HDS doesn’t really care what its students believe (or what they hope to do in the future). Your theology is okay, my theology is okay. Amidst all this affirmation, the school loses sight of something else: that if you’re going to teach and lead real, suffering human beings, you might have a responsibility to know what you’re talking about.

What Do You Mean By ‘God’?

And here’s the thing: if you’re preaching about metaphysics, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t know what you’re talking about, because these things – the origins and ends of the universe, the existence of gods and devils – simply aren’t knowable to human beings.

I can hear the retort now: if these things aren’t knowable, doesn’t that leave room for faith? No, it doesn’t. Sure, we can’t disprove the existence of a personal god, but that doesn’t make it a 50-50 proposition. Language enables us to formulate all sorts of concepts – god, heaven, unicorns – but that isn’t evidence that they exist. It isn’t evidence of anything at all.

In other words, when it comes to metaphysics, belief and non-belief are not intellectually equivalent. Belief in a personal god requires evidence and argument; non-belief requires none. Beliefs are fragile to error, and error can come from a thousand directions. Non-belief is just a default. [2]

I’m sure that the last couple of paragraphs won’t satisfy hard-core theists. And part of me wants to dive down the rabbit hole, to trot out the traditional ‘arguments’ for god and respond to each of them in turn. But I’m not going to, for two reasons.

First, I never encountered anyone making these arguments at HDS. The school’s lazy pluralism isn’t rooted in theistic argument; it just floats, like ectoplasm.

And second: most of the time, these arguments are smoke screens. Ask yourself: how many people do you know who a) believe in a personal god, and whose faith/commitment/practice is b) premised on rational arguments? Underneath the ‘arguments’ theists tend to bring up, there’s almost always something else – a desire, a need. [3]

This is why the whole “Doesn’t reason leave room for faith?” question is such a red herring – because faith doesn’t care about room. Faith doesn’t exist in the space left over by reason, nor is it reason’s opposite. True faith is indifferent to reason; it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, it’s something people want, and evidence has nothing to do with it.

Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Maybe this kind of hope is good – even necessary – for human beings. But the only way to know is by actually asking questions – and this is precisely what faith doesn’t want to do.

*       *       *

Why do atheists at HDS take ‘god’ concepts seriously to begin with?

When you boil off the fat, here’s the answer: because we’re afraid of being dicks. Because we worry that if we say what we think – that there’s no reason to believe in the existence of supernatural beings, and that such beliefs are usually motivated by fairly straightforward social, cultural, and psychological factors – we’ll sound arrogant. Oh, so you’re smarter than generations of your forebearers and billions of your fellow human beings? This was the subtext of the exchange with my classmate that I described earlier.

Me: Humans need food.

Her: I heard about these people who disagree. And isn’t their perspective kind of beautiful? Why are you being such an asshole?

This isn’t thinking – it’s passive-aggressive helicopter parenting for intellectuals; it’s the behavior of a confused mother hen worried about her chicks playing nice.

And this confusion – mistaking disagreement for disrespect – is precisely why HDS-style ‘openness’ is so profoundly unsatisfying: because it comes at the tip of a moralizing spear. In such a world, openness is no longer a vehicle for learning; it’s a pose. You can believe anything you want – except that gods are silly and that believing in them is harmful. (And if you do believe that, please keep it to yourself!) It’s an ethos that prizes glazy-eyed agreeableness and pretend wonder over real exploration. Sometimes, it leads to irritating conversations like the one above. And sometimes, it prevents important conversations from happening entirely.

*       *       *

My professor was right – religion is more than true-or-false claims about god. But HDS likes to pretend that it’s above these true-or-false questions, that they don’t matter at all.

They plainly do – and anyone who’s the least bit curious knows it. Beliefs are not idle things, and bad beliefs can have unholy consequences. But if these considerations are off the table – if we’re not allowed to ask whether something is true – then we can’t ask whether a falsehood (or a lie) is harmful. And if we can’t explore these questions, then we have no way to think about the wisdom of training young ministers. All we can do is smile and nod encouragingly.

And in the end, maybe HDS is comfortable with that – because if we can’t evaluate what the school is doing, then we can’t ask why it still exists.


1. Though affiliated with the Unitarian Church, (and later, the United Church of Christ) HDS was America’s first officially nondenominational divinity school. It has since been joined by four others – at the University of Chicago, Yale, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest.

