Does a belief in God hold back students?

Brian Rosner responds to the claim that belief in God is entirely inimical to educational principles

I am a Fitzphile. I read the Fitz Files first thing when the paper arrives on Saturday. And I always turn to the non-sporting version every Sunday. I even own a couple of Peter FitzSimons books. I love his sharp wit and the way he often says out loud what I’m thinking, especially when he mocks the likes of Shane Warne, Greg Norman and Michael Clarke.

But the smirk was wiped off my face on Sunday when, as a Christian and an academic, I was among those mocked in his column on Fred Nile’s opposition to Ethics classes. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Fitz that Ethics should be offered as an alternative to Scripture classes. As currently, by the way, do all of the major Christian denominations.

First there was the swipe at what Fitz calls “divinity classes” in a “secular” school. I lectured in the Faculty of Divinity at Aberdeen University in Scotland in the 1990s. Humph! In 1995 the university celebrated its Quincentenary. Only Medicine and Divinity lasted through the full five hundred years. So much for Divinity finding no place in secular education.

But then came the bold assertion that belief in God is “entirely inimical to educational principles in the first place.” Ouch! I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but I know it wasn’t a compliment. From broadsides in previous columns I suspect he means that belief in God contradicts the content and method of the subjects taught in schools.

Is faith actually anti-intellectual? It’s a common assumption. Many people have said to me over the years that they believe in science rather than God. How have the study of science and the humanities fared when belief in God has some influence?

While there are unfortunate exceptions, historically, belief in God actually spurred the search for knowledge rather than obstructing it. The origin of science is a case in point. It is commonly assumed that the roots of science can be traced back to the Greeks of the sixth century BC. But Aristotle’s polytheistic worldview, with its many gods, none of whom created the eternal universe, could only take things so far.

The worldview that really got science going was the older Hebrew notion that the universe was created and upheld by God. As John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, puts it: “The foundation on which science stands, the base from which its trajectory has swept up to the edge of the universe, has a strong theistic dimension.”

The much-maligned doctrine of creation, which to many Christians is not in opposition to evolution, presumes order in the universe. With his polytheistic worldview Aristotle was left to deduce from fixed principles how the universe ought to be, a methodology that did not permit the universe to speak directly. Belief in a Creator God has meant that for centuries the goal of scientists has been to discover the rational order that has been imposed on the world by God. There’s every reason to look for the laws of nature, if there is a Lawgiver.

Ashkenazi Jews in particular might take umbrage at the Fitz barb. With their theistic worldview, and the ancient notion that study is an act of worship, they have dominated the Nobel Prize for decades. One estimate puts it at 29% of the awards since 1950.

What about the humanities? Is faith an obstacle to the pursuit of music, art, literature? Does believing in “ancient superstitions,” as Fitz labels them, spell the end of delight in such things? A.N. Wilson, who has written biographies of Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, John Milton and Sir Walter Scott, claims the opposite: “most of the great writers and thinkers of the past 1500 years believed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Think Bach, Mozart, Dickens, Dostoevsky, etc. There are too many to mention.

Obviously, none of this means that you have to be a believer to do science or write poetry. But a glance at history exposes the Fitz comment as a baseless and prejudicial insult. Do your homework, Fitz. The history of ideas reveals that education in the Western world has prospered, not in spite of, but precisely because of its Judeo-Christian foundations.

Maybe I owe Michael Clarke an apology.

Dr Brian Rosner is a New Testament Scholar and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald