Harvey Cox, Jr.
Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide
Harvery Cox, Jr. is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and author of many books, including When Jesus Came to Harvard.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide.” Harvard professor Harvey Cox was the best-selling voice of secularism in America in the 1960s. He’s watched the rise of what some call the New Atheism of figures like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins with a sense of déjà vu. And he says that either-or debates obscure the fascinating conversation between faith and other forms of knowledge that is unfolding in our time, from education to science, from economics to medicine.
MR. HARVEY COX: We have issues coming up in virtually every field that exceed the limits of that particular discipline and need other disciplines to help illuminate the question, and especially need ethics and moral reasoning and religion, philosophy in the mix. Not giving the answers, but part of the conversation.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Must we see atheism and religion as enemies? This hour, we explore another way forward. My guest, Harvard professor Harvey Cox, has had a sense of déjà vu as he’s watched the rise of what some call the New Atheism of figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Harvey Cox was the best-selling voice of secularism in America in the 1960s. But he says that era’s embrace of secularism lead, for example, to a faith in the omnipotence of the market. And the real story of our time, as he sees it, is a new conversation between religious and other kinds of knowledge, from education to science, from economics to medicine.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide.”
Atheism and secularism accompanied religion into the modern era in the West, and our cultures have been shaped by the tension between them. Friedrich Nietzsche galvanized the late 19th century with his declaration that God is dead; Karl Marx famously diagnosed religion as the opium of the people.
And in 1965, Harvey Cox’s first book, The Secular City, became a catalyst for national discussion. The Secular City echoed the predictions of leading sociologists and pundits of the mid-20th century. They had reached a broad consensus that urban civilization, technology, and pluralism would finally marginalize religion.
But in the years that followed, Harvey Cox became a fascinated observer of the vitality with which religion in many forms continued to flourish. In four decades now at Harvard, he’s studied and taught about moral reasoning in a pluralistic society, Latin American liberation theology, global Pentecostalism, and global Islam. Harvey Cox says that either-or debates between belief and unbelief obscure the truly important interplay between them. This is true today, he says, and it was true in 1965.
MR. COX: Of course, what I was doing was trying to make some kind of a theological response to what all of the cultural observers and sociologists and so on were saying about the decline, the imminent decline of religion due to urbanization and technology and higher literacy rates and all that, and really asking the question, what does this mean for Christianity to live in such a world? And the original title, you’ll love this, Krista, the original title…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. COX: …of that book was God in the Secular City.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. COX: Yes. That was the original title. And the publishers, because I wanted to say, look, the marginalization of religious institutions, for example…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: …does not mean that God is gone. God is not confined to religious institutions.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: A Biblical understanding of God is God is present in history and nature and people and institutions of all. That…
MS. TIPPETT: And, in fact, in what is secular, right?
MR. COX: In the secular, yes, indeed, in the secular. But the publisher said, no, no, no. That’s not a good title. That’s too elaborate. Let’s just call it The Secular City.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not interesting. Have you wondered whether it would’ve sold as many copies or…
MR. COX: I don’t think it would have. I don’t think it would have, but it’s all speculation. It’s all speculation.
MS. TIPPETT: So what you were describing, you know, one way of saying it, and that you saw this also extended into the 1960s was kind of an exhaustion of religious forms of institutions. It didn’t seem to quite fit anymore, that they weren’t vital in the way they’ve been. I think perhaps what has so captured people’s imagination with these new New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, is that they are looking at religion gone amok, right? They are looking…
MR. COX: Oh, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? It’s religion that’s violent, that is corrupt, really religion as an evil.
MR. COX: That’s true. That’s true, but that’s also not a particularly new argument. I mean, the indictment of religion because of all the bad things religious people and religious leaders have done over the centuries is a fairly well-rehearsed narrative. And God knows, they’ve done a lot of bad things over — and not only recently.
