It is very difficult to encourage intellectual inquiry among the growing number of dogmatic college students who believe in the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible and deem rational discourse to be a waste of time, even satanic. ‘Me dangers to a free society of this trend in contemporary Christianity should be confronted by a conscious classroom approach to the challenge: instructors should become familiar with the attitudes and arguments of dogmatic students and adjust approaches accordingly, cultivating friendly rather than adversarial relationships with these students, preparing specifically for the kinds of arguments they will make in class, and directly attacking dogmatism from the standpoint of the instructors discipline.
For any college professor who attempts to encourage critical thinking skills, the classrooms of the 1980s pose numerous problems. One immediate difficulty, for instance, is the MBA generation we are teaching. This generation isn’t particularly interested in discussions that truly challenge us to think and question.
Students of this generation have been passive recipients of media information throughout their lives. They are really not equipped for the active participation the higher education experience should demand. But there is another, and in many ways even more perplexing, difficulty that I face – and that I suspect is faced by colleagues around the country. How do we encourage intellectual inquiry among the growing number of religious dogmatists in the classroom? These are students who consider classroom discourse a vehicle for evangelization, people for whom the academic tradition of rational discourse is deemed a waste of time at best and a tool of the devil at worst.
I believe that the surge of religious dogmatism nationwide has significant implications for the classroom. And I believe that it is incumbent on those of us who teach at the college level to dismantle dogmatism wherever we find it. The question is how to accomplish the task.
There are many signs of this dogmatism in our classrooms. There are students who bring their Bible to the first philosophy class and place it clearly in view atop the desk. This gesture is an open challenge – the professor’s mind against the absolute word of God!
Then there are the students who are all shuffled throughout the class, though nothing seems to be getting into their heads or notebooks, and who come after class to say how interesting it all was and to ask when we might talk about one or two of the points I was making. My evangelism sensors tell me that although I am bound to the ideal of professional student interaction and thus will have to set a time, I am really about to be approached as a “prospect” for conversion.
These are a few of the nanny signs, all painfully recognizable after a few years in the trenches.
The most basic of the dogmas these students uphold is a commitment to the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible. In their provocative work, Holy Terror, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman point out that faith-acceptance has been a part of mainstream religious experience and, in and of itself, represents nothing new. Great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas speak of a realm of faith beyond reason. But in the hands of a dogmatic fundamentalist, such themes are interpreted in such a way that the believer no longer has any self-identity or self- control, and creative and critical thought are deemed inappropriate to the Christian life. One must think only according to the dictates of scripture, or as it really translates, in a way that is servile to a leading evangelists interpretation of scripture. These dictates turn lives into battlegrounds of supernatural powers where even the least significant event is either the work of God or the deception of the devil. Conway and Siegelman provide accounts of individuals, often students, whose emotional well-being was virtually destroyed by such dogmas.
There are, I am sure, many academicians who do not share my perception that dogmatism is a significant problem on the campus. Our entire liberal academic ethos suggests that such a cultural development should not be taken seriously because it is basically irrational. Give it time, we say, and it will go away, as other cultural fads have waxed and waned. I believe this approach, which sees religious dogmatism as temporary and innocuous, is misguided. Indeed, history offers potent reminders that it is possible for academicians to while away their time in detailed professional work as powerful and irrational forces gain control over the minds of the public.
I do not wish to be an alarmist, and it maybe that my concern is idiosyncratic, arising from my status both as an ordained and practicing minister and a philosopher. But it seemsto me that we academicians may well be fiddling away with Nero, as Rome burns around us.
If the leading televangelists, the organizers of the Moral Majority, and countless other dogmatic ministers around the country have their way, free thought in a free society will become anachronistic. though thereis no sign of such an effect in public colleges and universities at this point, the effect of these pressure groups on curricula and textbooks in public elementary, junior high, and high schools is well documented, as is the rapid shift in enrollment from public to ‘Christian’ schools. One of themost alarming indicators of these effects became apparent just recently when the Cobb County (Atlanta) Superintendent of Schools ruled that the discussion of controversial issues of a religious or political nature should be significantly restricted in the classrooms.