2. For this reason, most good philosophy isn’t a matter of constructing beliefs. It’s a matter of de-constructing them – and then figuring out how to live in their absence.

3. The only mildly interesting argument for god is what’s known as the “argument from efficient causation.” It goes like this: Everything is caused, and nothing causes itself. Therefore, there must be a first cause – god. Ultimately, though, this puts us back where we started. (What caused god?) We’re left with two options: a) a universe that comes from nothing or b) infinite regress. Neither makes sense any intuitive sense, and that’s it – that’s as far as we can go.

Even if you prefer the god-as-creator option, though – and you’re willing to kick the ‘Where did god come from?’ can down the road – you’re still left with the thinnest of deities. This creator god is a placeholder, a cog in a logical argument – not a personal god that you could ever know or build a theology on.

  • SteveCastro

    Nice read, we definitely need more honest compassionate conversation about religious beliefs in this world, where we’re actually trying to reach a thoughtful consensus instead of just endless exploration. I tried to foster this with a campus group at DeVry and I think it went well while it lasted.

    For point 3 at the end, I can’t help but interject with something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I agree that neither infinite regress nor something from nothing is especially intuitive, but it must be one or the other. However, I disagree with the implication that everything had a beginning. We *never* see true creation. We only see a rearrangement of materials that were already here. As far as we know the materials themselves have always been here, so it actually seems more consistent to believe that the base materials themselves did not have a beginning.

    Yes it could be that the always existing base material is either inanimate particles or perhaps God himself.

  • Ali Sattar

    So why DOES it matter whether or not God is real?

  • Matt Bieber

    Not sure it does in the abstract, Ali. But as soon as we start building an ethics on the idea, then it starts to matter a whole lot!

  • Grad Student

    I take you to be making at least four claims: 1) HDS overemphasizes practices and underemphasizes beliefs to the extent that 2) when beliefs arise, folks are unable to engage them critically; 3) this is at least partly due to a politically correct culture that confuses disagreement with disrespect and an underlying relativism that can’t discount any position as unworthy of adherence; 4) but through it all, there’s a definite sense of patronization among the cognoscenti toward holders of supernatural beliefs (e.g., traditional Christian teachings about the bible, God, Christ, etc.).

    1) I agree that emphasizing practices to the detriment of beliefs in the study of religion is wrongheaded. Beliefs matter. With that said, unlike perhaps your profs at HDS, I wouldn’t want to draw so bright a line between beliefs and practices. Practices often embody beliefs, but it’s not always so vice versa. You can have disembodied beliefs that leave one wondering what difference they actually make in one’s life. I think shifts in social formations and social practices can cause previously held beliefs to lose the cogency they once had, so that, once disembodied, they become more like relics that have lost their use or ghosts that haunt us. One of the difficulties of belonging to a tradition, religious or other, is figuring out how to maintain fidelity to the past while also accounting and adapting to novelty. It’s not easy. Some get it very wrong. But many don’t have the expressive resources to even have the conversation, which leads me to the next point.

    2) The inability to critically engage beliefs means that HDS isn’t providing its students with the expressive resources necessary to have the kinds of conversations I was referring to in my first point. By expressive resources, I mean the language and concepts to make practical inferential commitments explicit in discursive exchange. Practical inferential commitments are what I meant when I said that practices embody beliefs. Everyone at HDS is committed to something; but not everyone has the language to make those commitments explicit or to offer reasons for them. HDS does its students a disservice by not providing that.

    3) I think HDS’s biggest problem is the underlying relativism that says everyone’s beliefs are equally valid. Part of it is fueled by, what some might call, postmodernism, that is, the retreat from objectivity and an acknowledgement that all knowledge occupies a position in the world and that no one has a God’s eye view. Acknowledging, however, the perspectival, non-foundationalist nature of all knowledge doesn’t mean that everyone is right or that anything goes. We can still aspire to objectivity, even if it isn’t God’s-eye objectivity. This issue ultimately boils down to how one rationally vindicates one’s position. In order to do that, one’s position needs to account for all the strengths and weaknesses of predecessor and competitor positions. That’s not easy. As we’ve learned from the history of philosophy, Platonism, Stoicism, Rationalism, Empiricism, take your pick of isms, didn’t live up to the challenge. Scientism, naturalism, and materialism are all up for debate as well. I doubt any of them, at least in naive, unmodified form, can account for all the strengths and weaknesses of opposing views. That doesn’t necessarily mean that religious or theological views can. It does mean, however, that the rational vindication of our views is an ongoing process with no end in sight in the near future. No ism can be proclaimed the winner because they continually adapt and change to novelty. Some of them are no longer live options because they haven’t adapted to changing social practices and the novel implicit practical inferential commitments they give rise to. But some do adapt.