But whether that would be, take you from religious people do bad things to religion or belief in, faith in God is somehow substantively wrong or misleading or incorrect, I don’t quite know how they make that step. Two things they forget. One is that we’ve lived through a century before in which the cruelest and most destructive ideologies have been antireligious.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: And in the name of this or that, so…
MS. TIPPETT: Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao and Hitler, right.
MR. COX: Hitler and Pol Pot and all the rest, yes, Mao — and that somehow doesn’t get dealt with in these books. They also use these scientific arguments. And they haven’t quite come to terms with the new, what I — you might call the new humility of scientists.
This is something that’s really impressed me here at Harvard, is the recognition on the part of the best scientists of what science can do and can do very well, and has proven it can do, and what good science doesn’t try to do. Because it — if you’re sticking with the scientific method, I taught a course here for a couple of years with the late Stephen Jay Gould.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, I read about that.
MR. COX: Well, first of all, he was a friend. He was a colleague. And may he rest in peace. He was a wonderful human being. And he had an understanding, as a superb scientist, of the relationship between science and religion, which is just so much more sophisticated and nuanced than these New Atheists have.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, tell me about it. Flesh that out for me.
MR. COX: Well, he — let me recommend the book.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. COX: Which is his book called Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould, which is all about science and religion. And what he says in that book, and I agree with him, is that these are two different projects. He calls them two different magisteria. And the purposes overlap at times and the frontier is not entirely clear. But science investigates, measures, tries to determine the causes — the immediate causes of things — and helps us to understand the entire environment, human and nonhuman, that we live in.
But when you ask the question of value, what should we do? Or what is the meaning of this or that from everything from the universe and the cosmos to human life? Science as science doesn’t have any competence in that area. And this is the area that religion, religions over many, many millennia have dealt with, coped with, thought about. And we need them both as full human beings.
MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Harvey Cox. Here’s a reading from Stephen Jay Gould’s 1999 book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.
READER: I’m not a believer. I am an agnostic in the wise sense of T.H. Huxley, who coined the word in identifying such open-minded skepticism as the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know. Nonetheless … I have a great respect for religion. The subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution, paleontology, and baseball). Much of this fascination lies in the stunning historical paradox that organized religion has fostered throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger.
I believe with all my heart in a respectful, even loving, concordat between the magisteria of science and religion … on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution. [This] also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility leads to important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions. We would do well to embrace the principle and enjoy the consequences.
MS. TIPPETT: There has been a growing global dialogue in recent years between religious thinkers and scientists across many disciplines — astronomy, physics, biology. My guest, Harvey Cox, is especially intrigued by a pragmatic new alliance between religious leaders and secular humanist environmental scientists.
The sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, who’s been dubbed Darwin’s natural heir, has contributed to that movement with a book called The Creation. And alongside titles like The God Delusion and God Is Not Great, The New York Times best-seller list this past year has also included geneticist Francis Collins’s account of his deepened faith while heading the Human Genome Project.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, people have been asking me all these months if I would interview Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and I’ve been thinking about that. And one of the things I’m doing is having this conservation with you because I think important issues are raised. One of the things I’ve said is I haven’t interviewed Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens for the same reason I never interviewed Jerry Falwell, which is that he had all the answers for himself and everyone else. I’m not even saying that to pass judgment on what they have to say. It’s a stance that I’m opposed to as much as anything else.
MR. COX: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Is that, it’s — you can be very highly educated and also be very strident and also close out of your discourse important issues, which are current and new forms of thinking, and really not be in touch with the current state of the dialogue. That’s what bothers me about them. They really don’t seem to be interested or don’t have the time or the discipline to engage or to tune in to this really quite remarkable, new series of conversations that’s going on.
We have one going on here now about evolution that involves most people at Harvard. And my colleague, Sarah Coakley is heading a project here on theology and evolution, drawing in, oh, physicists, cosmologists, theologians of, professors of religion. It’s cutting edge and no evidence of that is in either of those books.