Our religiously dogmatic students are coming from a variety of sources, but two religious developments have had a greater impact on the number of these students than anything else. First, there is the charismatic movement of the past two decades, emphasizing spiritual healing and special gifts of the spirit such as speaking in tongues. Given the influence of faith-healing ministries on nationwide television, more and more people who were once in mainline denominations have become charismatic Christians. A Gallup poll commissioned in 1980 by the conservative theological journal, Christianity Today, revealed that approximately 20 percent of American church members consider themselves charismatic. Though traditional and mainline religious leaders Eke to think that the movement has crested, I really see no signs that this is so.
Charismatic Christianity can be a powerful influence for good, but it can also be very destructive, particularly in the classroom. College students are easily attracted to charismatic renewal groups, or “discipleship clubs,” as they are sometimes called. The enthusiasm and spirituality of the participants in such groups often stand in sharp contrast to the “dead and lifeless ritual” to which students are accustomed in their churches back home.
Unfortunately, charismatic groups such as the Maranatha Fellowship deliberately undermine a sense of self-identity on the part of their members. One easily gets lost in the spirit of the whole community under the authority of a powerful leader. Charismatic students do things because God tells them to and they have little interest in “the world, and the things of the world,” especially “human” knowledge, which is contrasted with “spiritual” knowledge. As such, charismatic Christianity seems to me to be a form of gnosticism a dualistic view that denies any value to the material world and guarantees to adherents the secret spiritual wisdom of salvation, a view that has always been rejected as heretical by mainstream Christianity.
Charismatics ask why they should debate, since they already have the truth. Why should they question the Bible, since doubt is of the devil? And why should they learn about nature, since salvation is purely spiritual? As a college student myself in the early 1960s, just prior to the cultural advent of charismatic Christianity, I had a friend who was one of the best natural science students at our school. He became involved with a spiritual Christian group as an upper-class student and under its suggestion burned all of his notebooks in chemistry, physics, etc. His experience is a prototype for contemporary charismatic students who have been transported to the spiritual plane.
The second major source of increase in the number of dogmatic students is the conservative turn in the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists have always been conservative theologically, and a general commitment to the authority of scripture has characterized the denomination since its inception over a hundred years ago. But during the last decade, a strong fundamentalist movement has taken place within the convention. It has been influenced by televangelists who are not Southern Baptists, especially Jerry Falwell, for instance. But it has been orchestrated by wealthy laypersons and ministers in powerful pulpits, some of them, such as the current president, Dr. Charles Staffley of First Baptist in Atlanta, with a large television audience as well. The movement has pitted inerrantists against “moderates” who also acknowledge biblical authority but are willing to use the techniques of critical interpretation long in place in seminaries around the country. Fundamentalists have controlled the presidency in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979, and seem bent on eliminating any vestige of what they call “liberalism” i.e., critical interpretation of scripture, from the Convention.
This has three effects so far as higher education is concerned. Firs4 given the size and strength of the Southern Baptist Convention (14 million plus and dominant in the southern states), many of our students will comefrom churches that condition their youth not to think critically and to have an absolute allegiance to the Bible instead. Second, as dogmatics purge the faculties of Baptist seminaries, colleges, and universities, the very character of education in these institutions will change dramatically. And third, as more Baptist ministers reject thedenomination’s traditional stance on separation of church and state, and become more involved in politics, further pressure will be exerted on local school districts and even state legislatures to dogmatize curricula, texts, and staff in the public school systems.
As I write this article, the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas has just come to a conclusion, and Charles Stanley has been reelected by a 55 percent majority of the messengers (delegates) present On June II, the day of the election, USA Today’s Patrick O’Driscoll asked Stanley to describe the basis of his concern, towhich Stanley replied, “At the base of it is a concern about a very subtle, slow, liberal drift in our seminaries.” To the question, what is so bad about a liberal trend, the incumbent president gave an answer which reminds me of the arguments I have heard in theclassroom
A liberal theology does not grow churches. You see no great evangelical churches from liberal pastors, or great mission churches from liberal churches. They create doubt among the members. When you say the firsteleven chapters of Genesis are allegorical or myth or this, that or the other, you’ve cut the foundation out of the Bible.
Stanley’s first point of response shows clearly what he views as wrong with liberal theology, but it misses the point entirely of whether anything said by liberals might be true. ‘Me sole issue is success at ‘growing churches.’ The second point of response is a classic example of the false dichotomy or slippery slope fallacy in logic, errors made over and over by dogmatic students in my classes. Using false dichotomy, they say that either one must believe the whole Bible is literally true or reject the whole as false. Or, using slippery slope, they say that if one part is rejected then another part will be also, and before long nothing will be left. It is perfectly possible, of course, to accept parts of the Bible as literally true, other parts as symbolically true, and other parts as simply false. But dogmatic church leaders cannot allow such a procedure for it allows individuals themselves to make the distinction. And the movement allows only God, or in reality the spiritual leader, to make the decision as to truth, not the individual. It is very much, though not all, a matter of power. The really sickening aspect of this debate is that educated clergy and theologians around the country the Bible is not literally true, but many of them either deceive themselves or lie to their people because it is important for the people to believe in literal biblical truth. The whole issue provides a nice study of Machiavellian politics, or more directly, an application of Plato’s “Noble Lie.”
Supposing that an increasing number of our students will be dogmatic fundamentalists, how can we fulfillour own calling to academic and intellectual integrity with such a generation? I suggest the following ingredients in a fruitful and morally appropriate response:
1. Be aware of the attitudes you may encounter. We in academe tend to have a model of rational discussion that says, in effect, that we shall all sit around the table and air our views in thereciprocal effort to learn from each other. But in themodem world, as psychologists and sociologists of knowledge have called to our attention, there are often hidden motifs at work in such discussions. It will be helpful for us to be aware that some of our students are propagandists for multimillion dollar organizations with skilled and manipulative leaders who are practicing mind control over their flocks in the electronic church. Once I know that, it immediately alters my participation in a discussion. I know that there is preliminary work to be done prior to the emergence of rational discourse. I recall the disillusionment experienced by some of my students, for instance, in the context of a debate on prominent issues in philosophy when fundamentalists have seized the opportunity to give their testimony, with relevant scriptural quotations appropriately interspersed. If I had been more alert to the interests and intentions of my students, I could have made such comments off-limits.
Also, it pays to be aware of what dogmatic fundamentalists think of anyone who encourages value discussion. Due to the success of the televangelical propaganda machines, “secular humanism” has taken on the significance of other opprobrious epithets such as “communist” in theAmerica of the 1950s. We are the enemy because we encourage freedom of thought.
Once I am aware that to a group of students in my class I am a secular humanist I can again do the spadework that is necessary as a precursor to rational discussion. It must be demonstrated that humanism has a long and rich history, that many Christian theologians have defended a specifically Christian humanism, that many of the great humanists were motivated by their Christian faith, and especially that Christ himself used a specifically humanist criterion for participation in the Kingdom of God when he said thatit depends on the way in which we have treated others, not on religious considerations (Matthew 25: 3I-46).
2. Avoid adversarial relationships with dogmatic students. Itis tempting, I admit, to put such students down with public ridicule, and it is not too difficult to do, given a little practice. But we should recall our own academic intention to discover and share the truth. We want to provide an integrated system of knowledge that will be beneficial to the student and society at large. The basic difference between dogmatists and college professors is that the former believe themselves to be in possession already of what we are struggling to give them, and they have it through an authoritarian, indubitable source. They have sought the truth, and have found it, or so they think. And furthermore, they can show others where it can be found. Their desire for the truth and for a life that makes sense, in other words, is a human desire we all have. It is just that they have absolutised their truth, and have locked out anything that might broaden their perspectives.
As academicians also in search of the truth, we should have a degree of sympathy with these students, while insisting that their truth not be absolutised.
Rather than developing an adversarial relationship, I find it more effective to develop a personal friendship, inviting discussion, prodding them to think, while insisting that I be treated as a person, not a target for evangelization. My concern here may stem from the fact that when I was a college student I was also extremely evangelistic. I know from experience that evangelism can be motivated by concern for other persons. Evangelists are often really trying to help, and not just to get another star in their crown. What evangelism often lacks, however, is respect for other persons. I sometimes ask my most dogmatic students what the golden rule approach to persons of other religious backgrounds would be. Surely such individuals want the entirety of their own personal experience to be respected, whatever conclusions it has led them to. Unfortunately, my students reply that in accord with the golden rule, if they were lost, they would surely want someone to save them!
