Louis Menand, the Pulitzer Prize–winning literary critic and English professor, together with a small group of colleagues tasked with revising Harvard's core curriculum, made the case that undergraduate students should be required to take at least one course in a category called Reason and Faith. These would explore big issues in religion: intelligent design, debates within and around Islam, and a history of American faith, for example. Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist, led the case against a religion requirement. He argued that the primary goal of a Harvard education is the pursuit of truth through rational inquiry, and that religion has no place in that.But I think the Newsweek author is a little unfair, because religion hasn't been eliminated from the academy entire. At the same time we have an article in Inside HIgher Education talking about sociologists studying religion:
In the end, Menand & Co. backed down, and the matter never made it to a vote. ....To decline to grapple head-on with the role of religion in a liberal-arts education, even as debates over faith and reason rage on blogs, and as publishers churn out books defending and attacking religious belief, is at best timid and at worst self-defeating.
.... This separation of "faith" from "reason" occurred in the early part of the 19th century, when the American university evolved into a secular place. Even now, in an era when a presidential candidate cannot get elected without a convincing "faith narrative," the scholars who study belief continue to reside in the Divinity School, and when the subject of religion comes up, the scholars on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences sniff at its seriousness.
Although there is some concern about the motive behind funding
As a new study has found, there has been a significant increase over the last 25 or so years not only in the quantity of work done by sociologists on religion, but also in how religion is treated in those studies. No longer is it assumed to be only a reflection of some other socioeconomic trend, but increasingly it is treated as the factor that may be central to understanding a given group of people.....
a dominant belief in sociology for much of the mid-20th century was that as societies became more and more advanced, the role of religion would decline. Gross said that he sees much of the renewed interest in religious issues coming from the failure of that theory. "Lots of sociologists have started to explain why societies that were very advanced weren't as secular as previous scholars thought they would become," he said.
One reason sociology as a field long dismissed religion was because of an assumption that it was studied by those who wanted to advance a faith, not scholarship.The history of religion is also being studied. What's missing in these however is studying religion itself, rather than its effect in social movements. (We'll talk more about that next time.)
I will completely agree that the subject of religion is certainly one appropriate for intellectual study. Indeed, I would argue that it is too important to be left solely to religious practitioners rather than active scholars. It is absolutely possible, and indeed, I think essential, to critically examine the contributions of any major cultural influence on society and history, and that includes a full awareness of its texts. It is also possible to examine the underpinnings of different faiths without disrespect or proselytizing-- or adhering to them. Of course adherence should not be sufficient to disqualify a scholar, either...as long as they maintain appropriate scholarly objectivity and discipline.
How can we turn out students with an "education" that does not give them tools to understand the background of some of our major global issues? Imagine trying to make foreign policy without an understanding of at least some Islamic history, or the Jewish identity with the land of Israel, or the conflicts between Orthodox and Catholic in the Balkans, Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Hindu and Sikh in India. Imagine trying to navigate our own political conflicts between fundamentalist Biblical literalists and secularists, without understanding any of the history of those using religious motivations as justification? Indeed, the naked conflict between fundamentalist belief and more nuanced modernism is at the root of the political battle I most care about, marriage equality.
There is a difference between studying religion and theology with the goal of becoming a minister, and studying religion and theology for its undeniably important place in our world. So, while I would have a problem giving a student a state stipend to get his M.Div with the goal of ordination (the state should not support any religion ), I would ahve no problem with giving a student a state stipend to get his MA or PhD in religion (academic, rather than theological degrees for the study, rather than practice). That's not supporting religion, but supporting a valid intellectual inquiry.
That we seem unable as a society to tell the difference between studying a subject dispassionately, and being a partison or advocate, is yet another example of the intellectual failure on both sides of this debate. Regardless of whether one is a believer or not, you cannot deny the role that belief plays in the lives of millions of people. To dismiss study of a particular area because of disdain for that area is as anti-intellectual as denial of evolution.
Isn't it remarkable that the profoundly religious and profoundly anti-religious end up in the same place on this one.
I think this helps explain why I, a non-believer, hang out on religious sites. Religion as a cultural influence is too important to be left only to the religious. As long as religion deeply affects my life, whether or not I am a practitioner, I have an intellectual reponsbility to engage the religious.