MS. TIPPETT: So I know that when your book came out, The Secular City, in 1965, I think you’ve written that the incredible sales surprised you, surprise your publisher. And I think the sales of Christopher Hitchens’s books and Richard Dawkins’s have also, and these others, Sam Harris, you know, Daniel Dennett, have surprised many people. Do you think that they are tapping into something similar to what you tapped into in 1965? And what is that?
MR. COX: Secular City came about in the middle of the ’60s, when everybody was open to a lot of new and interesting things, religion — Second Vatican Council was happening, you know?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: It just finished. And then there was the religious opposition to the war in Vietnam. Religion, in a way, then different from the way it is now, was very much on people’s minds. And remember, there were millions and millions of Catholics, at that time, who had just lived through the Second Vatican Council that was — it ended in ’65…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: …when Secular City came out, who were encouraged by their own church, you know, to think more broadly and more deeply, more ecumenically. And they had John XXIII who was a, really kind of opening the windows of the Church. And so I think that I was lucky that Secular City hit at just the moment when people were looking around for things. And it picked up on that audience.
MS. TIPPETT: And so do you think that it’s the same dynamic now that — and clearly religion has been out so much more on the surface in the 21st century, I mean, since 9/11 and before and beyond?
MR. COX: I think it’s some of that. And it’s, well, I said a little earlier, I mean, in many places, including the religious right in America and the most militant jihadist Islam. And I think in the Catholic Church now there’s kind of regression back to something almost pre-Vatican II.
And everywhere you look, there’s a kind of a religion on the horizon, which is, for many people, ominous and threatening and not promising. And, you know, it’s closing windows instead of opening them in a way. So I think there’s an uneasiness on the part of a lot of people. What’s going on here? I mean, all these religious movements and everything. And to have books that claim, at least, to address that issue would naturally respond to that interest, although I don’t think they respond to it very well.
MS. TIPPETT: Harvard professor Harvey Cox. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide.” Here’s a reading from Harvey Cox’s forward to a 2001 book of essays honoring his contribution to modern theology. It’s titled Religion in the Secular City.
READER: What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does secularization have to do with religious proliferation and pluralism? The answer to both questions is the same. Athens and Jerusalem have created a whole history through their interaction with each other, and so have religion and secularization. In both cases, as soon as one achieves a kind of dominance, the other swoops back from exile to challenge it. When reason and intellect begin to ride high, they invariably make unrealistic claims. And faith and intuition awaken to question their hegemony. Then, just as the sacral begins to feel its oats and reach out for civilizational supremacy, reason and cognition question its pretentiousness. In past eras, this seesaw battle often took centuries. Today, events move more swiftly.
Harvey Cox, from the foreword to Religion in the Secular City.
MS. TIPPETT: I think something that I found in your writing, that I’ve found very helpful in thinking about how this religion versus secularization debate is kind of cyclical. You, you talked about the linked dynamics of the poles of Athens and Jerusalem. When I read that, though, this pendulum is inside each of us, right? It’s in the sweep of our lives, most of us.
MR. COX: Oh, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think most of us hold these two places, these kinds of questions back and forth in some kind of truce or creative tension and don’t find ourselves, don’t recognize the utterly divided irreconcilable poles that these public debates then represent.
MR. COX: I think you’re entirely right, that this is something that goes on inside all of us, I would say, even inside the most ardent fundamentalist, who, of any — who, in the dark of night or early morning hours, might begin to doubt his or her utter and complete assurance about this or that, or the skeptic who, equally in the dark of night, begins to wonder whether his or her skepticism or agnosticism is really something he can live with.
I was over in Milan a few years ago as the guest of the cardinal, archbishop of Milan whose name is Martini. He’s now moved to Jerusalem. He’s a biblical scholar. You may recall, he was a candidate for the papacy. He got some votes before Benedict actually won.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, right.
