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November 27, 2006

Religion in the Ivy League

Hands In today's "BreakPoint" commentary (you do subscribe, don't you? It's free!), Chuck talks about Harvard's decision to include a religion requirement in the core curriculum.

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.

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Donald McLaughlin

The main objector was Harvard U's Steven Pinker, author of "The Blank Slate" among other books and a well known atheist, philosophical naturalist and one of the 'brights' that Regis Nicoll has written about elsewhere in this blog. In his editorial in The Crimson, Pinker writes:

"The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated."

Note how Pinker defines what it means to be "educated". For Pinker and those of his ilk it means accepting the primacy of science and reason over all other modes of thinking AND accepting that religion and religious ideas are irrational. If that is NOT second nature to you, then you're simply 'not educated'.

But Pinker has a problem, and its one of his own making. In the book I mentioned above, Pinker argues that our thoughts, beliefs and so forth really are little more than the result of the biochemical processes by which our minds operate. For Pinker, everything, including our thoughts are the end product of the blind, purposeless process of evolution. But that creates a real problem for Pinker. His belief that religious belief is irrational or his belief that science and reason produce truth is ITSELF the result of those same blind, purposeless evolutionary processes. Presumably Pinker 'believes' that his cognitve faculties, themselves the end products of those blind, purposeless evolutionary processes, have as one of their primary functions the production of true beliefs.
But surely there is something amiss here: it is mere question begging to make that assumption independent of other confirming data.

At best, if Pinker were going to do the intellectually honest thing, he needs adopt a position of agnosticism towards his own belief; at worst outright rejection of it. Niether choice is very convenient, however, for his philosophical naturalism.


Donald, you'll enjoy tomorrow's BreakPoint commentary, which addresses the issues you bring up.

Chuck Arnold

I always enjoy Breakpoint's commentary on current events & esp Chuck's insight on politics. However, I found Chuck's last paragraph to be quite naive esp the thot "...we ought to welcome the opportunity for an open, free debate." Liberals that I'm aware of will only debate if you agree with them (which is a contradiction in normal terms).

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