Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why study religion? (1)

There's a great piece in the new Newsweek about the intellectual justification behind the study of religion. It begins with a tale of curricular reform at Harvard:
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.

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.
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:

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.
Although there is some concern about the motive behind funding
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.

9 comments:

Fran said...

This is an outstanding post IT - thank you.

IT said...

Thank you Fran. I value your opinion!

it's margaret said...

Yes, it is good. --and yes, those who graduate with so-called Divinity degrees usually have to take physics, math, biology and history.... my not employ the same reasoning to the understanding of a requirement to study the mythos and imagination of faith parlance...

Recall said...

They renamed the category "Culture and Belief" which apparently satisfied Dr Pinker.

"Steven Pinker says his main objection to the 2006 proposal that students be required to take a course in a Reason and Faith category was that it seemed to make reason and faith equal paths to truth. "I very, very, very much do not want to go on the record as suggesting that people should not know about religion," he told me"

Newsweek apparently took some liberties in coming up with a provocative lede. Sadly, no one at SP seems to have read past it.

I think this helps explain why I, a non-believer, hang out on religious sites.

Got any to recommend?

textjunkie said...

Thanks IT, that's a great post!
I have to agree with Pinker that "Faith and Reason" is a bad requirement for a curriculum--but for me it is because it dichotomizes them, places an implicit "or" in between them and places them in opposition. The title "Culture and Belief" actually makes much more sense, and still allows things like the role of religious beliefs on cultural developments to be studied. Which it absolutely should be, without necessarily getting into arguments about theology.

IT said...

Yes, I like "Culture and Belief" better too.

Recall, you are welcome to visit with us here, and comment whenever you like, as long as you don't engage in snark for snark's sake.

JCF said...

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.

I find this a reductio ad absurdum. It's one thing to say that, for example, religion has no place in the study of physics, for example. But is the "pursuit of truth" to be limited to the empirical sciences? (better get rid of the Literature, Drama, Music, History, Philosophy departments, etc, etc!)

*****

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.

Either/Or, IT? Either "religious practitioners" *OR* "active scholars"? You KNOW that that is a radical dichotomy to which I have to take exception!

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).

Again, that's an Either/Or that I'm not sure holds up in the Real World. When I was at Union, I knew any NUMBER of M.Div students who either weren't pursuing ordination at all, or only as combined w/ another vocation (or "career", in secular terms). Do we compute, after the fact, how much someone's career is "secular", to determine how much of an M.Div to pay for?

I recognize the "Church/State" difficulties, here. On the other hand, when someone is in the academe it seems---well, f'd up---that Student X, unlike Student Y, can't get his/her (expensive!!!) education paid for, on the basis of having "the wrong major". Believe it or not, IT, MDiv-trained professionals (ordained or not) DO provide valuable services to the ENTIRE community they are in---whether you believe in their Brand X "god(s)" or not.

I don't pretend to be unbiased here . . . but it is a conundrum worth considering further. [And, yes-yes: other religious professionals serve to THWART the best interests of their larger (secular) communities, also.]

Where to draw the line? I honestly don't know.

IT said...

Heh. well, JC, I would put it to you that I don't think M. Div's are offered by state schools, which nonetheless can offer fabulous eductions in religious studies.

I don't mean to say that the M. Div is not a valuable degree. But it is not a purely scholarly degree either.

Oh, believe me, these arguments come out of all arguments between professional degrees and the purely scholarly.

David |Dah • veed| said...

Well then, TBTG that my MTh is a four year academic degree and not but a professional degree such as an MDiv!

So I could teach in the academy, and seek ordination. As once upon a time most religion professors did.