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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Friday, May 31, 2002  
"To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." Theodore Roosevelt

Thanks to Mark Cameron for getting me rolling on this:

Bates College describes its Commencement speaker, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, as one of the world's most profound thinkers, but you wouldn't guess it from the thin soup he offered graduates this week.

In his address,Weinberg indicted religious thought for the world's troubles, comparing the depredations of Muslim suicide-bombers and mosque-burning Hindu mobs to those of American "religious zealots who try to corrupt the teaching of biological and astronomic science in public schools, who try to ban research on therapeutic cloning...and who, in extreme cases, bomb abortion clinics."

He lauded, by contrast, the "Enlightenment" tradition for advances in free thought and constitutional democracy and the "dedication to principles of equality...inherent in multiculturalism."

In the process he demonstrated a dismissive contempt for religion that was all the more remarkable for the assumption that such disdain was the default view of the educated Bates graduate after four years and $120,000 worth of potted Ivy education. [Not an unfounded assumption: Note the description of the honorary degree that Bates, founded as a Baptist seminary, gave Clinton surgeon-general Joycelen Elders as "an outspoken advocate for the young, the poor and the powerless on such issues as abortion, AIDS and sex education."]

"Like Voltaire, many founders of our country, such as Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison, made frequent references to Providence or the Almighty in their writings," Weinberg said, absolving the Founding Fathers of any real belief in religious hoodoo. "But beyond that they showed no allegiance to any particular religious sect or doctrine.

"I don’t want to go overboard here in praising the Enlightenment. It was a long time before the law recognized [racial] equality. Sexual equality is still not assured. And we seem to be moving away from economic equality...But the Enlightenment did make the world a freer and gentler place than it had ever been before...

"The work of the Enlightenment is really just begun. I call on you, as allies in this work, because you’ve had the sort of secular education that is at the same time a product of the Enlightenment and its bulwark. Your education is not consisted of endless repetition of sacred texts, as in Islamic madrasas or Hindu imitators in India. If you’ve taken course in physics, you probably didn’t even look at Newton’s Principia. And why should you? Your understanding of the laws of motion now is much better than Newton’s was. Any good graduate student today understands general relativity better than Einstein. You’ve been encouraged to be skeptical about what you’ve learned in course in philosophy, in history, and in other subjects. Or at least I hope so...

"I suppose that being part of a grand historical movement is not the thing that’s on your minds this morning as you look forward to a new stage in your lives. But now and then in the future, in your work or voting or in bringing up your children, you may have a chance to push the world a little toward the goals of the Enlightenment. So I want to welcome you to the company of educated, and enlightened, men and women..."

Chucking a backward adherence to religion would seem, then, to be a crucial step on the path to "enlightenment" -- though in the absence of objective moral truths, of the sort revealed by religion, it is unclear what -- or who -- defines exactly what enlightenment entails.

By what authority is tolerance for one's neighbors, or support for political freedom, or opposition to racism, declared enlightened? Without God, is Enlightenment itself a god?

And in the matter of organized religion: Was it behind Nazism? Soviet Communism? Maoism? The killing fields of Pol Pot? How many hundreds of millions were killed in the 20th century by fascist and communist political movements that also swept away religion in appealing to reason and science?

Consider, by contrast, this educational mission statement penned in the late 19th-century by Boston College President Timothy Brosnahan, SJ, who declared "knowledge and intellectual development of themselves have no moral efficacy. Religion only can purify the heart, and guide and strengthen the will...

"...[S]ince men are not made better citizens ' by the mere accumulation of knowledge, without a guiding and controlling force, the principal faculties to be developed are the moral faculties. Moreover, morality is to be taught continuously; it must be the underlying base, the vital force supporting and animating the whole organic structure of education. It must be the atmosphere the student breathes; it must suffuse with its light all that he reads, illuminating what is noble and exposing what is base, giving to the true and false their relative light and shade."

In these comments Fr. Brosnahan echoed the great Cardinal Newman, who wrote in The Idea of a University:

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, no is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness; they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless, . . .

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.


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