Religion Booknotes

The Decline of the Secular University
C. John Sommerville
Oxford University Press, $22, 160 pp.

In The Decline of the Secular University, C. John Sommerville describes the power of secularization in our common culture, and then identifies secularism as a militant ideology “that seeks to complete and enforce secularization.” In Sommerville’s view, secularism has had its most profound and damaging effects in our universities. There, he argues, secularism has undermined the intellectual rigor of teachers and their students by refusing to examine the presuppositions on which its vocabulary rests. Instead of such an examination, we get fatuous appeals to the “marketplace of ideas,” which make it increasingly difficult (and very impolite) to insist that some ideas are good and others bad. 

One of the consequences of this intellectual slackness, Sommerville argues, is that the influence of universities on public policy has shifted from academe to think tanks. He takes up Richard Posner’s thesis that conservative think tanks (mainly in Washington) have served as a counterbalance to the influence of “liberal” universities. Meanwhile, the postmodern tendency to resist all metaphysics or “metanarratives” has driven out substantive questions of political philosophy and...

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About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.