MR. COX: Martini is a Jesuit. And he sponsors a lectureship in Milan every year called the Lectureship for Nonbelievers. And he introduced it, the year I was there, by saying, ‘Look, when I say this is a lectureship for nonbelievers, it doesn’t mean anything about all of you who are attending. Belief and non-belief run down through the middle of each of us, including myself, a cardinal of the church.’ I thought, this is just terrific. This is a guy who’s really making explicit what so many people feel and know about themselves, but are reluctant to talk about very often.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, what I feel in my experiences of doing this program and through the interviews and through the responses we get from listeners is, you know, just as religious labels and religious words got loaded and confining for people, I feel also that what I’m hearing is that the words atheist and agnostic became limiting boxes for many people. That atheists and agnostics have spiritual lives, that, as you say, these moral questions don’t go away in the absence of a belief in God. Yeah, I just feel like even though there is a resonance with those ideas, just as there is, has been a resonance with extreme forms of religion, there’s also something really generous and interesting and creative going on kind of in the middle.
MR. COX: Yes. You know, I have the same intuition. And I don’t have any particular pile of evidence for it. But I — it is kind of a feeling I have that we’re moving into an era now in which these kinds of conversations may be more fruitful, more productive, more interesting. And I’m especially cheered by the differentiation that’s appearing now within the evangelical community in America, with younger, new leadership coming up and with the, sort of the old guys passing from the scene — Jerry Falwell is now dead. Robertson is really pretty old. And the young, new leadership with interest in poverty, and in climate change and in…
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. COX: …helping the poor and expanding the social horizon, the social-issues horizon of evangelicalism, and also a much more generous ecumenical attitude. I mean, these are people who are willing to cooperate with mainline Protestants and Catholics and Muslims and others on these issues…
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. COX: …which their, a previous generation would not have thought of. I mean, and I, as I said just a few minutes ago, I find among my colleagues here at Harvard University, which is, in which there are a lot of people who would probably call themselves agnostic. They’re not stridently antireligious. They’re really interested in conversations about this. And, you know, the religious studies programs that we have here is growing every year. More and more students are interested in…
MS. TIPPETT: Is that for the undergraduates?
MR. COX: The undergraduates, yeah, are interested in these courses and sign up for them in droves. And we have to keep adding faculty members. And we have all this kind of interdepartmental conversations. So I think, I have the same intuition that we’re standing at the threshold of a very interesting stage in all of these conversations.
MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Harvey Cox. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more about what Harvey Cox calls religion’s dramatic return to Harvard in recent years.
MR. COX: It was really sort of embarrassing for people to admit that they hadn’t any kind of interest in religion. It was very peripheral, very marginal. And it was viewed as sort of a quaint interest. You know, maybe like coin collecting or something. You want to do that, that’s fine.
MS. TIPPETT: Also, Harvey Cox’s observation that secularized America simply transmuted its faith to the omnipresent, omnipotent market.
In many ways, our radio program is just the beginning. Weigh in with your thoughts on the atheism-religion divide at speakingoffaith.org. You can also download MP3s of this program through our Web site, our SOF podcast and in our weekly e-mail newsletter. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faithcomes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide.”
With theologian Harvey Cox, we’re looking beyond the either-or choice that popular culture sometimes sets up between religion and rationality. Cox’s book The Secular Citywas a symbol for erudite 1960s predictions of the decline of religion. But he and his colleagues gradually saw that religion had not diminished in influence in most of the world, nor had it retreated to the private sphere in the U.S.
By the 1980s, they watched evangelical Christianity enter U.S. political life in a whole new way. The doctrines and politics of the moral majority became the stuff of nightly news. Less publicized were more searching deliberations about the role between religion and culture in centers of education and leadership, including Harvard University. Harvey Cox has taught there for over 40 years now, and he told part of this story in a 2004 book, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a very interesting story to me. You wrote in the early 1980s. The faculty of Harvard College asked you to teach a course on Jesus in the Moral Reasoning division of the undergraduate curriculum. “The faculty had created this program after deciding that the university could no longer ignore growing embarrassment. Why were we hearing so much about insider trading, sleazy legal practices, doctors more interested in profits than patients and scientists who fudged the data? Worse, still, why were some of the culprits our own graduates?”
MR. COX: Right. I — there was a growing feeling here that we couldn’t simply neglect this whole field of values and meaning and moral reasoning, and so on, and assume that the students were picking this up elsewhere…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: …while they were learning their history and their science in the classrooms here. So they introduced this requirement. Now, every student at Harvard had to take one course in, in what they call moral reasoning for a graduation requirement. Now, there were about 35 courses that they introduced, eventually, so the students would have a choice. But among all of these, they thought there ought to be a course on Jesus, since even the agnostics thought, well, He’s been pretty influential.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: There is moral reasoning over a while. So that ought to be part of the mix. I think what, what surprised people was that as these courses were rolled out and students began choosing them, an enormous number — I mean, I, I really mean enormous — hundreds and hundreds signed up for the Jesus course.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: And this was not, I have to say, because of my great eloquence. I mean, they signed up for it not even knowing who I was, at least at the beginning. And I was a little hesitant because I knew there were going to be students in there who were Jewish, who were Muslim, Hindu, skeptics…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: …Catholics, evangelicals, all the rest. How was I going to present Jesus as a source for moral reasoning about issues, personal and public issues, into such a mixed congregation? This is not like preaching in a church or…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: …or something like that. And I found, within a couple of years, that Jesus is much larger than the church or than Christianity. Jesus is a very, very popular and interesting figure across the board. There are films, there are books, there are novels, there are rock songs, and all these stuff. Now, you have to really help the students to understand who Jesus was and who He is for most people. But…
MS. TIPPETT: And how you would work with Jesus’ life and teachings as a source of moral reasoning.
MR. COX: Exactly. Without simply thumbing the Bible open and looking for a verse that’s going to justify…
MS. TIPPETT: Saying, here are the answers.
MR. COX: Yeah. It certainly convinced me that there are a lot of open minds there about moral reasoning and about the need for a religious dimension in moral reasoning.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s so interesting, you wrote that after a couple of years, you had 700 or 800 undergraduates taking this course every year and the president of the university took you out to lunch to try to figure out what was going on.
MR. COX: He said, are you giving out popcorn there? What is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Here’s something I want to ask you, though. I mean, so, you know, we started back in 1965 with your book The Secular City, and it’s true that even though, even 20 years later, you were coming out and the sociologists who were predicting the end of religion in the ’60s were coming out and saying, ‘Well, that hasn’t happened.’ But there was a separation in our society, kind of a, kind of that, you know, that wall of separation got drawn down the middle of every discipline.
What you were encountering was that there’s a longing to reconnect these things, not by theocracy, which is the battle cry that comes up, but to put these kinds of ideas and questions back in the mix of education.
MR. COX: Oh, yeah. I think that’s exactly what’s happening. And it’s — after all, many of these things were, at one time, closer together. Healing and faith, for example, for millennia, and with the rise of scientific medicine drew this line or even erected this wall for a while, but one of the most astonishing changes for me to have watched over the last 20 years, for example, is the change in the attitude amongst medical practitioners and researchers about the role of faith in healing. I mean, it’s just amazing to see this. I mean, Harvard, Harvard Medical School, for example, just announced a few weeks ago a conference sponsored by the Harvard Medical School on spirituality and healing.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: Now, for that to have happened, even 20, 25 years ago, would have been impossible. So I think people have come to the point where they recognize that this fragmentation and separation has gotten us nowhere and that we have issues coming up in virtually every field that exceed the limits of that particular discipline and need other disciplines to help illuminate the question and especially need the disciplines of ethics and moral reasoning and religion, philosophy, and all the rest in the mix, not giving the answers…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: …but part of the conversation. I mean, that’s — you’re right. It’s certainly not a theocracy and it should not be. It, but it’s an enriched conversation now. And it’s a wonderful time, really, to be part of this because of the welcome attitude that most people have now about all this.
