The Dogma of Efficiency

Glen Newey · Save Keele Philosophy

Section 20 of the UK census asks respondents to specify their religion. The tick-box options cover ‘no religion’ as well as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism; it also includes a space for ‘any other religion’. In the last census, in 2001, the space was hijacked by 400,000 self-professed adherents of Jediism and the odd Pastafarian – so-called ‘fictional’ religions. This time, secularists have been urging respondents not to do this, because the results would overstate levels of religiosity in the population at large.

Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category. Wittgenstein said that superstition is belief in the causal nexus. In principle, more or less any content can serve as the stuff of dogma. And one thing it can displace is ‘traditional’ religion. As G.K. Chesterton remarked – hardly a non-partisan source, admittedly – when people stop believing in traditional religion, they start believing not in nothing, but in anything.

And what sort of things do they come to believe in? Astrology, L. Ron Hubbard, celebrity, the manifold promises of the New Age. And then there is ‘efficiency’. It has its dogmas, such as fungibility, and that convertibility – any convertibility – into specie is better than none. It has its ministers, almost uniformly male, clad not in chasubles or surplices, but suits. And, like the priests of old, these smiling, ever courteous corporate faces wreck lives.

Last week, Keele University announced plans to shut down its philosophy programme, in the name of ‘efficiency’ savings. It’s beside the point here that the methodology underlying the calculations is flawed and its specific application to philosophy very suspect. The 27-page document presented for consideration by the Senate on 23 March is a fully fledged statement of the post-Brownean credo, apart from the latter’s insistence on student demand as a touchstone of academic worth. Philosophy at Keele doesn’t enrol enough students to make money; but then, it is subject to a cap imposed by the government: there are fewer than 60 places this year. You break somebody’s legs then complain that they can’t keep up.

A number of us face redundancy, including support staff. There will be a lot more of this, in the higher education sector as elsewhere. As a friend who teaches in an east coast US university wrote to me, the closure ‘confirms all the horror stories about UK higher education that have been roiling the internet. The very idea that a vice-chancellor will talk openly about sacrificing a central component of the European intellectual tradition because it can’t generate revenue is pretty appalling.’

In Lady Windermere’s Fan Lord Darlington famously describes a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s a brilliant aphorism, but has always struck me as off-whack. Those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing are not cynics. They are deeply – though in a way that consists with extreme shallowness – religious.


  • 21 March 2011 at 2:19pm
    Eddie Fez says:
    This line of thought, of which John Gray is the most prominent exponent, that all political belief is in effect a redirection of religious impulse is crude and self defeating. In this case the cuts agenda might simply provide convenient cover for old fashioned British pragmatist philistinism, it's hugely conjectural and also revealing of the author's own prejudices to suggest thwarted religiosity is somehow at the bottom of this. Perhaps philosophy itself is merely a substitute religion, Wittgenstein started out a Catholic after all.

    "Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category."

    Not everyone who engages with religion is a fundamentalist.

    "The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the New Testament is metaphor, the Resurrection is a metaphor; and I feel perfectly within my rights in approaching my whole vocation as priest and preacher as one who is to present poetry."
    -RS Thomas.

    The situation at Keele University is a regrettable one, but this post with its air of the ivory tower seems almost designed to provoke negative solidarity of the "welcome to the real world" variety. The point is better made with the two penultimate paragraphs which drop the unconvincing surrounding argument for presentation of the facts.

  • 21 March 2011 at 2:21pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Well, we'll try. I was there in the early days and I like to think that I am still benefitting from the Foundation Year course. Would an open letter signed by as many Keele graduates as we can find be of any help?

  • 21 March 2011 at 8:56pm
    alex says:
    Influential alumni certainly help. This guy was important in preventing closure of the Philosophy Department at Liverpool a couple of years back:
    He makes a good case for philosophy in general.

  • 26 March 2011 at 9:20am
    Glen Newey says:
    For the latest, go to

  • 31 March 2011 at 10:03pm
    alex says:
    Another petition: