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Letters: The only thing Marx got wrong on religion...


“How times have changed,” was my first reaction to Amy Braverman’s excellent “Beyond Belief” (February/06). I came to the College in 1946, a devout, fundamentalist Lutheran. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for consideration for my religious beliefs in my courses. We assumed that it was our personal task to integrate, reconcile, balance, or compartmentalize our religious views, or any other views, regarding the topics about which we were being encouraged to think, in order to make as much room as possible for whatever we chose to have in our brains.

Thus, the picture that Braverman presents absolutely boggled my mind. “Is this a demand for some new kind of entitlement?” I wondered. Is it now politically incorrect to be challenged to think, even hypothetically, about anything that might turn out to be inconsistent with views one already holds? If that is the case, then an important question seems to be the question of why that is. How has such an approach to learning come about? What social developments have led to it? I hope Chicago social scientists are looking into this question. One recalls, of course, that 60 years ago there were major studies, such as Authoritarian Personality (Frenkel-Brunswik and et al, 1950). Is it time to haul them out and take another look at them?

Whether in classes on being human or, in general, in the conflicts over introducing ID into science courses, the basic issue revolves around two different notions about how one acquires knowledge: science or authority. Call it, “see for myself” or “take your word for it.” Throughout the history of science the investigation of how things work was mainly kept separate from why. Religious leaders were content to propose the “why” and advocate how people should live. Now and then religious zeal led somebody into ad hoc pronouncements about matters of fact (think Galileo). But sooner or later the corrections were made and science continued on its way. Why the sudden demands to take somebody’s word for it in contradiction to what our senses report?

The problem for authority, as a source of information, is that authorities must depend upon followers continuing to take them at their word; loyalty becomes a major value. From that angle, if I were pronouncing “truth,” whether by simply making it up, or by transmitting what I had accepted from a revered source, I too would want to prevent my followers from exposure to contradictory ideas. But what is a contradictory idea? The main work of enlightened clergy, it seems to me, is interpretation. Meaningful interpretation integrates rationally established facts with spiritual insights. It finds how seemingly contradictory ideas might not be.

The big question I am left with is why the currently most vocal religious leaders choose not to follow this course. Could it be they find it is too much work?

Richard Robertson, PhB’48, AM’52, PhD’60
Glenview, Illinois


The introductory statement to “Beyond Belief” almost kept me from reading the article. First, there is not now nor has there ever been any serious, scientific “debate” about “intelligent design.” Believers like to think there is; it gives them what they think is some basis for beliefs that, in fact, have no basis other than anecdotal legend. Second, it is, by definition, impossible to “square” conviction with critical thinking. Reason and critical thinking are based on demonstrable facts and evidence; “conviction” is subject to no proof or verification. It is an indictment of our educational system, of which the University of Chicago is a part, that we pander to those whose only rationale for their beliefs is that they are absolutely terrified of the phrase “I don’t know.”

Ron Dougherty, MBA’75
Dallas, Texas

“God gave you reason,” Lee Behnke tells a Christian student reluctant to write a critical paper about scripture, “now use it.”

That’s not possible for the faithful, and the attempt to integrate faith and reason is hopeless and misguided. Faith won’t let it happen, as Amy M. Braverman’s “Beyond Belief” amply testifies, though she is too courteous (see below) to assert it.

Faith is precisely the antithesis of critical inquiry and is incompatible with it. Faith, by definition, overcomes doubt through willfulness and rejects reason. If you reason your way to belief (or out of it), you have not only lost but betrayed fact—“the evidence of things not seen.”

Doubt is the essence of science and scholarship and rejects faith. It demands: Show me the evidence! and prompts us unceasingly to ask: What else can I ask? Doubt never comes to the end of its questions, never resolves into certainty. Not in physics, literature, sociology, biology. Not with respect to evolution, quantum theory, or the history of religion. But you can’t inquire where you have faith. God is the end of inquiry, debate, story.

Which is why the faithful (in their “passionate intensity”) seem so much more powerful than the merely reasonable (wimps), for whom there is always another hand to be on.

Courteous humans (see above) teach themselves not to insult people of faith, to respect religious conviction, to salute the values of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. I’m happy to observe the courtesies so long as we keep religion as such not off campus, necessarily, but out of the necessarily secular realm of science.

