Sunday, March 25, 2012

Faith and the Value of History

Though these posts have entered the blogosphere equivalent of antiquity at this point, I wanted to direct you to a couple of contrasting thoughts about the role of the humanities in the ongoing progress of society. The two voices express deeply contradictory opinions, which is unsurprising that one comes from a thoroughgoing atheist philosopher and the other from a Christian historian. Both are noted in their respective fields and both offer lucid, self-consistent appraisals of the value of the humanities. It is because of this that their disparity is all the more striking and relevant.

First, consider this rosy thought from John Fea's "The Culture Wars Are Real," an answer to the vitriolic mob leashed on him by Glenn Beck:

How can democracy flourish without civility, respect for those with whom we differ, and a sense of mutual understanding? I continue to believe that the answer lies in education, particularly in history and the other humanities. It is these disciplines that have the potential to bring meaningful change to the world because they are rooted in virtues such as intellectual hospitality, empathy, understanding, and civility.

The, in contrast, here are the thoughts of Alex Rosenberg in "An Interview with Alex Rosenberg," an interview over his latest book:

Ultimately what would the success of your arguments mean for the importance of history, the social sciences, literature and the humanities? And what would it mean for philosophy?

My arguments turn the humanities and the interpretative social sciences, especially history, into entertainments. They can’t be knowledge, but they don’t have to be in order to have the greatest importance—emotional, artistic, but not epistemic—in our lives.

If you don't already know, now is the time when you get to guess which author believes in God. I'll give you a hint: the one Glenn Beck got mad at is the Christian. Fea's thoughts certainly reflect a more traditional attitude of Christianity toward the activities of the mind, tying supposedly academic pursuits to moral maturation. It certainly is more endearing to me as a historian than the suggestion that my efforts are little more than amusements, evolutionarily valid but epistemically vacuous. But it is Rosenberg's position that I find more intriguing, mostly because of its almost unbearable consistency. Rosenberg wags his finger at his fellow atheists who reject certain obvious and inevitable conclusions of their position simply because they would be "a public relations nightmare." Which of course they would be, but that is not a valid, scientific reason for rejecting them. Rosenberg courageously and correctly follows atheism down the rabbit hole in an effort to draw more perfect conclusions. Admirably, he does, at least if we define perfection as coherence. For my part, though, I have "always cared more for truth than for consistency."

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