3. Prepare specifically for the arguments of dogmatic fundamentalists. They study not only from the Bible but from training manuals developed by their spiritual leaders. Campus Crusade, for instance, has training sessions to equip its followers with answers to all kinds of objections, techniques for turning conversations to the desired topic, etc. If we are not prepared for their arguments, we shall look like fools in front of the class, and they win consider it all to be an act of God. I have listed and briefly discussed arguments of students in my article, ‘The Fundamentalist Student and Introductory Philosophy,’ in Teaching Philosophy (July 1984). Here I would like to list a few of those arguments plus several others, along with commentary on each:
The Bible says, “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore the Bible is literally true.
Logically, there are numerous problems with this argument, of course. First, the referent for “scripture’ is the Old Testament, not the New Testament, Most of the latter was not even in existence when Ns passage was written. Second, it begs the question of the truth of the Bible since it comes from the Bible itself. I like to use a parallel argument concerning Islam to illustrate this point:
The Koran says that Mohammad is the Prophet of God. And we know that what the Koran says is true – because it was written by Mohammed, the Prophet of God.
Dogmatic students often argue in a very obnoxious way, as follows:
You are unable to understand the truth of the Bible because you are an unspiritual man [person]. The Bible says, “the unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).
Taken out of context, as these students invariably do, this passage forms the basis for an immunization procedure par excellence. It effectively poisons the well of theopponent. We can protest that the distinction is artificial and unfair, but that will not wash with these students. A better approach is again through the use of counterexample. A parallel goes like this:
You are unable to understand the truth of Marxism because you are part of the capitalist status quo and not the class struggle. Only committed Marxists can understand its truth.
Some fundamentalist students will see the logical parallel and be disturbed by it. Others, I confess, will see the very statement of the counterexample as evidence that their professor is not a spiritual man.
Interpreting the Bible in terms of its symbolic significance is a typical liberal compromise of the faith. Scripture must be interpreted literally or given up altogether.
This argument posits a false dichotomy. But there are other problems as well. First, Jesus taught in parables, a literary and linguistic form that cannot be taken literally. Insistence on a literal interpretation undercuts the intention of his teaching. Second, it is logically impossible to accept the whole as literally true since various accounts contradict each other. Examples are the two creation stories of Genesis 1-2, the accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts, and the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels. Thus, either some of the Bible is not literally true, or God (and believers) can hold two contradictory propositions true at the same time, an assumption which undermines intellectual activity.
We should live by the authority of God, not human beings. The Bible is the word of God; therefore, we should live by its authority.
This argument presupposes that God exists, of course, a claim that some deny (though not many Americans). It begs the question whether the Bible is the word of God, and whether those who wrote it were literally writing as God spoke. Further, Muslims say that the Koran is the word of Allah. Why should we not live by its authority?
The part of the Bible that most people reject is the first part of Genesis, and they reject it because of their commitment to evolution. However, one of the basic principles of modern science implies that evolution cannot possibly be true. The principle of entropy says that the universe is losing its supply of useful energy and is tending toward a state of maximum disorder. If this is so, then it must have had a beginning, as the Bible says, with maximum unity and order and a maximum energy state.
This is indeed an interesting argument, but it is both logically and factually flawed. Logically, the conclusion that follows is only that the universe as we understand it had a beginning, not that it began as or when the Bible says. Factually, within generally entropic systems, it is easily possible to have subsystems which are not entropic, as long as energy is supplied from without. And that is exactly what has happened in the evolutionary development on planet earth.
All of the predictions in the Bible have come true, thus proving it to be the word of God.
In response, we should want to know immediately what predictions the students have in mind. I have found that basically three kinds of predictions are meant: One, the Old Testament predicts that the people of Israel will successfully occupy the promised land if they trust in God, and will be punished if they turn to idols, and these predictions were always fulfilled. Two, the Old Testament predicts the coming of Christ, and he fulfilled its prophecies, exactly. And three, both the Old and New Testaments predict that just before the end of time (the rapture and millennium in fundamentalist doctrine), the people of Israel will be reconstituted, as they have with the formation of modern Israel.
