Taylor: Neutrality of secular Yale an illusion

Yesterday on this page, Samuel Bagg contrasted Yale’s tolerant present with its intolerant past. He applauded Yale’s transition from an exclusivistic training ground for Christian clergymen into an “accepting” training ground for — well, whatever it is that Yale graduates are supposed to be these days. It therefore seemed rather inconsistent when he referred to our campus as a “tightly sealed secular bubble.” After all, can an impenetrable bubble of secularism aptly be called “tolerant”?

Many students would say that it can. Secularism, the theory goes, represents a neutral system of ideas and policies. It allows for peaceful coexistence and cooperation among people espousing a wide variety of values, religions and philosophies. In the public sphere, we can all agree on the “facts,” and in the private sphere we are free to practice our religions and live by our private values. In this sense, we are “tolerant” of people who hold to different religions and values — we simply ask that they not bring them into the public sphere.

However well it may strike our tolerance-obsessed ears, this reasoning is faulty. There is simply no “neutral” way to run a university — nor to teach a class, nor to organize a country, nor even to reason about reality.

Consider perhaps the most radical example of a man striving for unbiased neutrality: René Descartes. He endeavored to disregard everything that had gone before him, to doubt all that he had ever thought before, and then to construct an edifice of objective rationalism upon unshakable foundations. Yet in the very process of striving for a system built upon impartial foundations, Descartes held firmly to certain assumptions that he had yet to justify — that truth is worth striving for.

Now, I would affirm Descartes’ belief in the value of truth. My point, however, is that this belief is not a “neutral” one. It is not unquestionable — indeed, Nietzsche would question it a few centuries later. Without knowing it, Descartes was borrowing from a tradition stretching from the ancient Greek philosophers to the Romans and on through Christendom. That tradition, contrary to many others, believed in a rational universe and affirmed the value of pursuing truth through rational inquiry. Hence, in the act of doing philosophy, Descartes was affirming one of the fundamental features of the very tradition from which he hoped to escape.

When it comes to neutrality, the University cannot hope to fare much better than Descartes. Every University policy, despite any pretensions to impartiality, expresses a particular view of the world and of proper human conduct. The lack of a core curriculum, for instance, presupposes a decidedly non-neutral epistemology. Knowledge is conceived as atomized “facts” that students can gobble up like Pac-Man. And as in the old Apple Jacks tagline, students eat what they like. At Yale, they can even go grocery shopping for classes during the first two weeks of the semester.

Less prominent examples might also be used to demonstrate the inherent non-neutrality of University policies. The ubiquity of condoms around campus suggests that sexual intercourse is an acceptable activity for college undergraduates. Sex Week conveys the same idea. It is not my purpose to counter this idea, but merely to point out that every action on the part of the University sends a certain message. That message makes particular assumptions about right and wrong, the human condition, and even the purpose of life. It is never neutral.

Nor can we consider the assumptions of the modern-day classroom to be neutral. In truth, nearly every discipline has been infiltrated with methodological naturalism such that the realm of the spirit and the supernatural is excluded from the beginning. Scholars are essentially forbidden from appealing to God, miracles, or revelation to account for our experience. Historians cannot talk about providence, scientists cannot talk about the soul, and social scientists cannot talk even about self-sacrificing love.

This is called “tolerance.”

Bagg is right to say that we find ourselves in a bubble of secularism. But this secularism deceives itself when it assumes an air of tolerance and inclusiveness. Sure, people of all faiths and beliefs are allowed to attend Yale. It would be impossible, however, for Yale to enact policies and form curricula that accommodate everyone. One creed will be normative. At Yale, it is the creed of secularism.

Thus, it turns out that Yale is no more tolerant, no more inclusive, than the evangelicals who hold up the Bible as the only source of truth. The only difference is that when it comes to its exclusivity, Yale lacks self-knowledge.


  • Hieronymus


    I look forward to the responses this article will receive.

  • Hieronymus

    Following up re: e.g., the ubiquity of condemns. Too true--and I believe academic literature backs this up--only some small percentage (say, 15%) need be engaged in some activity to deliver to the majority that "everyone is doing it" which, in turn, decreases the resistance and, hence, becomes in some measure a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I call this the "chump factor." You don't want to be the chump. If everyone walks against the light--i.e., jaywalks--why, then, so will you! You don't want to be the chump left standing stupidly on the sidewalk.

    The opposite is true as well: if you are a jaywalker, you consider those who obey the law to be "chumps," out of step with reality, as it were. This bubble mindset can then infiltrate other areas, e.g., politics. Cf. e.g. (via Google, perhaps) the phrase "no one I know voted for Nixon."

    I wonder where are the communities that are truly "tolerant," or whether, even, such can exist…

  • Simon

    Isn't it ironic that Yale points to Evangelical Christians as the epitome of intolerance while Christianity established the foundation of religious tolerance and liberty in our society? Christian principles such as individual choice and responsibility are foundational truths supporting the freedom of religion.

  • MJG

    Very well stated. I know you will get strong reactions from those who fear you want to insert your personal, subjective will against others, but yours is really the only true path to civility & enlightenment - i.e. the path of honesty.

  • Anonymous

    A very provocative article. It suggests that Yale's avoidance of any particular world view is a world view in and of itself…

  • KingZog

    Bryce has performed one of the few remaining sacrilegious acts by arguing that, contra the last 400 years, naturalism is not wertfrei.

    Smashing sacred cows, disputing accepted cultural orthodoxy… I wonder why Mr. Taylor describes himself as a conservative rather than as a radical?

  • adam

    "turns out that Yale is no more tolerant, no more inclusive, than the evangelicals who hold up the Bible as the only source of truth" - this statement, following an article about how secular teaching is based on previous philosophies and therefore has certain prejudices, is an absurd leap in logic. yes, there are prejudices, but you are free to debate them, unlike someone who would hold up any book as "the only source of truth"

    to simon, it is not ironic, since your statement is 1) false (have you ever heard of the renassaince?) and 2) since evangelicals had nothing to do with the freedoms that you are talking about

  • Anonymous

    This article is beyond ridiculous.
    To say that the fact that knowledge is seen as atomized is somehow analogous to imposing a religious system is incredible. In fact, a student is free to organize his studies around some core, for instance studying western cultural tradition while excluding everything else.
    To say that distributing condoms is an ideological statement is a senseless fundamentalist argument. Distributing condoms means that the university accepts the fact of life that people are having sex, and is trying to help them do that in a responsible way.
    Methodological naturalism? You know what? That's what makes science a science. Of course methodological naturalism is privileged. And thanks god, historians cannot talk about providence, simply because there is no way to detect the presence of providence in history.
    Yeah, that damn common sense is really terribly intolerant. I hear they even burn people for professing religion in the classroom.

  • A.D.

    Yes, we believe that a state ought to based on secular principles.

    That seems to be highly preferable to a theocracy, which is really the only alternative — even if the religion is implicit.

    Furthermore, Yale does not believe "Knowledge is conceived as atomized “facts” that students can gobble up like Pac-Man," which seems to entirely contradict the previous sentence. Conversely, it believes that no one "fact" is that important, and that an exploratory and broadly based, liberal arts education is the best way to turn out an intelligent, skeptical, mature young man or woman.

    But truly, my only complaint about the article — well-written it was — is that it claims a "lack of self-knowledge" on Yale's part.


    I, and I believe Yale, are very much aware, and proud, of the fact that one group's claims on truth are not taught in an academic environment as such. There are many gorgeous churches, synagogues, and mosques nearby where such Truths can be discovered.

    All the power to you, but here at Yale, please keep your hands off my mind, off my body, and yes, off my condoms.

  • Anonymous

    I'm forced to argue with Bryce and Hieronymus here: The condom example does not mean that Yale deems sexual intercourse acceptable; it acknowledges the reality that students will be having sex and seeks to minimize the University's perceived responsibility for students who do not engage in safe sex (perhaps it's even a little more altruistic than that). This has little to do with the (embarrassing) point of the piece, but it's an important distinction, especially given H's hilarious assertion that college students wouldn't be having sex if all the cool kids weren't doing it.

  • 90s alumnus

    Well, A.D., you've just disproven Yale's (bogus) claims of tolerance! Thank you. Yale tolerates teaching anything except "claims on truth" for which students need to go to "gorgeous buildings" somewhere else. The real issue here is that Modernity has an overarching truth claim, and the claim is this: nothing can trump personal autonomy, not a cleric, not a baby in the womb, not a religious belief system, not natural law. Anything which challenges this ultimate truth claim simply will not be tolerated at Yale. This secular religion is as restrictive and exclusive as any other, and Yale indeed does not have awareness of itself in this area.

  • catholic

    amorality is immorality. discuss.

    or, in the apocryphal words of edmund burke: "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing"

  • Anonymous

    Whoever wrote response #8 is simply wrong. He/She wrote, "To say that distributing condoms is an ideological statement is a senseless fundamentalist argument. Distributing condoms means that the university accepts the fact of life that people are having sex, and is trying to help them do that in a responsible way." When the university distributes condoms to try to help students have sex "in a responsible way" they are advancing the ideological belief that having sex with a condom is a responsible choice. Condoms break and don't always protect against STD's; thus, it is debateable whether having sex with a condom is a responsible choice over choosing abstinence or using birth control and having one partner.

    Whether or not using a condom makes sex a responsible choice isn't the point, the point is that Taylor is right in saying that everything the university does represents their ideology. A secular bubble is intolerant of any religion's claim to hold objective Truth and merely dismisses the possibility that something might have a supernatural explanation. Keeping religious or spiritual arguments outside of the 'public sphere' isn't neutral; it is intolerant to those ideas and to those individuals. If individuals are allowed to argue for the truth of their naturalistic claims, then individuals with other worldviews should have they same opportunity. Espousing secular humanism isn't being neutral, it is being intolerant to other religious ideas. Yale is not as tolerant, as it likes to believe.

  • dianasfeirfadel

    To Micheal Jacob
    You did the right thing to do.
    If you’ll live as old as your father and may be older (I hope so) you still have at least 30 years to live knowing what you like to do and determined to do it and having the opportunity and the material facilities to do it ( things we often don’t have at a younger age)
    And in the end, like you said, the road to reach target is as important as the target itself.