Open-mindedness: The New Closed-mindedness

Years ago when my sister was a senior in high school and I was on the philosophy faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, her religion teacher, a feminist nun, began the semester with the instruction that because no one had the truth about morality or religion, we should be open-minded to everyone’s point of view. After consulting with her philosopher-brother, my sister raised this question the next day in class, “If no one has the truth about morality or religion, isn’t that a good reason not to listen to others? After all, if no one has the truth on such crucial questions, why should I waste my time listening to people who can’t teach me anything?”

My sister was suggesting that open-mindedness is only a virtue if there is something that the mind may acquire that would make it a better mind, just as improving his jump shot would make Kobe Bryant a better basketball player. Assuming that the mind’s proper function is to know the truth, then it would seem that a mind that acquires truth is better than one that does not, just as an improved jumper by Mr. Bryant would contribute to his flourishing as a basketball player. So for the teacher to say that a prerequisite for open-mindedness on theological and moral questions is that one believe there are no true answers to those questions is like telling Mr. Bryant to practice his jumper but that it will do neither him nor the L.A. Lakers any good in the final score.

This posture is everywhere in our public culture. Take, for example, the case of Kenneth Howell, adjunct professor of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois, who was fired (though eventually reinstated) because he had the temerity to tell his students in a classroom lecture and in reply to an email query that the Catholic Church maintains that homosexual acts are disordered, that he agreed with that judgment, and that he could offer arguments for its rationality. This was just too much for the complaining student, who said in his grievance: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.” In other words, it is the public obligation of religious believers to treat their own beliefs as if they do not know them, since to claim that one’s theological tradition or its moral component counts as “knowledge” means that it may even be binding on those who reject it. According to this way of thinking, the Christian errs if he believes that the Apostles Creed is to theology as the periodic table is to chemistry.


That’s why the real question that seems to be lurking behind all the issues and passions that fuel the culture wars is this: Is theology a knowledge tradition? If it is, then certain implications follow. For example, if a Catholic university would never dream of hiring a chemistry professor who denies the periodic table, then it should not hire a Catholic theologian who denies the Apostles Creed. And from this realization, something else follows for our public life. It means that until one can fairly assess the actual arguments offered by the disagreeing parties on a particular issue (such as abortion or marriage) one cannot say for sure that moral views that arise out of religious traditions and linked to one understanding of the human person are more or less rational than those that arise out of secular traditions tethered to another, and often contrary, understanding of the human person. 

It should not surprise us, then, that in recent years the cause of unbelief, especially in the works of the so-called New Atheists (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), has become so fierce and unbending, in some cases morphing into a mirror image of the “fundamentalism” these unbelievers claim to loathe. For if they were to concede that the serious religious believer may have a point on any particular disputed question, this would betray the one unrevisable dogma that holds theological rivals permanently sequestered from the public conversation: secularism is the only deliverance of reason. Consequently, like my sister’s senior high-school religion class, we are ordered by our cultural betters to be open-minded, but not so open-minded as to entertain the possibility that theology could be knowledge. 

Thus, open-mindedness is the new close-mindedness.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).