I am a Christian; hence, the idea of Christ as fulfillment of various kinds of anticipations in the thought of the Old Testament is attractive to me. But I have several complaints regarding the argument from prophecy. One, a study of history shows that all people have thought of their successes and failures as results of obedience to their gods, not just Israel. Are the other religions true as well? And even more directly, do we really know that the “prophecies” were written prior to the actual successes and failures? It is altogether possible that the prophecies were written afterward, as a way of understanding and interpreting the fate of the people.
Two, Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy very literally in a few cases. His birth in Bethlehem, for example, fulfillsa prophecy concerning the city from the Book of Micah (5:2), and he consciously fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Otherwise, however, we find only general identification with certain motifs of the prophets, such as the idea of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah or the Son of Man from Daniel. As important as these “fulfillments” are for those of us who believe, it is difficult to maintain them as exact and literal fulfillments of ancient prophecy.
On the other side, there are numerous prophecies that seem, at least, to point to an ultimate military and political victory accomplished through the Messiah, and a final condition of justice and peace. These prophecies were most assuredly not fulfilled in a literal way through Christ, though Christian hermeneutics has provided a nice spiritual interpretation of the victory to be won and has argued that the means through which justice and peace win ultimately be established were at least introduced in the model of love provided by Christ.
And three, the prediction of a return to Israel by a remnant of the people (as in the Old Testament), or the “armies of Heaven” (as in the New, in Revelation, for Armageddon) should be taken as symbols of hope for a victory of good over evil. If we literalize these predictions and conditions for fulfillment contemporary Israel ought to be a holy state, preparing for the final battle with the forces of evil. Rather, what we actually see is a secular state, struggling for survival and integrity in an extremely awkward historical situation.
The Bible has been preserved down through the ages in countless situations in which it should have been lost. Therefore, it is the authoritative word of God.
Of course we should allow for the value of the heroic faith of those who preserved scripture, but there are several problems with theargument Logically, the conclusion is again a non sequitur. Plato’s Republic has also been preserved through the ages. Let us hope it is not all true. Also, however, given the power of the medieval church, it is really no wonder that the Bible was preserved. The genuine miracle is that any secular works were preserved. In addition, there is some problem concerning the identity of the scripture that has been preserved in Christendom. The Bible that modem fundamentalists carry is not the same Bible that Jesus carried. It is not even the Bible finally canonized in the fourth century councils, for the church approved the inclusion of the Apocrypha at that dm (though it was not to have the status of the Old and New Testaments). Rather, it is a Bible growing out of the Protestant Reformation since it was only at this point that the Apocrypha was finally rejected.
There are other arguments, but these are some of the most frequently encountered. They will be used as tools of conversion in the classroom. We need to see how to refute the arguments, but without at the same time destroying the possibility for a more mature faith experience on the part of our students.
Attack dogmatism directly, from the standpoint of your discipline. Unless the basic issue is joined – whether the Bible is inerrant, and what theconsequences of such a view are – dogmatic students will not be particularly interested in any kind of discussion.
For my purposes, this procedure involves at least the following points in a lecture on the philosophy of religion: First, it is now morally unfair to make the assumption regarding the absolute truth of the Bible, given our awareness of other religions. I have personally had the experience of evangelistic encounters with Muslims, and they have shown, at least to my satisfaction, the folly of dogmatic assumptions. As a college student, I went to Indonesia under the Baptist Student Mission program. I recall an encounter there with a young Muslim who was also quite enthusiastic on behalf of his own faith. He pointed out to me that his Koran says that Christians are going to die and go to hell for rejecting Mohammed, and that the Bible says that those who reject Christ (by implication Muslims) will die and go to hell. Then he asked which is right. Needless to say, on the basis of his question and other encounters with persons from non-Christian backgrounds, I had to reevaluate my approach to the Christian faith, mission work, and especially the doctrine of hell!
