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By Gerd Lüdemann
Free Inquiry 25 (2005/6), p. 35
Symposium on "Secularism – Will It Survive?"
Secularism not only teaches us to base our lives and thinking on
the findings of critical scholarship in both the sciences and the
humanities, but also persuades us to apply critical investigative
tools in every field of academic endeavor. My lifelong study of the
Christian religion illustrates both of these principles.
Theology is a scholarly discipline when it observes the
intellectual protocols of the modern university and bids farewell to
deductive epistemological principles of any kind - including revealed
truth and any privileged knowledge God. Theology becomes a valid
academic discipline insofar as it employs the historical-critical
method's three presuppositions of causality, the potential validity of
analogies, and the reciprocal relationship between historical
phenomena. But this adoption of the atheistic methodology of
secularism demands that traditional religion undergo a Copernican
However it may disenchant the world, true objectivity means
relinquishing the canonicity or sacredness of particular writings, any
claims to a revelation, and all distinctions between orthodoxy and
heresy except those found in historical discourse. This same
even-handedness outlaws dogmatic and theological judgments unsupported
by empirical evidence, and refuses to deal with questions of religious
truth except to compare different truth claims. The scholar of
religion must steer clear of ideologies, but it is obliged to use the
methods and insights of the sciences and humanities, including those
derived from such neighboring disciplines as sociology, psychology and
ethnology, for their illumination of historical phenomena is often
decisive. Its assumptions and conclusions must remain open to peer
review and revision on the sole basis of best evidence.
Therefore petitionary prayer by academic theologians amounts to
self-betrayal. As Huck Finn says, "You can't pray a lie."
Still, though excluded from the ranks of true believers, we can be
religious spirits without religion, hoping by critical secularism to
make the world a better place.