    4) Finally, I think this is the aspect of your post that I take most issue with. I think the tone and perspective, at times, reveals someone who is uncharitable and derisive towards others. That might be why some people think you’re an asshole for disagreeing. It isn’t so much the disagreement; it’s the condescending, know-it-all tone. Disagreement is fine, but don’t smirk while you’re doing it. I would find that disrespectful. Also, based on your post, one might come away thinking of HDS as a hotbed of evangelicalism or Christian orthodoxy. I don’t know anyone in religious or theological studies, faculty or students, who thinks that HDS is too confessional or too ardent a defender of Christian orthodoxy. It’s widely viewed in most circles as aggressively post-Christian and not a good place to study anything normative (theology and/or ethics). Perhaps the lack of good faculty members in these fields creates an environment where beliefs can’t be discussed. Perhaps this in turn drives away the students who would have the conversations you want to have. I’m not sure. But HDS has never struck me as a place where serious theological discussions are had or where serious Christians go to study theology or prepare for ministry (maybe in the past but not the present). It does strike me as a place where people with kooky, homespun spiritual beliefs go to revel in the politically correct culture of unqualified acceptance of everyone.

  • Gnostic

    “And here’s the thing: if you’re preaching about metaphysics, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t know what you’re talking about, because these things – the origins and ends of the universe, the existence of gods and devils – simply aren’t knowable to human beings.”

    – You just made a metaphysical statement about all of reality. So either you do NOT know what YOU’RE talking about or metaphysical statements are intelligible and you just do not understand them.

    – Metaphysical arguments for the existence of God such as the Cosmological Argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, and Ibn Sina’s Necessary Existent argument do not require one to empirically examine every physical thing in the Universe; all it requires is logic and application of the principle of causation – which is a metaphysical principle and not an empirical one.

    “Ultimately, though, this puts us back where we started. (What caused god?) We’re left with two options: a) a universe that comes from nothing or b) infinite regress. Neither makes sense any intuitive sense, and that’s it – that’s as far as we can go.”

    – Yes, when both Universe coming into being from nothing and infinite regress are eliminated, then the only logical conclusion is that the Universe comes into being from a transcendent non-material cause. Also you do not seem to know the difference between the various kinds of cosmological arguments to begin with.

    – As for “who made god”, that does not even make any sense. If “god” has a cause, then the First Cause is the true God and let theology be centered on the First Cause. If “god” is uncaused, then this “god” is the true God and once again we have a theology.

    “Faith doesn’t exist in the space left over by reason, nor is it reason’s opposite. True faith is indifferent to reason;”

    – What definition of “faith” are you even going by? Thomas Aquinas along with many in the Islamic tradition would completely disagree with you. It is easy to bash “faith” when you have cherry picked definitions from the fideists and later Protestant thinkers and completely ignoring the intellectual history of the concept of faith and reason.

  • Gnostic

    On atheist metaphysic, there is no ground or foundation for an objective ethics and morality. You only have ethical and moral relativism.

  • Ali Sattar

    Who’s “building an ethic,” though? I would say that the people at HDS — faculty and students — aren’t so much building whole new ‘houses’ of worship as they are just changing the carpeting to reorient a particular room, or (in extreme cases) finding new rooms that had always been there but went unexplored.

    No one at the Div School is, imho, trying to build a whole new foundation or to go in and tear down the existing ones.

    Presumably everyone at the Div School has already answered these kinds of ‘foundational’ questions for themselves.

    As an aside re: atheism vs. theism… As a fellow atheist, I get the desire to engage in the Socratic modality with people who’re very self-assured about their own Truth claims… but I’ve basically never found it to be productive. I say this as someone who used to attend meetings of a group called “FLASH” (Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists). It’s just not worth it.

    As a friend of mine best put it: “People who believe in god are going to have the same kinds of existential crises and doubts and moral quandaries as people who don’t — just in different ways. They won’t be any more or less happy if you convert them to ‘Dutiful Post-Enlightenment Empiricism.’ So stop trying.”

