Monday, February 14, 2011

Mary Poplin Round 2

Mary Poplin, this year's Pascal lecturer at the University of Waterloo, returned for a second lecture, entitled "Is Anything Sacred?: A Conversation With Students". Like the first one, the second was poorly attended -- I'd estimate there were no more than about 15 people in the room, including some of the organizers.

Just as in the first lecture, she repeated her claims that Christianity is "under attack" at universities, and that Christians are unfairly excluded, censored, marginalized, etc.: "At the University every idea is engaged, but not Christianity" - a claim that would surprise the students enrolled in dozens of Waterloo courses with titles like History of Christianity, God and Philosphy, Jesus: Life and Legacy. Heck, if there's anything wrong with the way Christianity is treated at the University of Waterloo, it's that it's treated too seriously. There's also some sort of breathtaking irony involved in talking about how Christianity is "censored" while giving 3 invited 1-hour lectures with the sponsorship of a committee that sees its mandate as "challenging the university to a search for truth through personal faith and intellectual inquiry which focus on Jesus Christ." Why the heck is a public university sponsoring a lecture series that is clearly evangelical in nature?

She repeated her assertion that Christianity offers a useful standpoint from which to examine issues of the University, but she never really gave a single example how this could work. In response to a friendly question from someone on the committee who invited her, she could not come up with an example of how Christianity would be a useful perspective in physics, engineering, or mathematics. She did give a rather rambling and incoherent account of her work with teachers (work that, by the way, I fully support and think there should be more of) whose moral seemed to be that whatever religion you were, you came up with the same answers -- which seemed to completely undermine her point.

Personally, I reject her entire thesis. To the extent that Christianity is marginalized and excluded in academia, I see nothing wrong with it. Lots of bad ideas are rejected and marginalized: the idea that Zeus creates lightning, the idea that people have past lives, the idea that homeopathy is effective. In fact, the whole point of an intellectual enterprise like the university is that students need to be taught the intellectual tools they need to understand why some ideas are supported and others are not. Many Christian claims are rejected and marginalized because they have either been thoroughly refuted or because people have finally recognized that they do not represent serious knowledge claims. I wouldn't want a student citing the Bible on a biology exam as support for some supposedly scientific view.

Basically, Poplin wants her religious claims validated without doing the hard work she needs to do to convince others. She wants an intellectual free pass. And she wants this free pass solely on the basis of the fact that lots of people are Christians. She told me this on Thursday night, after the lecture, when she said that a good reason for treating the claims of Christianity seriously is that "a third of the world believes them". Well, worldwide there are lots of animists, too, but that doesn't mean we have to take their claims seriously.

Other things we heard about: before she became a Christian, Poplin was "not a nice person" and "slept with other people's husbands". She tried a succession of spiritual beliefs before settling on Christianity. She had encounters with "demonic spirits". I found her tale quite familiar: many people without a firm ethical compass drift from one religion to another, hoping to find something they lack internally.

We also learned that Poplin is a firm believer in the reality of miracle healing. She should read William Nolen's book Healing: a Doctor in Search of a Miracle. Nolen, a Christian, spent years looking for a legitimate example of faith healing. He found hucksters and fraud, but no actual examples.

Speaking of being "not a nice person", Poplin asserted that Christian students would be afraid to speak to me. (Ironically, in the audience was a former student of mine, a really bright guy who I never knew was religious. He had come to me for advice about graduate school just a few months earlier.) If so, that's bad. I never inquire about the religious beliefs of students and I try to treat all students fairly. But it never seemed to occur to her that, as an outspoken Christian, atheist students might be afraid to speak to her.

Altogether, this talk was even worse than the preceding one, if that's possible. Poplin rambled, failed to make any coherent point, and proved to be a sloppy thinker on the issues she spoke about. A waste of time. Let's hope the Pascal lecture series brings someone next year who might really have something to say - perhaps Ken Miller.


Adrian Petrescu said...

I didn't know this was a series; you mentioned in the post that she's invited to do three talks, and this was the second. Is the third one anytime soon? I think I'd like to attend and see this for myself.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Third was last Friday evening - I couldn't go.

Tommy said...

About the third talk:

Much of it was her talking about and showing video clips of Mother Teresa. She gave a very confused explanation of what secular humanism, naturalism, and pantheism are (claiming that Hitler was a secular humanist - that was a new one for me), and said very little about how Christianity is being excluded from academia or how secularism is "diminishing the marketplace of ideas" (the title of her talk).

The one thing she did say about how Christianity is being excluded from academic institutions I found very interesting. She claimed that "secular psychology" has not studied forgiveness. As far as I can tell, this is the only example she has of how secularism is "diminishing the marketplace of ideas". I've been corresponding with her since her talk, and pointed her to some social psychological research on forgiveness. Apparently her claim is that psychologists have not studied her brand of Christian forgiveness. I'm not sure that this is true, given there is quite a bit of literature on forgiveness within psychology of religion and she has showed no signs of being familiar with it. Regardless, I've asked her how a lack of research on one particular research question shows that secularism is reducing the scope of questions that are being raised in psychology.

Anonymous said...


Here's a link to Chapter 1 of Aroup's book on Teresa, where he examines the "saint's" record of service during two devastating floods that occurred in 1996. Poplin's book on the saint claims to be an account of the time she spent with Teresa in Kolkata during the same year. I'd like to read Poplin's book first of all for veracity, and then to see if she has any genuine concern at all.


Gail said...

I find it interesting that this woman grates against your grain so much. The defensive tone of your blog adds credence to Poplin's claims that Christianity is "under attack" at universities. Having experienced the university setting before and after becoming a Christian, she should be able to evaluate the climate objectively. Prejudice against followers of Jesus Christ is as old as the faith itself. Even Saul, who later became known as the Apostle Paul, fought against early believers. Our prayer for you is that you will hear the words of Jesus that Saul heard. See the account in Acts 9 of the New Testament.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Your content-free response doesn't address any of the criticisms I put forth.