R. D. Eno, AB’67
Cabot, Vermont


What a disappointment to read the one-sided position presented in “Beyond Belief.” In my two stints at the U of C pursuing graduate degrees, the emphasis fell on giving a clear context to a specific argument. In this article, under the guise of scientific and academic rigor, evolution is presented as the only position of the scientific community. In my limited understanding of the issues, neither side enjoys solidarity of thought, nor unanimous approval of scientific literature.

Would it not have been more productive to examine some of the evidence and logic which compels continuing discussion of this topic, than to flatly declare one side the winner? Perhaps this article mirrors the position of the faculty who teach the HBC undergraduate class. These are very bright students. Why assume that their objections are automatically based on religious indoctrination? Could it be that they see some break in logic not obvious to you? I would hope that those who control the classroom could challenge themselves as well as their students to continually seek truth.

Suzanne Scherr Steger, MBA’93
Oak Park, Illinois


“Beyond Belief” reports that “Chicago students are not as religious as the rest of the country—42.6 percent of first-years in a 2004 survey said they followed no religion.”

Since this article is purportedly about critical thinking, I think it is fair to point out that the author does not provide statistics as to the percentage of Americans who profess they follow no religion. This leaves us in the position of having to believe what the author says, without any evidence provided. Enlightenment thinkers would not be impressed. The Latin phrase ipse dixit comes to mind—just because you say it does not make it so.

What is more, the more telling statistic—the one left out of the piece but is there to extrapolate, nonetheless—is that 57.4 percent of University of Chicago freshmen report that they are affiliated with some religion. Please provide some context for the statement. Otherwise, the article is “Beyond Belief.”

Gene Koprowski, MLA’05

The writer is correct: we should have noted that, according to the National Opinion Research Center’s 2004 study, “The Vanishing Protestant Majority,” Americans who said they had no religion rose from 9 percent in 1993 to nearly 14 percent in 2002.—Ed.


The article, “Beyond Belief,” was rather infelicitous. In presenting the debate on religion as one where religious students are forced to square their beliefs with critical thought, it repeats a “myth of eternal return,” that the struggle of faith versus reason is interminable. Yet it fails to consider that what appears to be an exhaustive debate might itself be symptomatic of peculiarly modern antinomies—although it is rarely treated as such.

There are, without a doubt, more “evangelicals” on campus. However, what remains salient, as the article notes, is that religion, more so than ever, means to take flight into the realm of irrationality. Hence it is curious that “Beyond Belief” does not attempt to explain why there is a surge in religious expression, i.e., the self-identification of students as religious, on campuses nationwide. Nor does it deal with the Denkverbot, felt particularly at the Div School, which comes with pressing everyone from Kant to the Frankfurt School into service in order to justify faith. Instead it rehearses the vexations of traditional metaphysics à la Aquinas.

Sunit Singh, AB’01, AM’03, AM’05


I was surprised by the apologia for Marx tucked away in the article on religion at Chicago. The only thing Marx got wrong on religion, as far as I can see, was saying that it is the opiate of the masses. Of course, he couldn’t have known it then, but the right metaphor is really meth. Like pseudoephedrine when you have a stuffed-up nose, a little religion, taken in moderation, may make you feel better and is probably harmless. Still, it’s the active ingredient in an addictive substance that often takes over the lives of otherwise decent people, turns their world gray and forbidding, and leads them to commit horrible crimes. I hope at least some faculty at Chicago are asking their students to ponder this paradox.

James M. Unger, AB’69, AM’71
Columbus, Ohio


As a young social-science student, I faced the decision of whether I should read Marx or St. Paul. I decided to read both. Marx made me a Christian; St. Paul made me a social scientist.

James A. Rogerson, AM’69, PhD’80
Charlotte, North Carolina


Fifty years ago, mainstream Christian teachers said the Bible is about morality and spirituality, not physical science. One need not believe in Adam, Eve, the snake, and the forbidden fruit. Genesis incorporated Mesopotamian creation stories. Evolution is not a problem. The term “day” could mean millions of years of development. Didactic fiction was used to make moral points. Literal interpretation is a mistake, as is the “proof text” use of Judeo-Christian scripture which lifts a sentence out of context. Amy Braverman’s article suggests that these considerations are now being discovered at the University of Chicago.

