Christian apologists are forever loosing red herrings for us to chase in an unending quest to justify their faith by pointing to good things created under its historical stewardship.
Like universities and hospitals, which today, admittedly, are among the glories of modern civilization.
However, it’s very debatable — as I will argue further down — whether creating universities and hospitals was inherently a noble pursuit considering the pervasive religious motivations standard in that time after the fall of Rome and throughout the Middle Ages, and later. This made those original institutions subservient first to God, not to expanding knowledge and alleviation of human suffering.
In any event, universities and hospitals are also completely irrelevant to the essential, eternal question regarding supernatural faiths: Are their doctrines based on reality or not? And that is the question that can never be irrefutably answered, which causes theologians and other religious apologists to instinctively redirect the conversation elsewhere: “Look at the impressive universities and hospitals our faith has created throughout the world!”
Well, sure, but what about the invisible deities who you insist govern our lives? That’s what really matters here. If those entities don’t exist, the whole superstructure of belief would crumble, and then it would matter little to the integrity of doctrine whether religions built such edifices or not.
But, it’s interesting nonetheless to examine Christianity’s university- and hospital-building claims — particularly the latter, which was the subject of an excellent April 20 post in Bob Seidensticker’s Cross Examined: Clear Thinking About Christianity blog. It is titled, “Yeah, but Christianity Built Universities!”
In his piece, Seidensticker examines the staunch Christian bona fides of virtually all institutions of higher learning founded in the Middle Ages. It is the first of two posts; the second will be on historical hospitals founded by Christian organizations.
The well-researched initial post points to the challenge inherent in the idea “that we have Christianity to thank for creating universities and nurturing them as they developed into the centers of education that they are today.”
Problematic for the faith’s claim of vindication is that, first, most universities were not founded as centers of liberal learning but of learning about faith (although law, medicine and the classics were also peripherally on offer). Second, virtually all of the legacy universities founded on faith — e.g., Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge — are now emphatically secular institutions of erudite scholarship.
But back in the day, it was all about Christianity.
Indeed, when legendary pioneering English physicist Isaac Newton joined Cambridge, faculty members were required to be ordained Anglican priests, Seidensticker explains in his post. However, although a practicing Christian, Newton held heretical ideas he was loathe to jettison, such as rejection of the “Trinity,” the triune God, and he required a royal exemption in 1675 to accept a teaching appointment without taking holy orders.
Ironically, Seidensticker points out, Newton spent more of his time on theological rather than scientific inquiry (he also was fascinated by the dubious pursuit of alchemy, which sought to turn various base metals into gold), and he wrote a couple of million words on faith.
“What then was the result of all that theological work from such a great mind?” Seidensticker rhetorically asks. “Nothing. He might’ve spent that time playing solitaire for what it taught him about reality and the good it did for Humanity.”
And Newton was far from alone. The Christian religiosity that pervaded Europe before and after his day deeply influenced everything in virtually all Western societies. And just rumors of heresy could get one burned at the stake.
The quotation above tracks a quote I ran across years ago lamenting that one of the greatest tragedies in history was the enormous amount of time that the best minds during the Middle Ages employed in studying theology, or, in other words, “nothing,” rather than subjects in which the world could be practically transformed for the better.
And this miasma of faith wafted for a long time throughout the West, influencing everything, including education establishments.
“106 of the first 108 colleges [in history] were started on the Christian faith,” Seidensticker writes. “By the close of 1860 there were 246 colleges in America. Seventeen of these were state institutions; almost every other one was founded by Christian denominations or by individuals who avowed a religious purpose.”
Since then, a lot of purpose-build Christian colleges and universities have been founded in America, such as Brigham Young University (Mormon, Utah) and Liberty University (Evangelical Christian, Virginia) and Baylor University (Baptist, Texas).
To a degree, U.S. higher education remains accursed by the Christian overlays that accompanied the founding of its top legacy institutions. As Princeton University’s first president, Rev. Jonathan Dickinson (note that he was a reverend), once declared, “Cursed be all that learning that is contrary to the cross of Christ.” Clearly, his concept of “knowledge” was contingent on its correlation to doctrines of faith.
Even though most universities today are non-sectarian and secular, you can bet that some school presidents remain with deep faith assumptions that color their attitudes about knowledge, whether they publicly declare them or not.
Just as the U.S. federal government was created by the Founding Fathers to be secular but the attorney general and others are today publicly clamoring for something akin to a Christian theocracy.
In a sense, all this stuff is just a smoke screen to distract from the fact that nobody, ever, has been able to prove the existence of divinities, which, the more we learn at secular universities, is becoming harder and harder to fathom.
Thanks for that, anyway, Christianity.
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