The Myth of Religious Neutrality

     On Jan. 23, Eastern University’s Philosophical Society partnered with the Perspectives series to bring in guest speaker Roy Clouser. Dr. Clouser currently holds the position of professor emeritus at the College of New Jersey, where he teaches courses in philosophy and religion. Prior to his teaching position, Clouser completed studies at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary for Theological Studies, Gordon College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Free University of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, he had the honor of studying under the tutelage of renowned philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, something Clouser marks as crucial in the development of his own philosophical works.

     Clouser spoke on “The Myth of Religious Neutrality in Theories.” In the course of this talk, Clouser undertook to demonstrate the impossibility of a religiously-neutral theory, based upon the understandings he established as to what religious beliefs and theories consist of. He defined a religious belief as a first principle, meaning a belief on which all other beliefs are contingent. The ultimate point he made in his lecture was that we are steeped, always, in religion (first principles), even in the circumstances when we would like to think we maintain neutrality, including mathematics. As an example, he  explored how as soon as we attempt to say what 2+2=4 means, we are dependent on first principles: Do these symbols correspond to numbers that exist as Platonic Forms, or are these numbers shorthand for logical axioms, or does the equation simply record a general observation of what has empirically held true thus far in our experience, or is the equation simply a reflection of socially-constructed understanding that we are conditioned to think of as explaining our world? Answering this question requires an appeal to first principles, and thus any theory that we compose is rooted in religious belief and is not neutral.

     The students in attendance seemed to find Dr. Clouser’s talk thought-provoking and were inspired to many questions, both to do with technicalities of the theory and the implications innate to it. The question raised which I found most striking asked: “How do you dialogue between these theories if nothing is shared?” This is to say, how can we put these theories into conversation with one another when they are built upon different first principles? It seems a difficult question to answer and one which appears to me to point to an even greater query: How can those of different faiths have meaningful dialogue with one another? Perhaps this is to do, at least in part, with the same things that make up good conversation: humility, patience, going into a conversation willing to leave it thinking at least a little differently than the way you entered it, listening more than we speak and the like. These are the places in which we must start for any good dialogue. But with such a particular topic, there seems to be more to it than just these things.

     Perhaps when dialoguing between faiths we must not just accept at face value the claim that “nothing is shared” but rather must seek out that which we have in common. At the very least, there is some conception of what is good. Maybe this conception looks different, even drastically so, from religion to religion, but still we have the shared claim that there is some standard of good, apart from and higher than humanity. There is inevitably something which gives value. Perhaps this is a place to begin. We share in common the belief that there is something—perhaps the conversation will help us to determine just what that is as we all work humbly together to seek and to learn more, for we have nothing to fear from the truth.

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