  • Alexandra Nina

    Why does it matter if everyone’s definition of truth doesn’t line up precisely with yours? Not only is this establishing one way of perceiving/interpreting reality (which is possibly racist, sexist, and otherwise aligned with hegemonic value systems), I just. Don’t. See. Why. We. Care.

    People with “untrue” beliefs that they try to force on others via major legislation (a la Hobby Lobby) are an issue, yes, but the salient issue here is an insistence that others contort their lives to adhere to beliefs that they do not share. But i don’t care if my friend or neighbor – who doesn’t push legislation, influence policy, or otherwise harass others – believes that the earth was created six thousand years ago (or anything else I might call untrue). Actually, this is one of the things I’ve found valuable at HDS: building relationships with people who see the world differently than I do. This is not only a way to meet wonderful friends, it’s also an exercise in living in the world, where people you know will disagree with you on subjects ranging from the right-to-life to proper lawn maintenance. Rather than “objectively” proving the existence or non-existence of a deity, a more interesting question might be: how are you going to articulate and live your values in a world of diverse opinions? THIS is one of the questions HDS seeks to answer.

  • lmm

    Once upon a time, a project I contributed to decided to move their email program into a “personal information management” section. I thought “that’s stupid” (it didn’t fit in with the rest of the programs there at all), but I didn’t say anything because it seemed harmless; if they want to reclassify the email program, then why not?

    And then, a few months later, they said “we’re not including the personal information management module in this release; it’s a place for unimportant programs, it’s not ready for this release, and it won’t matter if we don’t include it”. All of this was true – except for the email program, which was very different from the rest of the programs in the module. Leaving the email program out of the release would be a big mistake. But because I’d already accepted moving the email program into the personal information management module, I couldn’t possibly make that objection.

    That’s the problem with accepting falsehoods; you don’t know what they’re going to be used to argue for. And you’ve got no way of ever knowing what they’re going to be used to argue for, because a false statement can prove absolutely anything, by the principle of explosion ( ).

    So it’s necessary to stop falsehoods – and let’s not mince words, beliefs in a personal god are not a “definition of truth doesn’t line up precisely with yours”, they are *false* – immediately, even if we don’t see the problem yet. Those who believe absurdities can commit atrocities – and by that time, it’s too late.

  • Eli Sennesh

    The question is not about people’s definitions of truth and how they line up with each-other. The question is about what’s actually true. Your refusal to acknowledge that there is a world-as-such doesn’t make it go away, you know.

  • Eli Sennesh

    Causation is not actually a metaphysical principle, but instead a mathematical one. Read Judea Pearl’s “Causation”.

  • Eli Sennesh

    Not at all true. Ethical naturalism is actually a *stronger* position than divine-command foundations for ethics.

  • Bernie Simon

    Ethical naturalism has its problems, as G. E. Moore showed. And divine command theory is not the only alternative.

  • Eli Sennesh

    Moore didn’t even address actual ethical naturalism, only the Naturalistic Fallacy: “It is natural, therefore it is good”. He failed to address ethical naturalism of the form, “Ethical properties are reducible in such-and-so ways…”, which went on for a long time after him: the Open Question Argument has been refuted time and time over.

  • Bernie Simon

    Ever since Aristotle invented the term, causation has been a part of metaphysics. Bayesian inference does not capture the full sense of the term.

  • Eli Sennesh

    You really need to justify both the statement that “Bayesian inference” (ie: the do-calculus) fail to capture what causation is *and* the rather stronger implied statement that we require metaphysics to do some explanatory work that mathematics cannot possibly perform.

  • Bernie Simon

    G. E. More’s argument was intended to counter the statement “Ethical properties are reducible [to natural phenomena] in such-and-so ways…” Certainly other philosophers have disagreed with him, but there is no clear refutation of his position.

  • Bernie Simon

    That would require a course in philosophy, something I cannot supply in this little box.

  • Eli Sennesh

    And now, unfortunately, I must downvote you. You’ve switched to condescension. Can you find it so unbelievable that I have heard of analytical metaphysics and simply find it uselessly uninformative?

  • Bernie Simon

    I’m not being condescending. The fundamental problem of metaphysics is to justify itself, to show that certain questions are neither empirical or analytic. Just as you don’t walk into class and learn the fundamental theorem of calculus on the first day, you can’t expect justification of metaphysics in a few words.

