Religion and Skepticism on Campus: An Interview with Bishop Barron
On April 24, Bishop Robert Barron, theologian and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, spoke with the staff of The Torch, Boston College's Catholic Newspaper, on the subject of religion and skepticism. The Bishop began by describing skepticism as a perspective that often “traps” its adherents “in Plato’s Cave,” unable to broaden their views. He then went on to describe possible benefits of the outlook, especially in the context of the university, and to offer advice to students as they continue their search for the truth.
The Torch. Do you think, given the restrictions of skepticism, there are any benefits to it?
Bishop Barron. I think skepticism is not a bad attitude, and I think it’s good for college students to be skeptical. That’s how you learn. If you don’t ask questions, and you don’t wonder about things, you’re not going to make any progress. So, I’m not against it at all. I think it’s really healthy. However, we’ve got to be skeptical of our skepticism. If you take it too far, it becomes uncritical, and it becomes a block to real knowledge. I would say, “Yeah, unleash your skepticism about a lot of things—including skepticism. Be skeptical of the secularist ideology, because sometimes it’s as though [people said], “Oh no, that’s fine, no one should ever question secularism.” That’s the default position. Actually, I would be just as skeptical about that as about anything else.
So, yes to skepticism, but not so far that it blocks your access to reality. The danger with excessive skepticism is that you end up living in a very, very narrow space, this little tiny world that you have control over. And that just makes your life cramped.
T. You mentioned having faith in skepticism itself. Do you think there are other, non-religious areas where people hold on generally to a kind of faith they don’t acknowledge?
B. Yes, and it’s a very important thing. Here, I’d rely on the great John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman said this a lot in his writings, that in every area of knowledge, especially the sciences, something like faith is always operative. Even if you’re making progress in a science, you’re not at every stage of the process personally verifying everything. In fact, you accept all kinds of things on faith: findings that have been done, experiments that have been conducted, settled science that’s happened over the centuries. These you accept on a kind of faith, and then you move forward with your own investigation.
In fact, in every area of life, including the most basic things, something like faith or trust is operative. In this regard, Newman says that even that you know who your parents are—can you absolutely prove that with apodictic certitude? Or are you taking it on the testimony of lots and lots of people [who] you’ve come to trust? You trust in GPS systems—have you verified it before you set out on your journey, or are you accepting on faith that this is based on the work that a lot of people have done? So, there’s an analogy between religion and the role that faith plays, and the role that faith plays in the sciences.
T. On that note, something many college students have heard, especially with the rise in popularity of the STEM fields, is the statement, “Science is my religion.” What would your response be to that sort of statement?
B. Well, first of all, it’s a pretty pathetic religion. I love the sciences, I think they’re great, and the Catholic Church applauds the sciences. And some of the greatest figures in scientific history have been ardent believers—Gregor Mendel, who invented modern genetics, or Father Lemaître, who discovered the Big Bang Theory. So, we’re not opposed to science at all.
But science looks at reality through a certain narrow lens, an “aspective” reality. That’s an example of what I call scientism, which is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. So, science does give you knowledge about certain dimensions of reality, but not everything. There are other ways of knowing that are non-scientific.
Here’s the test case—how do you prove scientifically that science is the only way to know reality? See, that’s what scientism claims. But you can’t verify that empirically; you can’t do an experiment to prove it, you can’t use the scientific method to show that only the scientific method delivers truth. Does that make sense? And that’s why [scientism is] a self-contradictory position. And then [I’d] say, just in answer to the question directly, it’s a pretty narrow, pathetic religion, if you’d say, “Only what I can empirically verify and control is of ultimate meaning and value to me.” Because religion has to do with your ultimate good, your ultimate concern, and if science is your religion, it’s a pretty pathetic religion.
T. Do you think there are specific challenges Catholic colleges face in preaching the Gospel today?
B. Sure, one of them that’s huge is scientism—this aggressive, sort of arrogant, domineering attitude on the part of the scientists. That’s a block. The second thing I’d say would be the whole range of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, which are seen very often as oppressive to people today. And then, relatedly, the third thing I’d say is what I call the culture of self-invention—that we all have the right and the prerogative to invent ourselves, to determine what’s true for us, and to determine what’s morally right for us. The Church speaks for objective truth and value, and that puts it often at odds with a culture that says, “No, no, it’s up to me to invent the truth and invent the good.” So, I’d say those are the three major obstacles that we face on college campuses.
T. Do you have advice, both for college students who are strong in their faith and those who are still unsure, trying to wade through this sea of different opinions?
B. For those who are strong in their faith, I’d say to keep going to Mass, to keep living the Catholic life, and to do so in a public way. Let people see that you are a person of faith. Don’t do it aggressively—you’re not beating people over the head—but you’re not ashamed of it, and you’re willing to show, publicly, that you’re a believer.
And for those who are searching, I love people who are searching. I’m much more worried about people who are shut down, like those who embrace scientism. That’s the danger—“I’m shut down; there’s nothing beyond what I can see and control.” Someone who’s searching, I love that. I would just say, “Keep searching.” Don’t limit your search to what ideological secularism tells you, but let the mind and heart go all the way, because what they want, finally, is God. It’s only in God that my mind and my heart and my soul are at rest. So I tell searchers, “Keep searching.” And don’t let people limit your passion and your hunger for the truth and for the good.
What I’d say to both groups is [to] keep reading great Catholic literature. So you’re on a college campus, you’ve got access to books, you have the time to read and study. Gosh, everybody from Augustine, to Thomas Aquinas, to G. K. Chesterton, to John Paul II, to Thérèse of Lisieux—there’s so many people you can read [who] are great on these issues. Take the time to delve into the Catholic tradition.
T. If you had to choose one author out of those, someone who you think really speaks to today’s university landscape, do you have one in mind?
B. Well, yes, I suppose I would say Chesterton. But I might even choose someone who’s up at your college, Peter Kreeft, who I think [has] translated a lot of those people into language that contemporary university students can relate to. He’s taught undergraduates at Boston College for decades, so I’d say Peter Kreeft is a great person for people to study on college campuses.