Bernard Lammers, JD’87
Canton, New York


The evolution-versus-intelligent-design debate is resolved very neatly by “Dancing with the Stars” (“Chicago Journal,” February/06). The real meaning of evolution is that 13.7 billion years—the time from the Big Bang to the Big Debate—is time enough for monkeys with typewriters to write the Bible, and they did, except that these monkeys are called people. If you want experimental proof of it, all you have to do is read the newspapers.

Kenneth J. Epstein, SM’52


In your otherwise excellent article, “Beyond Belief,” I disagree with Jerry Coyne’s statement that ID “is not a serious scientific controversy; it is a religious controversy.” As counter-evidence, I would point to William Dembski, SM’85, PhD’88, a leader in the ID movement, who studied in your physics department. Other ID practitioners, such as Michael Behe, are also unquestionably scientific in their approach. The science underlying ID may be in its formative stages, but it is science.

Philip Massey, MBA’99
La Mirada, California


Beyond Belief” was a fascinating article. But why must I know that Kirsten Guidero is “slender with short-cropped hair”? Haven’t we gotten beyond the point when women are identified by their looks?

Deborah Mills Warner, SB’62
Cheverly, Maryland


In Lydialyle Gibson’s article on Woodlawn (“Due South,” February/06), it was mentioned that in 1948 the Supreme Court ended restrictive housing covenants and a black doctor promptly bought a house in Kenwood. I wonder whether the beginning of the end of race-based restrictive covenants in the area actually began earlier, in 1940, with the U.S. Supreme Court case Hansberry v. Lee. What makes this case especially interesting is that Petitioner Hansberry was Carl Hansberry, father of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of A Raisin in the Sun and other works.

In the 1930s Mr. Hansberry bought a home for his family in Woodlawn. At the time, use of the property he purchased was restricted by a covenant signed by other Woodlawn homeowners stipulating that it not be “sold, leased to or permitted to be occupied by a person of the colored race.” Neighbors brought suit to enforce the covenant and force Mr. Hansberry and his family from the home. They were successful in Illinois State Court, but the Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Hansberry. Lorraine Hansberry grew up in the Woodlawn home in what she later described as a “hellishly hostile white neighborhood.”

Eugene A. Burdick
Mesa, Arizona


In about 1988, before your online archives, I wrote questioning the University’s retreat from the neighborhood. I’d taken my mother to see Les Misérables at the Auditorium Theater on a Saturday evening and stopped on 53rd Street for a pizza. There were no students visible anywhere.

After publishing my letter there was a response from one of the deans assuring me that the University and its students were still very involved with the local neighborhood. I was skeptical. Now about 18 years later in “Due South,” my suspected truth is finally revealed, “In the 1960s and 1970s neighborhood deterioration.... Across the Midway’s grassy moat, meanwhile, the University raised its drawbridge.”

Although it has been a long wait, I am proud that the analytical skills learned in the College continue to serve me well.

J. Curtis Kovacs, AB’63, MD’67
Sun City, Arizona


I was disturbed by the February/06 “Citations” item “Classroom Connection.” How can a School of Social Service Administration researcher be so ignorant of good research methods as to conclude from a survey of teenagers that “distant, disconnected teachers...pose a downright health hazard for delinquent teens”? The data cited is of the perceptions of interviewed teens, not the reality of the characterization of the teachers! Might it not be more reasonable to conclude that teenagers who indulge in unsafe, irresponsible behaviors are also likely to see their teachers as distant and/or disconnected? The opinions and perceptions of adolescents about those who have authority in relationship to them can hardly be taken to be the facts about these authority figures.

I am a recently retired public high-school teacher, and I have been witness to similar shoddy thinking with increasing frequency in recent years. If we take the surveyed opinions of adolescents, especially when asked about subjects for which they can have no claim to impartiality or objectivity, as the truth about our schools, and then draw conclusions from this so-called data, it should be no wonder that our schools perform as poorly as they do.

Avram Chetron, AM’70
Berkeley, California


I enjoyed the “Jazz Infusion” story (“Arts & Letters,” February/06) on recent alumnus Paul Steinbeck and his adventures as a professional jazz bassist. I thought your readers might like to know that Paul is not the only former member of the University of Chicago’s Jazz X-Tet to make a name for himself in the competitive New York City jazz scene. Guitarist Nate Radley, AB’98, my fellow bandmate in the 1994 debut edition of the X-Tet under Mwata Bowden’s direction, has garnered critical attention for his work with Sonic Explorers (on Nada Brahma Records) and with the Matthias Lupri Group (on Summit Records). The success enjoyed by both Paul and Nate attests to the University’s ability to nurture the music performance talent of its undergraduates while at the same time providing a broad-based educational experience.