  • Matt Bieber

    Humans are always the source of our own values. Positing a god doesn’t help. (How would we tell whether it’s a god we’re dealing with, and not a devil? Only by checking its commands against our own conscience.) In other words, the locus of ethical motion always begins – and must begin – with us.

  • Matt Bieber

    I think I agree with all of 1). I’d also ask: what’s the value
    of fighting to maintain fidelity to a tradition? Why not slip ‘n’ slide right into citizen-of-the-world-ism?

    If I follow you, 2) sounds kinda like my dream world. Everyone
    able to say what they believe and why (me included)? Lovely and stirring beginnings.

    On 3) I don’t want to defend ‘rationalism,’ exactly. I just want us to talk about the stuff we can actually talk about. More to say on this soon.

    And on 4), damn. I knew I was venting some long-held frustrations – and that that was going to result in hotter
    words than I might have otherwise chosen – but I don’t think I quite understood that I’d create that impression. Thanks for being honest with me about it.

  • Gnostic

    I dont think you follow what I am saying. Under naturalism, there is no objective ethical system or moral values. If you want objective values (i.e. if rape is always wrong objectively and not because there is some consensus about it), then the ontological ground for such an objective value must transcend the material word, it must be supernatural.

    Now those who brought up divine command ethics – that is a different question. My point has to do with moral ontology and not moral epistemology. It is quite possible that humans can derive and discover the content of the objective values and ethics without any religion or revelation; but these objective values and morals can only exist in an objective sense if they are rooted in something beyond the natural world.

  • DiligentDave

    FYI, doctrine (given by ‘divine revelation’, that is revealed by God to man) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known popularly (or unpopularly, as you may choose), regarding matter includes these teachings—

    “…The elements are eternal…”

    —Doctrine and Covenants – Section 93:33

    7 There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes;

    8 We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.

    —Doctrine and Covenants – Section 131:7 – 8

    There are three basic accounts of the creation of the world given in LDS (Latter-Day Saint), or, “Mormon” scriptures [what includes what I like to also call 'Restoration Scriptures' - Genesis, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham]. In one of these accounts, from the Book of Abraham, found in The Pearl of Great Price, the word “organized” rather than “created” or “made” is the predominant word used to describe / explain the “creation”—

    AND then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.

    —Pearl of Great Price – Abraham 4:1

  • Gnostic

    Causation is a metaphysical principle not a mathematical one. There are different modes and types of causation, yes, but causation itself is metaphysical. And it follows logically from the fact that “from nothing, only nothing comes”. If you deny causation, you must deny the above and instead affirm that it is possible for something to come from nothing and that is a logical contradiction. Therefore, all contingent things and events necessarily have a cause.

    If you drop the principle of causation, then you give up the assumption that is inherent in all inquiry that reality is rational and behaves rationally. If you want to sacrifice reason and logic for atheism, that is your choice, but then you have no right to take issue with anyone’s beliefs – no matter how unsupported by evidence and you have no right to demand evidence for anything because you have already denied logic.

  • Chris Drost

    You can, however, give a hint: in the case of the fundamental theorem, it’s about + operations undoing – operations (and vice versa) even when the things we’re adding become such a panoply of tiny amounts that it’s hard to be clear that we’re still summing, and the things we’re subtracting become so similar that it’s hard to be clear that we’re still subtracting. Similarly, a demonstration that “we require metaphysics to do
    some explanatory work that mathematics cannot possibly perform” can simply point out that we seem to have an awful lot of semantic content which is not syntactic content, but mathematics (which is about forming patterns out of other patterns) cannot itself do semantics but only syntax. For example, we can recognize patterns in how you feel, and patterns in those patterns and so on, but these patterns do not appear to suffice to create a feeling. That’s not a full justification, but it’s a quick pointer to what would be wrong with thinking that it’s all just mathematics.

  • Bernie Simon


    Consider the question, “Is the scientific method valid?” It would not be a sound argument to use the scientific method to answer the question, because that would be assuming what needs to be proved. For example, an answer based on the historical achievements of science would not be valid. One is observing the facts and drawing a conclusion from them. And that is precisely what the scientific method is. Similarly, no empirical argument can answer the question, “Is the scientific method valid?”

