I was going to save commentary for this Jeff Jacoby column for the next Wisdom of Doubt post — which I anticipate will be on scriptural literalness — but it’s gotten some buzz today so I will do a short take on it and elaborate later.
Jacoby speaks of a “religious fundamentalist” who wanted to teach at Cambridge University. The would-be teacher believed the world began about six thousand years ago. Yet Cambridge named the guy to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. WTF, you say? Relax; this happened in 1688. The teacher was Sir Isaac Newton.
I don’t have much to add to James Kirchick’s comment.
Not for nothing did John Maynard Keynes remark, upon examining Newton’s large collection of papers relating to alchemy, that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…” Indeed, the logical conclusion of Jacoby’s argument is that university physics departments should teach students how to convert lead into gold.
The scientific revolution began in the 16th century, but even in Newton’s time science was not exactly science yet. Newton lived in a time suspended between pre-modern and modern thought, between mythos and logos. Human consciousness was moving away from a world of mystical revelation, but hadn’t yet fully entered the Age of Reason. Nor was Newton a true fundamentalist as we understand the word today. Fundamentalism wouldn’t be “invented” for a couple more centuries.
What I found most annoying about Jacoby’s column is his implication that if fundamentalists and creationists are shut out of teaching science, this is only because people are prejudiced against religion.
… the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 classified religion with “myths,” “mystical inspiration,” and “superstition” — all of them quite incompatible with scientific study. Michael Dini, a biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, made headlines in 2003 over his policy of denying letters of recommendation for any graduate student who could not “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin. Science and religion, he said in an interview at the time, “shouldn’t overlap.”
But such considerations didn’t keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above.
As far as education is concerned, science and religion shouldn’t overlap. Science classes are for teaching science. Math classes are for teaching math. History classes are for teaching history. If I signed up for a language class, and found that most of the class time would be spent teaching me to dance, or draw, or some other thing beside language, I would be highly annoyed. Some disciplines do overlap — science and math do, at many points. But I say this as a person with a deep regard for both science and religion: it does neither any good to mix them up. I wouldn’t ask Richard Dawkins to teach theology, for example.
If a biology graduate student cannot “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin, then he should not be awarded with a degree. Biology is what it is; it is not whatever Jeff Jacoby wants it to be. If a language major cannot conjugate verbs, he or she shouldn’t get a degree. If a math major can’t do algebra, he should not get a degree. If an English major doesn’t know Shakespeare from spinach, he should not get a degree. Exactly what’s so outrageous about that is beyond me.
In fact, I intend to argue in the next WOD that biblical literalism of the sort Jacoby approves is killing religion. This argument will lean heavily on Joseph Campbell. Stay tuned.