MS. TIPPETT: And here is where it gets tricky. I mean, well, here’s what we’re kind of dancing around and figuring out also is you, at that time, when you started teaching the course on Jesus and moral reasoning at Harvard U, people worry that it would somehow be proselytizing and you had to defend yourself. It’s, you know, same thing when I start public radio program about religion, people worry that it will be proselytizing.
MR. COX: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So there’s kind of an assumption — an educated assumption, an instinct — that it’s not possible to speak deeply about these things without proselytizing. And how do you, what have you learned about that and what wisdom were you offered to that fear that’s out there?
MR. COX: Yeah. The fear that whenever you bring up religion, you’re going to try to proselytize people is surely, certainly there. It’s certainly — we had this discussion just last year. We were talking about a new curriculum. And virtually, everybody or the vast majority of people on the faculty said, look, we — it’s really irresponsible to turn students out in to this modern world for leadership positions and government business, media whatever without their knowing something about religion. And religions are given the — given the role that religions are playing, therefore we ought to have a requirement. Now, this is not just about moral reasoning, but learning something about religions. Well, the older members of the faculty, it was very interesting to see how this breaks down…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a generational divide, isn’t it, yeah.
MR. COX: Yeah. The older, older people said, ‘Whoa, we’re going to start proselytizing our students here. Oh, no, no, no. That’s the camel’s nose and the tail. We can’t let that happen.’ Whereas the younger people said, ‘Oh, look. That’s not a concern. And so we are going to have it — although in an interesting way. We’re not going to have necessarily a separate religion requirement, rather we’re going to work together on trying to introduce a religious and moral component into a lot of other courses so that the students see these and…’
MS. TIPPETT: In different subject areas.
MR. COX: Yeah, sure.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. COX: And now it’s going to be very difficult to do. But I think, I personally think that’s the way to do it.
MS. TIPPETT: I sense myself and I hear two very different things about students, about young people, undergraduates these days at a place like Harvard or anywhere. Some people say, you know, they’re less reverent than ever. It’s the me generation. They’re narcissistic. They’re out for themselves, the world is a scary place and they’re going to survive and they’re not interested in religion. And then there’s also the phenomenon of undergraduate courses in religious studies are filling up everywhere, that there’s this curiosity, this excitement, people are studying this in droves. What’s your assessment of this subject and the younger generation just from what you experience at Harvard?
MR. COX: Yeah, well, of course, it is hard to generalize. But I think many of the things that you just said there to characterize current student generation, many of them are true. They are cautious. They are a little scared and apprehensive. They would like to make this a better world. They don’t know how to do it. They’re even, at times, pretty cynical about the political leadership or religious leadership or any kind of leadership, their institutions there, and you can understand why they might be, as far as religion is concerned. I’ve been at Harvard now quite a while, and the change in the attitude of undergraduates toward religion is nothing less than dramatic. I mean, when I first came here as a graduate student, doctoral student, many years ago…
MS. TIPPETT: Hmm, that in the ’50s? ’60s?
MR. COX: It was the early, very early ’60s.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. COX: The ’59, ’60, ’61. I was here then. It was really sort of embarrassing for people to admit that they hadn’t any kind of interest in religion. It was very peripheral, very marginal. And it was viewed as sort of a quaint interest, you know, maybe like a coin collecting or something. You want to do that, that’s fine. But now, I mean, the students swarming in to religious studies courses and not only that, the independent student study groups, Bible study groups. And the attendance at the churches — you got to come back sometime, and come back on a Sunday and just walk from church to church, from the Lutheran church to the Unitarian church to the Catholic church to the Baptist church, congregational church, all here in the Harvard Square area, they’re full. And if you go over to Harvard Memorial Church, which is the university church…
MS. TIPPETT: Right. With Peter Gomes.
MR. COX: It’s full — yeah, with Peter Gomes as the preacher. I mean, every Sunday, that church is full of students and faculty. It is — just a dramatically, stunningly different than it was 40 years ago. Now, what this all means is something we have to ponder and think about. I, I think that part of it is a genuine puzzlement on the part of many students about just what is this whole thing called life about? Let’s try to open as many books and hear as many voices as we can. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to be deeply committed to anything. They’re, that’s where the caution comes in, I think.
Now, as far as trying to help make the world somewhat better, we have more students involved now in soup kitchens and shelters and in tutoring kids down in the ghetto than we’ve ever had. They’re just out there all over the place and also in various places in the world doing these things on their vacations. But it’s kind of small scale. I mean, they want to do things on a small scale where they can see some real difference and have — are pretty skeptical about big scale changes the way, say, the kids in the ’60s were when they thought they were really going to change the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. They were going to change the world. Yeah. These kids are pragmatic aren’t they? They…
MR. COX: Yes, yes. That’s right. And probably smarter and wiser for it.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: But they’re very admirable in many instances. And there is some me-too-ism. There’s no doubt about that. But I don’t think it’s the commanding sentiment of these students at all.
MS. TIPPETT: Theologian Harvey Cox. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Beyond the Atheism-Religion Divide.”
As Harvey Cox has moved from being a theologian of secularization to an observer of religion’s resilience, he’s also reflected that the disciplines enshrined by secular society are not necessarily more rational than religion. In 1999, he published a widely discussed article in The Atlantic Monthly called “The Market as God.”
MS. TIPPETT: You wrote, this is the beginning of your article in The Atlantic. You said: “A few years ago, a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages.” A couple of sentences later, you say: “Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, The Epistle to the Romans, and St. Augustine’s City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right.”
MR. COX: This is what I discovered when I immersed myself in all of this literature — the kind of business-page literature that we have a kind of a confidence, indeed, faith that the market will solve things, or at least many people have that, I don’t have it, maybe you don’t either, that you just leave it to the market. It will allocate things and in the long run, maybe the very long run, it will all come out fine. Just don’t tamper with this, what Adam Smith called the invisible hand…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: …that does all these things and makes them come out right in the end. It suggested to me that even though people in the business world don’t call it faith or belief or God, it, it’s operationally almost identical.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You talked about these qualities we associate with the market with, of omniscient, omnipresence, and omnipotent.
MR. COX: Yeah. Even with its own rituals and its priests and its ceremonies. It’s all there.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: So it suggested to me that people need some kind of a transcended framework of values and meanings or they just can’t get on with it. And we’ve made the market, to my mind, alas, we’ve made the market really kind of the great adjudicator of all these things. And it’s dehumanizing. It’s producing, in many people, a kind of anxiety that a consumer society produces. And it can’t go on forever. The kind of economy we have is based on infinite expansion. That’s what it’s about. It’s going to expand every year. And we live on a finite planet. So somewhere or another, there’s going to be a collision or taking a little costs accounting that has to go on here.
MS. TIPPETT: There was an article on The New York Times magazine recently, September 2007, which I think expressed one idea that’s out there, that as we in this country watch what is happening in Islam and in Muslim societies grappling with that line between religion and state and the creation of democracies, that somehow there’s an incredible fear that they’re not going to work it out the way we did. And I thought that you wrote a very interesting letter-to-the-editor response to that. And I just — I would like for you to talk about that, about what your response is to that idea that however flawed it may be, however imperfect, the West has gotten this right by pushing religion in to a certain place and that…
MR. COX: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …it’s deeply troubling and frightening, and that that’s the only way to see the fact that in Muslim countries, they might not come up with that solution.
MR. COX: Yeah. When, when people in the West, especially in the United States say, ‘Why, you know, why don’t they just have a reformation like we did? Where’s the Martin Luther? Why don’t they have an Enlightenment?’
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. COX: ‘Why don’t they have a First Amendment? Do it the way we did it because we got it right.’ Well, we got it our way and, I think, many aspects of it are in fact right, although it’s taken a long while, and we still haven’t really sorted it all out. I mean, every time the Supreme Court meets, it has to figure out yet new frontier issues and nuances about how religion relates to society and church relates to state and all the rest. And there are people within the Islamic world, and here, Mark Lilla is right in his article, who are working on this. ‘I need to be encouraged to do it in a way which doesn’t necessarily have to mimic the Western way of doing it.’ We really have to give them the space to do that. Now, the other thing, he doesn’t really feel that in America or in the West, we can continue to draw on our religious tradition to face the kinds of issues that we’re going to be facing in the next decades, that we have to really rely on what he calls lucidity.
Now, I certainly hope we remain lucid, but what I tried to remind the readers of — in my little piece in the Times magazine was, in fact, if you look at American history, say, in the 20th century, the one we’ve just finished, some of the major movements toward improving and deepening our democratic society have been inspired and lead by religious people. And Martin Luther King is the great example here. I think our tradition is still available for that kind of renewal and that kind of illumination of the kind of things we have to do and shouldn’t be written off so easily.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, you posed this question, you know, you said, “The real challenge of Islam to Western intellectual discourse is for us to ask ourselves whether our unprecedented modern experiment of conducting political life with no transcendent values is really working out as well as we once hoped.”
MR. COX: Right, right.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s a pretty provocative question. I don’t think it’s the kind of question that’s being posed very loudly in all of this public dialogue.
MR. COX: No, it isn’t. I don’t think so. And I think it’s got to be posed very, very, very pointedly. For the first time this summer, just a few weeks ago I was in Europe and I visited Auschwitz. I’ve never been to Auschwitz before. And for the next days after that I thought, I’ll never really be the same after having actually set foot in this place. This happened in Western Christian society, remember? This happened in the civilization that we think, in some ways, is superior to other civilizations and that they ought to be learning from us, whereas there are many, very thoughtful Muslim scholars. And we had, we had one here a year or two ago that I talked about this with at length, who said, ‘Look, when we look at what the 20th century history of the West was, with the Gulag, and Hiroshima, and Auschwitz, it really isn’t the path we want to tread into modernity. And maybe you people,’ he was talking about us, ‘ought to think more deeply about where it all went wrong.’
MS. TIPPETT: Can you imagine that we will have very different forms even in this culture a couple of generations down of how religion is integrated in to different fields of life, into politics, but also into education and, you know, medicine, law, market economies. Can you imagine that?
MR. COX: Oh, yes. I think — and I think we’re moving toward a more conversational model. A more convivencia, as they say in Spanish, a way of living together in which there isn’t an authoritative voice that speaks from the balcony to the gathered masses. But the conversation within medicine includes a dimension of moral reasoning and religious insights. And the conversation among religious people includes the newest and most fruitful scientific information as well…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. COX: …and isn’t just excluded. I have a hunch that congregational life is going to move in a more conversational direction — study groups and, I might say, a less kind of pulpit-centered audience format into a way in which people can sort through their concerns and their doubts and their aspirations for other people. Periodically, any religious tradition does have to go through this kind of waiting, this period of expectation and openness and hope for new, new ways of expressing faith. And these are beginning to appear. So it’s…
MS. TIPPETT: And do you have any prediction?
MR. COX: Predictions?
MS. TIPPETT: Would you like to follow up with 1965…
MR. COX: Now, I’m out of the prediction business (unintelligible).
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. COX: That’s Prophecy 101. Somebody else teaches that.
MS. TIPPETT: Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. He’s the author of many books, including The Secular City and, most recently, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today.
This conversation continues at speakingoffaith.org. We’d like to hear your reactions to Harvey Cox’s ideas and your own stories. How do you experience the line between religion and secularism? Are you seeing new kinds of conversation in the fields in which you live and work? At speakingoffaith.org, you can also learn how we’re making our content more accessible and portable. You can download a copy of all of our programs through our Web site, our SOF podcast or our e-mail newsletter. And hot of the presses, Speaking of Faith is now available on iTunes U, an enriching resource for teachers and lifelong learners. This free collection is organized by subject and features additional tools for learning. Let us know if you use Speaking of Faith in your courses. Your input will help shape our offering.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Jody Abramson, and Shiraz Janjua. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with assistance from Randy Karels. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.