    Neither is there an analytic argument to establish the validity of the scientific method. If there were such an argument, it would be true in all possible worlds, since that is a feature of analytic truths. But the scientific method would not be valid in a world where there were no scientific laws at all, a completely chaotic world. Since there is no logical contradiction in assuming such a world, there is no analytic argument to prove the truth of science.

    So the proof of the question “Is the scientific method valid?” must be a proof that is neither empirical or analytic Which makes it a metaphysical proof, by my definition of the term.

  • Eli Sennesh

    You are assuming that we always must use a priori deductive logic. Since you were the one to name the term “Bayesian inference”, you really ought to be able to remember about Cox’s Theorem (an a-priori mathematical justification for using probabilistic reasoning as a logic of plausibility), in which case we become able to check via probabilistic induction whether “the scientific method” works.

    And notably, within inductive, statistical reasoning, both affirmative and falsifying evidence have their place, and our epistemic methods stand.

    The problem with the field of metaphysics is that you assume analytic arguments are actually about possible-worlds (which don’t merely fail to be *real* by lack of connection to reality, but are often *conceptualized* in a way so disconnected from reality that they contain contradictions their inventors don’t know about), rather than about concepts. Conceptual analysis has its place in reasoning, but determining the fundamental nature of reality is not that place.

    (For example, you think you could logically imagine a world in which classical physics holds rather than general relativity, and thus in which the speed of light is variable while time and space are static. In fact, this results in paradoxes as velocities approach, meet, or exceed that of light.)

  • Eli Sennesh

    Never assume it is the place of metaphysics to operate before physics has finished its work. A modern understanding of the Big Bang theory tells us there was no actual time before the Big Bang. Thus, causality did not operate before the Big Bang, as causality is a relation in space-time. Neither was there an uncaused cause: time is more like a videotape than a chain.

  • Bernie Simon

    Cox’s theorem shows that Bayesian probability can be derived from his postulates. It does not show that Bayesian probability is an adequate explanation or model for causality or the scientific method. Probability can only show correlation, not causation. The two concepts are different.

    To restate my argument that there is no analytic answer to the question “Is science valid?”

    1) Any analytic truth is true in all possible worlds.

    2) There is one possible world in which the scientific method is invalid, the chaotic world where there are no natural laws.

    3) Therefore there is no analytic proof that the scientific method is valid.

    You seem to have given a hand wavey argument against the second point. But can you give a more precise argument that the chaotic world is impossible?

  • Matt Bieber

    Right – nobody at HDS is starting from scratch. What I meant was that as soon as you start to think that answering the is-there-or-isn’t-there-a-god question has ethical implications, then how you answer that question matters a ton.

    I agree – going at the ontology tends not to be productive. But often, that’s not because these things are just hard to talk about. It’s frequently because of a certain evasiveness among theists – many of them want the public and interpersonal ethical consequences of their beliefs without being willing or able to defend their beliefs’ metaphysical underpinnings. They deserve no such berth.

  • Matt Bieber

    It sounds as if you’re suggesting that the only satisfactory ethical system is one that’s guaranteed by a ‘transcendent’ source. I disagree, for several reasons:

    1) Wanting a guarantee isn’t an argument – it’s a need. And there’s no reason to think the world will provide for it.

    2) Even if a supernatural being existed, I’m not sure how such an entity could go about guaranteeing an ethical system. Just by saying so?

    You seem worried that without such a being, we’re stuck in a world in which someone can say, “Rape is okay!” But that’s the world we’re in! You and I may think that person is nuts or inhuman or psychopathic or whatever, but no argument will ever prevent that person from responding, “So?” We don’t need to worry that our anti-rape values are unstable just because such a hypothetical person might exist. We just need to make sure they don’t hurt anybody.

  • Josh P

    It’s funny, I had problems with HDS but for a different reason altogether. I just kind of assumed that putting scholars of religion (that is, people who study religion critically) together with religious adherents (who believe so much that they dedicate their lives to religion) would pragmatically have to just leave everything open ended. I took a ministry style class once, and I hated it because it was just touchy feely BS in my opinion. But I came at it as an academic, and I don’t really know what “clergy” need or want, because I never interact with them, being not religious myself.