Rowen Bell, SM’94, MBA’05


President Randel’s “Attack by ‘Accountability’” (“From the President,” February/06), is superb in reflection on issues that should be of concern to everyone. The last paragraph provides a poignant summary: “But I fear that we see the signs of an assault on higher education by people who distrust the life of the mind and who will gladly exploit the national suspicion of precisely the best in higher education. This prospect is tragic in intellectual terms. But in practical and economic terms, it is simply dangerous.”

The University of Chicago is known for its role in “the Great Conversation” promoted through the Great Books, and anyone who has been part of this dialogue has probably reflected on the vulnerability of an uneducated public. In a community where “fear” begins to dominate, the irrational reigns and those in power exploit.

It is troublesome to witness the willingness of some to compromise their privacy and basic rights to the whims of politicians and preachers, too many of whom are determined to threaten the public into doing things their way. It is also discouraging to know of some who are “highly educated” but cannot seem to look beyond their “formulas.” Actions are to protect turf and ignore such challenges as presented by President Randel. Far too many decisions are made based on political value and narrow economic views. Favor is toward “technical” pursuits, and it is troubling to hear Greenspan’s assessment that the young, regardless of study or interest, will likely need to change occupations a number of times before they retire. This trend is a societal mistake.

Those deciding how and where resources are to be prioritized could benefit from truly seeking perspective from the “street-level.” If most decisions are heavily swayed by economic bias, it should be recognized that it is costly, in both financial and personal terms, to concentrate so much in effort and resources on punishment, exile, and executions. Those who have attempted to maintain a “street-level” perspective know that our country wastes potential and genius. Far too many are left to fend for themselves. Why do we, the richest of nations, ignore basic human needs, a priori?

Perhaps the greatest crime is that discussion and debate are stifled through political jabs, labels and “spin.” President Randel’s message is a worthy caution. The great thinkers of the past should not be ignored. We should be certain the doors to the “great conversation” remain wide open.

Ray A. Bisco, AM’68
Preston, Minnesota

President Randel strikes a chord. The culture of accountability threatens more than education. Today physicians are in the crosshairs of the accountability movement. No longer is the public willing to accept that years and years of medical training are enough to assure that a physician provides good medical care. There’s a growing movement to measure, and reward, “performance.”

From the consumer’s perspective, having metrics to assess health-care providers is a good thing. There’s probably good economic logic in giving greater rewards for better outcomes. But I’m ambivalent. As President Randel suggests regarding education, the notion that national planning is going to improve doctors’ care is, to me, equally shocking, if not ridiculous.

While measuring such things as medical care or a University of Chicago education may be difficult, hopefully it is not impossible. Scientific knowledge is testable, measurable, and falsifiable. If the important aspects of education are not measurable in a standardized way, then we can’t have scientific knowledge of them. To suggest, as President Randel does, that education is not measurable in a standardized way reduces education to the level of intelligent design, limiting our knowledge of it to faith, not science. Does that make the assault on higher education a war among competing religions?

Steve Feldman, AB’80
Winston-Salem, North Carolina


We were pleased to see the letters in response to your October/05 article about the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (“Human-Interest Lesson” and “Clock Strikes 12,” December/05). We hope your readers will take Peter Kotz-Chamberlin’s suggestion seriously to subscribe to and read the Bulletin. We continue to bring news and analysis of nuclear weapons issues to the public, and we also sort fact from fiction about new threats to societies. Among these are bioterrorism, synthesized pathogens, and the possibility of catastrophic terrorism. The presence of 27,000 nuclear bombs (mostly in Russia and the U.S.) with some 2,000 of these ready to be launched in a matter of minutes still rises to the top of the Bulletin’s list of immediate dangers.

In this regard, Bradford Lyttle is very perceptive. We appreciate his comment about the probability of nuclear war. As we revisit the Doomsday Clock in coming months, to ensure that it remains relevant to contemporary developments, we will look again at the meaning of time as a metaphor for impending crisis, and therefore at the significance of the Clock. Our own assessments suggest that the likelihood of an all-out nuclear war between major superpowers is much less now than during the Cold War. But the chance of a nuclear terrorist attack or accidental launch is much greater than it has ever been. How we translate these likelihoods into a metric of urgency is the challenge. Greater still, however, is the challenge of finding ways to “turn back the clock.”

