May 26, 2006

Talk focuses on religious scholarship

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke about the demise of religious scholarship on Thursday in Social Sciences 302.

The talk, entitled “Myth and Meaning: Bad Scholarship and the Decline of American Religion,” was sponsored by the Committee on Social Thought as part of its John U. Nef Lecture Series. About 50 people were in attendance.

Robinson’s novel Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for First Fiction in 1980. She has also written two non-fiction books, and her articles have appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review.

Robinson identified education, religion, and the “strange fusion” between them as “three salient elements of contemporary American life.”

Though the United States has a religious populace, institutions of modern education have failed to study faith adequately, she said.

“The secularization of universities, the Ivy League, means the loss of the intellectual base for religion,” she said.

As a result, “faux-scholarship” now offers Americans “neither the prospect of beautiful thought nor the memory of it,” she said.

Robinson lambasted writers like Karen Armstrong, author of Islam: A Short History, for contributing to the societal phenomenon of “religion made easy.”

She said the success of this type of book stems from “the inability of well meaning people to judge what they read.”

Accordingly, she said, “great denominations are helpless against the powers of Dan Brown,” the author of The Da Vinci Code.

Robinson said she did not know how to revive religious scholarship, and she sounded an equally pessimistic note in a question-and-answer session following the lecture.

“No solution is sufficient to the scale of contemporary problems,” she said. “If we have to find the right solution we might as well close the doors and go home.”