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Responding to a somewhat intemperate remark by Rick Santorum, Arizona State University’s  Lawrence  M. Krauss tells us ” why we need college degrees more than we need faith .”

I could quarrel with him on many grounds, but I’ll focus on this paragraph:

An educated workforce, especially in areas of science and engineering, is the key to economic health in the 21st century, and an informed populace is the basis of a healthy democracy. If it is true that education tends to reduce religious faith then we have to decide which is ultimately more valuable.

He has argued that “those who are more educated have a greater tendency to question their religious faith,” apparently because they have learned “to question pre-conceived notions and to base conclusions on evidence,” which are important abilities in a 21st century economy and democracy.  I agree with these propositions, though with an important caveat.  I think that one of the principal purposes of higher education is to help students cultivate the ability to think critically and carefully, to understand what can be established rationally and empirically, and what cannot .  In this little essay, Professor Krauss hasn’t convinced me that he’s learned the latter lesson.

As for what can be established empirically, while it’s probably true that a preponderance of Ph.D.-level scientists are not orthodox believers, what about those—beginning with John Polkinghorne, moving through the many science faculty at religiously-affiliated colleges and universities, and descending even to the highly trained engineers, computer scientists, and doctors with whom I’ve worshipped over the years—who seem to find a way of reconciling more or less orthodox Christian faith with high octane science education?  To  be sure, Professor Krauss writes with some care about “tendencies,” but perhaps the interesting question he doesn’t address is why some experience the training, but don’t share in the tendency.  What makes them different?  Their intelligence (or lack theerof)?  Some psychological need that their colleagues don’t share?  Or perhaps a different— and yet reasonable —assessment of the nature of the evidence or the considerations one must bring to bear in judging it?

Professor Krauss displays a great—and to my mind unfounded—confidence in the efficacy of enlightenment.  Yes, an informed populace is important for a healthy democracy, but it’s hardly the only or a sufficient requisite.  (Perhaps I should say to him that I’ll refrain from making authoritative public commentary about his area of expertise if he’ll stop making pronouncements in mine.)  At the very least, good citizenship requires character as well as knowledge, and one of the principal and often effective buttresses of civic character is religion.  Yes, there are sinners in the pews, but at least they’re told that their bad behavior is a sin, rather than just a choice.  And yes, there are decent non-believers.  But the consensus in the history of political philsoophy and statesmanship is that republican civic virtue requires a religious foundation.

And even if higher education is often effective in weakening religious faith, there’s little evidence that it does a good job passing along the kind of knowledge that makes for an informed citizenry .

Finally, there’s a word that Professor Krauss uses rather loosely: “If it is true that education tends to reduce religious faith then we have to decide which is ultimately more valuable.”  I might be brought to concede that even Kant’s nation of devils—willing to work hard 24/7 and focused entirely on dying with the most toys—might have a higher gross domestic product than a nation of pious believers who take a day of rest and don’t spend their money in such a way as to maximize their return.  But that word “ultimate” sticks in my craw.

If Professor Krauss thinks that science can tell us what’s ‘ultimately” important, then he’s in for an argument in which neither he, nor I, nor any other human being can have the final word.


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