    My problem with HDS is about how they prepare you for the careers people actually pursue after leaving. A lot of graduates are involved in non-profits, political activism and the like. But HDS totally fails to educate its students on even the most basic political structures of power and change in our country. They leave having a vision of the world they want, but no idea how to make it happen realistically, how to work for it. My experience at the Kennedy School was the opposite, that is, people were very knowledgeable of how change really happens, but were rudderless and blind to anything beyond tomorrow’s headline. I just wish HDS was better at turning passion for change into something more constructive than “dance for peace” or “pray in to end hunger.” Because you have Harvard attached to your name, people are going to think you know what you are talking about. But taking part in totally ineffective “activisms” wastes political willpower, which is a scarce resource. It just makes you feel like you’re a great person, when you’ve really accomplished nothing. I wish HDS really challenged people not with what they believe, but what they are going to do, why it would make a difference, why it would work, etc. That’s just my two cents.

  • Ralph Yeager Roberts

    Mat I graduated with my M.Div from HDS in 1998 but spent the next seven years as the spouse of a student in the THD program so always feel like I got the supersized Div school experience. I am so glad that you raised these issues and agree with so much that I think you were saying we should expect in the way the study of religion and faith is undertaken and the way we approach what we can gain and seek when bringing together people seeking to become religious teachers and leaders of many different religious traditions (and have chosen to do so at a school that was founded to study faith within an academic context that was not beholden to specific doctrinal and sectarian agendas and assumptions)?

    I can recall many times where I saw this polite brand of tolerance and diversity of religious perspectives which seems to cover up a fair amount of laziness and frankly indifference toward those of other faiths. And I have known many who like Josh P found ministry courses to be fuzzy lacking a kind of rigor one might expect at a school like Harvard. There is sometimes another thing that happens in those classes filled with ministry students that they may not have had the chance to experience and that illustrates ways in which the school does and could engage the sort of challenge I would also want the Noah’s Ark teaching Sunday school teacher in your class to have to adress as part of her studies.

    I am a Unitarian Universalist and I suspect that as when I was there we UU’s had a critical mass of people sharing our tradition studying for the ministry which few if any other group at the school shares. We also tended for quite justifiable reasons felt that because of our religious tradition we belonged to the schools history and that history belonged to us in a special way. In addition to actual course work the UUS have an organized campus ministry that conducts weekly chapels, and in my time sponsored their own weekly professional development opportunities on top of the three or four more intensive programs or retreats that would be organized each year. I was part of a group that met twice a month for two years taking turns preparing either a ministerial case study or book review at each meeting. So while I recall courses where things where often kept in the fuzzy politely indifferent and even critically lazy modes like you recall. But I have nearly as many memories of classes where debates where taken up with a fierceness that spilled over and continued in the refectory or over margaritas in the yard. Many times this happened in those ministry classes that so many expect to be touchy feely as one comentor said though it was not always in the ministry classes. Frequently the important dynamism and challenge was possible because all or most of the class where themselves UU allowing dialogue in which we could sometimes take shortcuts into the stickier heart of the issue since we had all been discussing some relevant issue raised in a chapel service or provoked by some issue people doing internships where encountering. Also given the network of support and resources for acclimating to being in div school and even the sometimes unattractive sense of entitlement to speak our mind since we where after all in what we consider our school you could go at things full blast since many of the social rituals and displays which help assure people that disagreements are not posing a significant threat to social belonging and so forth have been addressed suffiecuiently among the UU’s in other settings and can be skipped or truncated in the class debate or discussion and some times where there are also other traditions represented these social niceties that we all rely on could be skipped because we had our group and belonging and sadly might not have felt the imperative to avoid risking discord with those outside our already well defined and maintained connections insuring that we belonged.

    As a specific example that I want to give is when I took a course called Buddhism in America . Now this was a seminar and definitely academic study of religion. Of the maybe 16 students I can recall there being at least 5 UU’s including myself but there may have been on e or tow others I am forgetting. A number identified as buddhist themselves. But the course not only was designed to provoke some critical evaluation of Buddhism in terms of its ability to inspire and sustain social activism which and I think involved the type of engaged challenge across the lines of religious difference you found lacking as it pushed pass awareness and understanding of diverse religious ideas and ways of approaching life but struggled with an area worth questioning in some tradition assuming that there where valid was to explore and evaluate some issue that expected more than the pluralistic fall back argument of validity or invalidity according to the religion’s self contained rational coherence. There was also a session where we had a guest speaker who was a Buddhist chaplain. The UUS in the class had all done our chaplain (CPE) work already so came at the practical issues having recently been doing that same kind of work. The speaker who had grown up in some protestant church and become a buddhist made a number of statements that presented buddhism as superlative to other traditions which all seemed to be characterised by evangelical or mainline sounding beliefs and commitments. It wasn’t a problem that he looked at it that way after all that is why he became a buddhist but Several of the UUs then felt free to counter with how this did or did not hold up to our own view and approach to some part of the work he was doing. I remember it getting heated with me feeling we where arguing things that deserved an answer and could be expected to be answered in a way that was responsible and should offer rational support that ought to compel people of different faiths. I also recall that it felt respectful of difference precisely because it didn’t involve throwing our hands up in the face of differences in tradition but proceeded with a shared willingness to offend and the implication that someone might feasibly be faced with a compelling reason to call their faith into serious doubt the conversation was also marked by a shared dedication academic study and to the idea of religion being to important to get away with evasive talk about how science deals with what is and religion with what should be and so on.

