Religion in the Ivy League
The faculty panel has issued a report calling for a “faith and reason” requirement at Harvard, concluding that some knowledge about religion is a necessary part of being educated. The panel noted that while “Harvard is no longer an institution with a religious mission . . . religion is a fact that Harvard’s graduates will [have to] confront in their lives.”
And confront it they will. We live in a world today in which religious forces are creating a titanic clash of civilizations, one which threatens the very existence of the free structures of the West. People cannot understand why it is that Islam wants to destroy us if we do not understand the teachings of Muhammad or the history of the 1,000-year-old conflict between Islam and the West.
Closer to home, how could we possibly understand the economic development of America without understanding the work ethic of the Protestant Reformation? How could we understand the abolition of the slave trade without knowing the story of William Wilberforce, the great Christian reformer—the film of whose life, titled Amazing Grace, will be released in February? How could anyone understand the roots of Western civilization without understanding the formative influence of Christianity, brilliantly documented in Rodney Stark’s book The Victory of Reason?
Shocker: Not all are pleased with the decision:
Predictably, there were those who objected to Harvard's "faith and reason" requirement. A Harvard Crimson editorial said that the requirement gives "religious ideas" a "preeminence incommensurate with their proper place in understanding the modern world." In other words, while religion is important, it's just not that important, so says the postmodernist.
Two other students disagree with the Crimson editorial, saying the committee's requirement is a token gesture, at best:
Instead of teaching students religious principles, reason and faith courses [according to the committee] will “help students understand the interplay between religious and secular institutions, practices, and ideas.”
The committee’s implication is clear—religion may be useful as a lens through which we can better see our society, but it has less intrinsic value as a field of study than, say, science, history, or literature. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the general education committee require Harvard students to actually learn about religion as they do other fields? The general education report has relegated religion to the current events forum to be examined solely in the areas where it has overlap with society. . . . This view of “current events religion” pigeonholes the study and will limit how it should be appropriately taught as a general education requirement. Furthermore, it is only through a general understanding of a field that one can fully grasp how it applies to society and current events. Any course which fails to provide a general knowledge of the field before stressing application runs the risk of leading students astray.
Perhaps the required study of religion has no place at a secular university. But religion courses aren’t designed to convince or indoctrinate. Their purpose is to explore an academic discipline that receives little or no treatment at Harvard. Studying religion involves coping with unanswerable questions, confronting humanity’s limitations, and thinking beyond oneself. No literature or science course can teach these skills. And regardless of whether students are atheist or devout, thinking about religion in an academic environment expands their view of the world and opens their minds to a new and different way of thinking. The basic principle that underlies other areas of the general education report should apply to reason and faith: A fundamental understanding of religious thought precedes a successful examination of religion’s applications to society.
At best, Harvard has opened the door to conversation. Here's hoping students fill in the apparent holes of the committee's approach to teaching faith and reason.