Priests, scientists, and thinking for oneself

James Delingpole of the Spectator often compares scientists with the priests of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. We defer to today’s scientists, he says, in the same way in that mediaeval people deferred to the Catholic clergy. Both kinds of deference undermine our capacity for independent thinking and critical thought.

       James may well be right about today’s scientists, but he’s wrong about yesterday’s priests. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of a rational, loving God, whom we are called to love, serve, and better understand. Hence, for the Church, a person’s knowledge of God, which cannot grow without his broader intellectual development, is central to his salvation. For this reason, the Church has always fostered the intellectual development of individuals. For sure, this fostering happens within a supporting framework of established truth, which is imparted to Catholics through catechesis, or indoctrination into the Faith. But the framework itself is not enough: every individual, as a rational creature of infinite value to God, needs to grow his mind for himself. This growth is what education is about—as opposed to mere indoctrination or training. It is, then, no coincidence that the mediaeval Church was by far the biggest provider of education in Europe. Priests had the intellectual seat of honour in society; and this was the result.

       As James rightly says, it is now scientists—specifically social and human scientists—that take that place of honour. And such scientists, who are largely atheists, have little reason to encourage ordinary people to develop their minds. For on a scientistic-atheist world-view, it is hard to sustain the idea that there is value in ordinary people’s thinking for themselves: on this view, if someone is incapable of contributing to science, the natural inference is that he is best off simply learning to accept established Truth as unquestioningly as possible. On such a view, some professional people will still need intellectual toolkits, to do their jobs; but nothing more than that. So whenever this view dominates, education descends into mere training—into mere indoctrination in the received methods of thought.

And this is, in fact, precisely what is happening to education today. Even Critical Thinking is now taught as a method, or set of rules: that is, as a doctrine. Indeed, nowadays academia is all about toolkits: today’s most thoughtful arts students, even of English or Classics, often suspect that their tutors give them great texts to read more because they want them to learn the techniques of critiquing those texts, than because they want their students to glean wisdom from them. This is where secularism has brought us: to a culture in which no one can remember why there are two separate words, ‘education’, and ‘training’; to a state of things in which grown men will describe themselves as—I shudder to write the phrase—‘trained philosophers’.

       All this points to a simple conclusion, which I would put to James Delingpole: if we want our society’s intellectual life to thrive, James, we need to start listening to our priests again!

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