In a 1998 book, Psychology and Religion at the Millenium and Beyond, is an essay by Gloria Orenstein, who was then a professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. For all I know, she may still be teaching there. In any event, Professor Orenstein, in her essay, offers this recollection of a classroom incident:
Once, when I was teaching a course in modern western literature at USC, I happened to have a group of students who were mostly from the Middle East and Asia. When I began to talk about the enlightenment, about scientific reasoning, about cause and effect, about evidence, and about repeating experiments, etc. I could see the eyes of my students glaze over.
The first time this happened, Professor Orenstein accounted for the students’ response this way:
I simply thought that they found my lecture on this subject either too simplistic or too boring.
But when she brought up the subject of science again, and its impact on literature, she noticed that they were once more “spacing out.” This second time, she stopped the class and sought feedback:
They could not really explain it. Then I asked them in what countries they had gone to high school: Iran, Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc. Suddenly I understood the problem, and I asked them how they would speak about cause and effect, which is what I had been discussing. One Iranian student raised his hand and said: ‘That’s simple. The first cause is Allah!’ Then I asked them whether they thought of cause and effect as a mechanical process or whether, in their minds, effects were created by prayer and ritual and that the causes were often invisible. All their heads nodded vertically in unison. These students had not passed through the western Enlightenment the way we had, which meant that they had not been disconnected from their acknowledgment of the existence of the spirit world. When I was the only white westerner in the class, I came to understand that our western scientism is hardly universal and that the majority of people in the world hold firmly to beliefs about things that can never be proven scientifically.
I find Professor Orenstein’s account of what happened in her classroom profoundly unsettling. It suggests (at least to me) that the prospects for rationality going forward into the 21st century are not good. In a world in which science drives unprecedented understanding of our universe, and makes possible a heretofore unimaginable standard of living, most human beings (even those trained in some of the best universities in the world) simply seem indifferent to the modern world’s intellectual underpinnings, and prefer magical thinking and supernaturalism to evidence and scientific rationality.
The kicker here is that this indifference, and even hostility, to Enlightenment modes of reasoning, may not just reside in those not yet fully trained by the university, but by the university instructors themselves. I say this because it might alarm you (as it alarms me) to discover that Professor Orenstein concludes her essay AFFIRMING her students’ INDIFFERENCE TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT, asserting that the “spirit world” is not given sufficient attention by those of us who have been trained in western modes of analysis:
In the Third Millennium, I think we are going to have to become spiritual pioneers of a new world, the world beyond our physical eyes and ears . . . we have stubbornly chosen to remain deaf and blind to the spirit world and to call that disconnection from all that lives in the vast expanse of the cosmos, sanity.
As an agnostic, I am fine with retaining the sense of wonder, and keeping an open mind and heart to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being), but Professor Orenstein seems to be taking seriously here, and even endorsing, blatant irrationality and magical thinking. The essay that I quote from above is now over ten years old. I wonder if Professor Orenstein still subscribes to its view.
[UPDATE: I Googled Professor Orenstein and find that she still teaches at USC. The quotes of hers that I offer above appeared, in the book cited, on pgs. 105-107.]