Kennette Benedict, Executive Director
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


The “It Takes a Forest” letter (“Letters,” December/05) indicating reforestation in the United States is falling behind in comparison to India’s is not aligned with the facts.

During the past century the forests of India suffered a disastrous depletion. By the late 1990s only ten percent of its land area was in forests, an area equal to 11 percent of U.S. forests. Finally, India’s restoration has a great sense of urgency, planting fast-growing pine and eucalyptus.

The U.S. Forest Service, within the Department of Agriculture, has managed massive reforestation for nearly a century. Additions to federal, state, and private holdings show a total U.S. forest inventory growth of 40 percent since 1950. That’s rather impressive considering there has been a doubling of population in the same time period. Our forests now comprise 747 million acres, a third of the nation’s land area.

Favorable climate provides forest cover of nearly 50 percent in many states, including Wisconsin. To meet the needs of reforestation, this state has maintained nursery output of 20 million seedlings yearly. Their cost has risen from $6 per thousand in the 1950s to $96 today.

In spite of a dramatic increase in the overall cost of forest management, we are genuinely dedicated to maintaining healthy forests. As a source of raw materials, soil preservation and recreating our forests are unsurpassed. Consuming carbon dioxide and adding to the oxygen supply, they are working mightily to lessen global warming.

George H. Crowell, SB’40
Menasha, Wisconsin


Professor John W. Boyer (“Course Work,” October/05) seems to miss opportunities to enlighten his students about nationalism and the correct use of terms when he is quoted as saying that Hitler and Milosevic used nationalism in an evil way and that “[n]ationalism can mean the Fourth of July and eating hot dogs. It can also mean murdering people. You can do both in the name of nationalism.”

Boyer seems, like quite a few scholars, politicians, and journalists, to confuse nationalism with ethnic chauvinism and ethnic imperialism. Nationalism is the ideology or the pursuit of self-determination of peoples and nations. Ethnic chauvinism is the mentality or ideology that considers one’s own people or nation to be “better” than the other peoples’. It often further degenerates into ethnic imperialism, which is the dominance of one ethnic group over another group or over others’ groups.

Hitler was therefore not a nationalist but an ethnic chauvinist and imperialist. He did not use nationalism but nation in an evil way. As an ethnic imperialist Milosevic wanted to continue the dominance of Serbia over the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia, which had the nationalist (and reasonable) desire to become independent. Nationalism becomes incomprehensible if the greatest anti-nationalists get lumped together with their nationalist opponents.

Moreover, eating hot dogs (even on the Fourth of July) has nothing to do with nationalism but rather with national customs and, maybe, with national feeling. Only if the eating of hot dogs is considered by eaters and non-eaters alike as a signal of a nationalist pursuit (very doubtful indeed), can it be considered to be done in the name of nationalism. Eating Flemish fries (“French” fries is a glaring misnomer) does not make me a Flemish nationalist. What does make me one is my promoting Flemish independence based on the knowledge that Flemings still do not get their due in the (rotten) state of Belgium. Saying that Flemish fries are the best may make me a Flemish chauvinist. Or would it?

Geert Van Cleemput, AM’89, PhD’99
Kalamaria, Greece


If you are a mother whose children have left home for college or career, I invite your help. I am a social psychologist, author of The Sacrificial Mother, and a reporter for the New York Times, who is writing a book on how women feel about their children leaving, and what they plan to do in the next stage of their lives. In responding, you will become part of my original research, but you may also find that answering the questions will provide you with insights about yourself. Go to and click on “Answer Survey.” Thank you for your help.

Carin Rubenstein
Sleepy Hollow, New York


The names of two persons and one entity were given incorrectly in the February/06 issue. We apologize to Kirsten Guidero, AB’03 (“Beyond Belief) and First Presbyterian pastor Gerald Wise (“Due South”), and to the University’s Neighborhood Schools Program (“Due South”). In addition, the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts, where Mary D. Ott, SM’67, PhD’71 (“Arts & Letters,” February/06), exhibits her work this April is in fact located in Rockville, Maryland. We regret the errors.

The Magazine wel-comes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters must be signed and may be edited for space and clarity. To provide a range of views, we encourage writers to limit themselves to 300 words or less. Write: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 5801 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637. Or e-mail: