'Does Open Inquiry Belong in Religious Schools?'
The Mill Institute at UATX
Mar 28, 2024

'Does Open Inquiry Belong in Religious Schools?'

'If I want someone else to seriously consider what I have to say, shouldn’t I listen to them with equal enthusiasm and humility?'

Patrick Halbrook
Patrick Halbrook

Patrick Halbrook, one of the Mill Institute's 2023-2024 Teaching Fellows, reflects on the intersection of viewpoint diversity and religious education at Cary Christian School, where he teaches.

The Mill Institute, an educational nonprofit and affiliate of UATX, was founded in 2022 to provide training and resources to teachers and advisory support to administrators to navigate contentious topics with students and throughout their school communities. Read more.

Cary Christian School is not affiliated with the University of Austin.

“Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe.” -- Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion"

Richard Dawkins would not be very impressed to hear about the school where I teach. As a private Christian school of the evangelical Protestant variety, the Bible and its teachings permeate every aspect of what we believe and do. We hold to a statement of faith that affirms historic Christian doctrines like the existence of God, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the truthfulness of the Bible. We endorse traditional beliefs about marriage, gender, and sexuality. Though in the minority, schools like mine are quite common in the United States. Thousands of similar schools (and hundreds of thousands of homeschooling families) seek to pass on to students these same beliefs.

Is there any place for open inquiry and viewpoint diversity at a devoutly religious school? If Dawkins is right, and if such schools teach their students “that unquestioned faith is a virtue,” the answer is definitely no. Why examine other views if you already know you are right? Why teach critical thinking if it might undermine your beliefs? Dawkins’ assertion is not without some merit, as it describes a real attitude that can be found in some Christian circles. But must it always be the case? Can a conservative Christian school maintain firm convictions while also encouraging students to ask questions and seek out diverse viewpoints? Furthermore, could open inquiry actually facilitate the mission of such a school?

I would argue that the answer is yes and that John Stuart Mill is one of the best thinkers to help us see why. In his book "On Liberty" he makes a formidable argument for why seriously considering (rather than suppressing) other perspectives is so valuable. In this article, I want to explore the ways two of his arguments can be applied for significant benefit at conservative religious schools of the Christian tradition.

What if the other position is true?

Mill begins by noting that censoring an argument can easily result in censoring the truth: “The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true.” The value of considering others’ views is an idea I discuss extensively with my students, and it happens to be a notion found throughout the Bible. As the Book of Proverbs advises, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (18:13); and “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (18:17). Failure to hear out what others have to say is not a sign of wisdom, but of its opposite: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (18:2). If we do not listen to another perspective, how can we change our minds if it ends up being the correct one?

In the New Testament, willingness to listen is a central theme in The Acts of the Apostles, a book which narrates the early church’s growth and spread throughout the Roman Empire. A variety of stories in the book contrast those who are willing to listen to and consider a new message—even skeptically—with those who attempt to stamp it out. When the Apostle Paul taught about Jesus, he often faced violent reactions. In the city of Lystra, he was stoned and left nearly dead (Acts 14). In Ephesus, an angry crowd (reminiscent of a mob of easily-triggered college students) spent two hours shouting an inane slogan at the top of their lungs just to keep him from speaking (Acts 19). In contrast, the Acts narrative holds up as positive examples those willing to hear Paul’s new ideas, even cautiously. A group in the city of Berea were of “noble character” because “they received the message with great eagerness”—yet they also treated the message with a degree of skepticism, for they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Greek philosophers in Athens, similarly, were curious enough about Paul’s message that they invited him to the Areopagus to learn more about what he had to say (17:16-34). To be sure, the narrative’s focus is on those who end up converting to Christianity, but in doing so, it exalts virtues like curiosity and open-mindedness—virtues which would be senseless to leave behind upon conversion.

Perhaps the most important reason why even the most dogmatic Christians would do well to listen to other perspectives is as an application of Jesus’ teaching, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). If I want someone else to seriously consider what I have to say, shouldn’t I listen to them with equal enthusiasm and humility? How else can anyone know, as Mill puts it, whether a view “may possibly be true”?

What if the other position is wrong?

Mill’s second argument for free speech is that considering an opposing viewpoint, if it is wrong, can actually help someone to confirm their original position:

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth...He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.

Mill realized a truth that some Christian church and school leaders do not, which is that allowing and even encouraging the questioning of beliefs can do more to strengthen them in the long run than suppression or dismissal. This pattern has been shown in numerous studies. One researcher interviewed young people who had walked away from Christianity, finding one prominent “unsettling pattern”:

Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.

A similar study from Fuller Theological Seminary contrasted this trend with a major characteristic of those who kept their faith:

One of the most interesting findings...was the importance of doubt in a student's faith maturity. The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity [they had].

As a teacher at a Christian school, I believe strongly in the value of taking seriously the tough questions students raise. I also create occasions to pose tough questions myself: If God is good, why is there suffering in the world? Is the Bible historically accurate? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? If we believe in science, can we still believe in the possibility of miracles? These questions are all worthy of serious examination, as are diverse viewpoints on ethics and religion. Ultimately, each student must decide for himself or herself whether to accept or reject the beliefs they have grown up with. I cannot predict what path each one will take in the long run, but I do know that my own Christian faith has acquired a much stronger foundation from having seriously grappled with tough questions raised by skeptics, atheists, and other critics of Christianity. Mill was certainly right to assert that such examinations have the potential to turn “dead dogma” into “living faith.”

Unquestioned faith is not a virtue

In the midst of his controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, Galileo Galilei wrote, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” My students have all grown up in Christian homes, and they attend a school that promotes a belief system that I happen to agree with. But by the time they graduate, my school will have best done its job not if they graduate with an unquestioned faith, but with a questioned faith that has grappled seriously with other viewpoints through open inquiry—if they have learned to use the “senses, reason, and intellect” of which Galileo wrote.

Next week I am on schedule to read John Stuart Mill with my juniors. I will be sure to mention that he was not a Christian—and that this fact makes it all the more important to listen carefully and grapple with what he has to say.

Maybe we’ll read some Richard Dawkins next.

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