Second, it is logically impossible to believe in the literal truth of scripture, if only because there are so many different versions of the Bible. Which one is supposed to be the literal truth? Shall I choose the King James version, the New International version, or some other? Fundamentalist students usually assume that all of the versions are based on one set of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but this, of course, is factually false. Not only are there numerous ancient manuscripts, but the specific readings differ in all kinds of ways. For example, a study of 150 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke revealed more than 30,000 different readings. In fact, biblical scholars doubt that there is even one sentence in the entire New Testament on which the manuscript tradition is uniform. Most of these differences are insignificant, but their mere existence constitutes the Achilles’ heel of dogmatism. Proponents of the latter view sometimes retreat to the claim that the original manuscripts were inerrant, though presently extant manuscripts contain all kinds of errors. In response, this is again an immunization procedure since we do not have the originals and could not recognize them if we did. More important, given the number of problems in the extant manuscripts, there is simply no reason to believe the originals were somehow inerrant.
Dogmatic fundamentalism is an extremely dangerous religious posture. It is authoritarian, with a few powerful, charismatic figures at the head and their followers by and large victims. It quashes individuality. It places the believer in an antiquated metaphysical context inhabited by demons and spirits and bereft of scientific explanation. It is immoral, resulting in experiences in which fundamentalists have abused their children by withholding health care or physically exorcising demons. More generally, it is a form of idolatry, namely bibliolatry, in which the Bible is worshipped rather than God. I once had a friend who held up a copy of the Bible and said to me that if anyone ever proved that anything said there was false, he would stop believing. I recoiled somewhat, but did not think too much of it at the time. When we met again several years later, he had, as one should expect, become an agnostic. His god was toppled, as Hegel says all finite expressions of God must be. (This story bothers dogmatic students, I think, more than other arguments I can bring to bear on their position.)
In summary, academicians must respond to their students’ dogmatism whenever the opportunity arises. I have attempted to give a general account of the reasons for the surge of dogmatism in our society and in the classroom, an account of the nature of the encounter with dogmatic students, and some suggestion as to effective procedures for dealing with the position and the students who hold it.
1. Conway, F. and Siegelman, J. (1982). Holy Terror (New York: Doubleday), pp. 199-228.
2. Specifically, discussion of abortion as a means of birth control, and homosexuality in general was prohibited. Discussion in seven other areas were ‘restricted.’ The areas were evolution, abortion as a social problem, communism, religion, the supernatural, values clarification, and areas requiring personal information regarding the practices of families. The restriction is that in these areas any new material to be introduced into the classroom must be approved by the Cobb County School Board first. Atlanta Journal (1984), Nov. 1, pp. 33,38A; Nov. 5, p. IE.
3. The charismatics among us. Christianity Today, 24 (Feb. 22, 1980), pp. 25- 29.
4. Inquiry. USA Today (June 11, 1985), p. I IA.
S. Conway and Siegelman, pp.136-159.
6. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), Vol. 4, p. 595.
David McKenzie, Ph. Dis associate professor of philosophy and head of the Department of religion and Philosophy at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. He is the author of Woffbart PannenbergReligious Philosophy and several articles on the philosophy of religion and theology. He also serves a pastoral appointment in the United Methodist Church.
This article, reprinted with permission, first appeared in Thought & Action, Vol. 11, No.1, Winter 1986, pp. 109-122.
 Conway, F. and Siegelman, J. (1982). Holy Terror (New York: Doubleday), pp. 199-228.
 Specifically, discussion of abortion as a means of birth control, and homosexuality in general was prohibited. Discussion in seven other areas were “restricted.” The areas were evolution, abortion as a social problem, communism, religion, the supernatural, values clarification, and areas requiring personal information regarding the practices of families. The restruction is that in these areas any new material to be introduced into the classroom must be approved by the Cobb County School Board first. Atlanta Journal (1984), Nov. 1, pp. 33, 38A; Nov. 5, p. 1E.
 The charismatics among us. Christianity Today, 24 (Feb. 22, 1980), pp. 25-29.
 Inquiry. USA Today (June 11, 1985), p. 11A.
 Conway and Siegelman, pp. 136-159.
 Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), Vol. 4, p. 595