Maltby: In faith debate, neutrality is a fallacy

It seems that a new staff columnist can kick off controversy from the very first column.

My colleague Sam Bagg had but to file one piece in praise of Yale’s “secular bubble” before facing a rebuttal in print and a slew of online attacks. And that was before he rushed in a follow-up article, clearly feeling under pressure to clarify his position to the Yale community. So I had been thinking I would start my first column with a sketch of my spheres of interest, a flavor of what to expect in the months to come — maybe even an apology for being British (look, about those taxes on tea …) But when I saw a fight stirring, I just had to abandon my plans and jump straight in to the middle of the fray.

Sam is right to rephrase his vision as one of “pluralism” rather than “secularism.” To quote him, “pluralism, where the secular are treated as normal citizens alongside the religious, is different from secularism, where all citizens are forced to be secular.” Maybe not an exhaustive definition, but it will do. The most obvious problem, of course, with the idea of a “pluralistic bubble” is the fallacy that active policies of University “neutrality” have a real impact on day-to-day experience.

No one is actually neutral about religion. And in the ideal world of open discourse, no one could stay neutral about religion. With the exception of a few Bahá’í, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who cannot find a problem with any single doctrine of any major world religion. You might not articulate a preference for any of them, but if pushed, I’m sure even Bagg could add up the negative reactions he feels toward each denomination of Christianity and come out with a sect he considers the least misguided. But if you were really going to provide a neutral framework for enlightening discussion, you’d have to lay out each possible religion on campus like the storefronts of candy shops, and then let people assess for themselves the exact ratio of trans fats to corn syrup they could afford to ingest before, after lengthy rational analysis, plumping for the Lemon Sherbet over the Oreo cookies.

But of course, no one actually chooses a faith like this. And not everything can be reduced to rational analysis. There are limits to most people’s rational dexterity, after all. Which is why the intangible still has a valid role to play in faith. There remain cultural instincts, habits, preferences one picks up from parents and community that are helpful, even if one isn’t quite smart enough to articulate them. For years I took out my house key two streets before I reached home in the evenings, and walked with it in my hand for the last few minutes. I never quite knew why, but I’d seen my mother do it and my neighbors do it and so it seemed natural that I should do it. Years later, I was told that having one’s key ready in advance of the door minimizes time otherwise spent fussing on the stoop, vulnerable to burglary. (There are other reasons, too, but you get the gist.) Just because I had never quite worked out the reason for my behavior didn’t make it valueless.

What concerns me about Bagg’s proposal is the implication that religions that do not promote themselves by reason alone would be excluding themselves from the system of tolerance. Or rather, if we set limits to rationalism, “then we give people of different faiths no choice but to fight for their beliefs on the battlefield.” Even worse, if we overestimate man’s rational capacities, we end up assuming that after years of enough discussion, the consensus of the rational majority will eventually get things right. We are left with the tyranny of that rational majority.

It should come as no surprise that when I mention my Christian faith, I’m greeted with reactions ranging from incredulity (Really? But you seem so cool on women’s rights!) to outright aggression. It’s not an issue that I’m anxious for the University to redress. Students are obsessed with their right to free speech, and a natural extension of that right is the right to offend. If one must talk in terms of rights, I’m actually quite defensive of my right to be offended. In a world in which I can be offended every day once I leave the Yale bubble, I’m glad of the opportunity to practice defending myself now.

For all Bagg’s anxiety to maintain irreverent debate on campus, we haven’t done too badly in recent years. Maybe there used to be a consensus on matters of faith or faithlessness, but at least one key event in our own lifetime has forced us to recognize the centrality of religious controversies to our existence. Try searching for “religion” or “faith” in the News’ online archive. If you search from the day the records begin, Oct. 9, 2000, until Sept. 11, 2001, you’ll get 43 results. Search the same nine-month period from 2007 to 2008 and you’ll get 169 results. As students, we now talk about religion nearly four times as much as we did before Sept. 11. This can only be a good thing.


  • Pref Not To

    I loved what Bragg had to say actually, and found the attacks to be way over the top. I think secularism should be the rule of the day at elite bastions of higher education. Would you really have us believe that there are legions of students walking around on these campuses who believe in talking snakes, etc? I was surprised to read about your Christian faith, but of course, it's your right to believe what you wish regardless of how illogical it may be. I'm an atheist and proud of it, and I hope that other atheists and agnostics at Yale and elsewhere stand up and be counted.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Miss Maltby, for this thoughtful article. Contrary to the commenter above, I think it's important for those who think their secular views make sense (i.e. are rationally indisputable) to consider that large swaths of the student population at Yale might reasonably disagree based on different and yet often perfectly rational premises.

    More importantly, in light of the former article, this article raises the issue of humility, a fundamental component of tolerance. What "Pref Not To" above does not recognize is the fact that, if one can make secularism the rule of the day in either obvious and silly ("oy you, Christians, stop 'yer public prayer - it's offensive!") or subtle and sinister ways (e.g. not providing Kosher/Halal food in dining halls), one could just as easily make a religious totalitarianism and exclusion of atheists the rule of the day. Dominating other religious or secular minorities into silence by intimidation is hardly a worthy goal.

    Even if your particular faith or non-faith could "win" in this fight, is that sort of inconsiderate, intrinsically disrespectful system what you want? I should think not. Tolerance means disagreeing with someone, but nevertheless respecting them as your fellow human being.

    So, "Pref Not To", I'm glad to hear your declaration of tolerance towards Miss Maltby ("it's your right to believe what you wish"), but be careful in your assertion that "secularism should be the rule of the day". The latter statement essentially declares the opposite and is hence far from tolerant, telling believers to believe what they want in their head but to strip the practices of their faith from their daily lives.