    –So going back to the student who is sharing about her plan to teach kids about Noah’s ark.

    –And our goal is that when she asks a class at harvard to suggest ways to get her lesson across to kids she is going to be asked to deal with compelling concerns over teaching a story she could hardly believe to be true, that shows God to be unlike the other claims she makes as to God’s love and so forth, and to say what value she would be thinking this lesson would have for the students.

    –My suggestion is that one way this can happen is by relying on a different sort of diversity than one where people of all faiths talk respectfully from their distinct starting points but that we be diverse by insuring opportunities in which we are alone with our own group but doing so while also being together with those of different groups. She might be most likely to face that challenge from a setting where she is with other Christians or Jews like herself who will come at the issue with a shared sense of imperative commitment to the advancement and strengthening of that religious tradition. However it may be necessary for members of that common group to have encountered the baffled faces of people who did not grow up telling children that the God who is watching over the world today once got so mad about some inter species marriage and bad actions of people that God could imagine no other solution than a tragic extermination of nearly all life through what where sure to be violent painful deaths for them to have already questioned that story. And if there are enclaves that enjoy the security and ease of talking in the short hand of family, of clan, or of creed that could (provided some other conditions where identified and provided for) — go a long way toward this sort of challenge being taken up in a way that is marked by shared respect for truth and each other where the challenger does not share the same religious commitments as our Ark loving Sunday school teacher.

    Your reasonable question weather The Div school and training of people of faith for religious service are in fact something that Harvard should keep going is one that Peter Gomes used to answer. He would explain how just such a question arose in the 60s and early 70’s and in fact there had been discussions and plans made between the president of the university and the dean of the Div school to basically get out of the seminary business study religion only as a focus of academic inquiry and then largely through other disciplines like sociology. It may have even met little general resistance given the social climate of the day however someone on the Schools legal team learned about these plans and let them know the inescapable realities probate law imposed which where that the schools charter is predicated on Harvard continuing to train people for the work of ministry and at such time that it no longer fulfills this purpose The University and its now 8 Billion endowment along with all other property and holdings would be transferred to the commonwealth and Harvard would become a state school. (The question is still one we should be able to answer but it made me remember Peter telling this story to groups of incoming students.) Great stuff I am definitely going to look at some of your other posts

  • Matt Bieber

    Thanks Ralph! I’d never heard anything about those legal requirements – that’s fascinating. Working on a longer follow-up, so I’ll take a closer look at your comments over the next few weeks.

  • Ralph Yeager Roberts

    No problem. I’ll read those comments that you posted but I must say I am a bit taken aback by some of the responses you are getting. Just not the quality of dialogue I would have expected from HDS grads.

  • Philip Goetz

    Oh, so we should downvote people who use condescension instead of reason in web arguments? Interesting. Fortunately you would never do that.

  • Eli Sennesh

    Actually, my argument is much simpler: there is no such thing as a “possible world” in reality. Any “possible world” is a construct of your mind, which is *always* less than maximally chaotic in the first place.

    Besides which, no *life-form* could actually evolve inside a world constructed as an infinitely Martin-Loef random string. Life-forms are ourselves regularities.

  • Philo Vance

    Christopher Hitchens, who I greatly admired, and admire yet, would be disappointed both in your prose, and in your pose. Your arbitrary markers and breaks, are risible. As for your pose. Why not ask around? It’s obvious to everyone else.

  • Matt

    Hey man, I’m trying to have a conversation here. If you
    disagree with something I’ve said, please say why. But as for this kind of thing – aggressive, cutting – who does this help?

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