Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions


In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

Scholars who promote viewpoint diversity seem to be asking that ideological positions that are not reached through scholarship per se but rather are held as pre-existing convictions should be protected from other academics’ prejudice. For example, we should make sure that an accomplished historian of early modern Japan isn’t denied a job for her opposition to Roe v. Wade or the New Deal. Often these academically unpopular viewpoints are held at least partly as a matter of religious conviction.

But this gets complicated very quickly. The tricky part here is that a “viewpoint” is a set of presuppositions, not a scholarly conclusion, yet at the same time, a set of presuppositions can entail a scholarly conclusion.

Evangelical Christianity, for example, is the viewpoint within which some people have concluded—in what they say is a process of reasoning that any secular scientist could also follow—that the best scientific evidence does not support belief in evolution. If they are correct about their own reasoning, then their evangelicalism, but not their creationism, is a viewpoint; creationism is (or at least can be) a scientific conclusion instead.

Non-evangelicals (and evangelicals who believe in evolution) typically reject the creationists’ understanding of their own reasoning process. They often believe the creationists’ viewpoint and conclusions are basically one and the same, because they have embraced a view of the Bible that does not allow them to agree with the scientific conclusions of other scholars no matter where the evidence leads.

But interestingly, most of the academy’s secular advocates of viewpoint diversity, in my experience, do not believe that creationism should be treated as an acceptable scientific conclusion. They’re often quite vocal about this, in fact. They volunteer it frequently as an example of viewpoint diversity’s proper limits. That puts them in the odd position of either deciding, apparently arbitrarily, that certain viewpoints should be banned from the academy after all (“Well, of course we don’t mean that one should be tolerated!”), or agreeing with the creationists about the basic nature of their beliefs—rejecting the idea that creationism is actually a “viewpoint,” and subjecting it instead to other scholars’ critical judgment as a purported scientific conclusion.

Compounding the dilemma, however, is that evangelical creationists do typically believe that excluding them from the academy on scientific-conclusion grounds amounts necessarily to religious discrimination. This appears to require them to assume that creationism is a pre-scholarly viewpoint after all.

So the entire discussion tends to be incoherent and frustrating for everyone involved.

I fear I’m straying from L.D. Burnett’s point already, but I think this example may help clarify the dilemmas faced by historians.

Burnett uses the example of Americans who have held, with sincere religious conviction, that slavery was morally right or that racial segregation is ordained by divine law. These religious beliefs still exist in America, and they’ve been very common in the recent past. Either way, they come up in the U.S. history classroom (and historical research) all the time. Should historians treat them as academically respectable by virtue of representing a sincere religious viewpoint?

I think almost everyone in the academy today, religious or not, would say no. But the reasons will vary. Oddly enough, to defend the idea that fundamentalist segregationism should be out of bounds in the academy, it’s the people who want most to salvage the respectability of the underlying fundamentalist viewpoint who may have to take it the least seriously as a living system of thought.

Here’s what I mean. It’s entirely possible in theory to separate the viewpoint from the conclusion in this case. In fact, it’s not difficult at all to imagine a historian who, e.g., holds no animus at all toward fundamentalist Baptists as such, yet emphatically rejects the religious racial segregation demanded until fairly recently by such a prominent institution as Bob Jones University. Viewpoint respectable, conclusions reprehensible. Easy.

Yet the segregationist fundamentalist Baptists in question, as far as I can tell, do not accept that distinction. They believe that their support for racial segregation is required by their faith and intrinsic to their religious identity.

We have a case, then, where academic tolerance requires formulating a fundamentally different view of religious belief from the one held by the believers. A view that assumes the believers are wrong about the nature of their own faith.

I’m not sure that’s a valid thing for a historian to do, frankly.

Like L.D. Burnett, I find repellent any notion that my scholarship is shaped by anti-religious (or anti-specific-religion) animus, and this is partly because of my own religious convictions. I go out of my way to treat religious belief seriously and respectfully—on its own terms, as a source of keen intellectual interest, and because I recognize its practical importance. I don’t think you can effectively practice American history any other way.

But it’s because I take religion seriously and respectfully that I, too, reject special pleading. And when somebody says that an idea I have to reject is a crucial part of their own religious beliefs, well, I try to respect them enough to believe them.

But this is only one dimension of the question Burnett raises.


Image: The Cornwallville Church, a former Methodist meetinghouse, now part of The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Photograph by the author.

This post has been updated slightly to clarify a thought.