Reason and faith in higher education
How should universities teach religion, if at all? It’s a touchy subject – one that even the mighty Harvard has struggled to wrap its collective head around. That’s the subject of an interesting recent Newsweek piece by Lisa Miller.
Miller tells the story of a general curriculum conflict at Harvard between those who want to integrate faith and spirituality into course requirements (via a mandatory module called “Reason and Faith”) and those who would rather keep religion out of the classroom. The author sides with the former group, suggesting that “[t]o dismiss the importance of the study of faith—especially now—out of academic narrow-mindedness is less than unhelpful. It’s unreasonable.”
Steven Pinker, the well-known evolutionary psychologist, led the charge against the “Reason and Faith” module, arguing that the university’s mission is not to give a platform to all popular claims, but to pursue knowledge through rational inquiry. Teaching the importance of faith – at least as part of a mandatory curriculum requirement – would be anathema to that mission.
I very, very, very much do not want to go on the record as suggesting that people should not know about religion. But reason and faith are not yin and yang. Faith is a phenomenon. Reason is what the university should be in the business of fostering.
I tend to side with Pinker on this, but I think there is a way to “meet in the middle,” so to speak. It’s true (at least in my view) that it would be harmful to imply, or explicitly suggest, that reason and faith are equally worthy ways of approaching truth. Many people seem to believe that, but a university should be in the business of evidence and reason, as Pinker suggests.
But Miller isn’t entirely wrong to complain of religion’s exclusion from standard curriculum. Even in the service of reason, it makes sense to teach students about religion. We can (and should) leave teaching them to be religious to the religions themselves and to the thousands of religious schools throughout the country. But even the most hardcore secularist should see the worth in educating the public, as Miller demands, about the world’s belief systems and their importance.
Unfortunately, that may not be enough for the proponents of religious curriculum. Miller expresses disbelief at the idea that religion doesn’t even have its own department at Harvard – it’s either taught through other fields, like anthropology or cultural / area studies, or in Harvard’s Divinity School (which tends to be made up only of believers). But isn’t it already conceding a lot to have “divinity schools” at major universities? And why shouldn’t religion be taught under the guise of anthropology or area studies? Pinker’s willing to concede that it’s at least a very important phenomenon, and that’s exactly how it’s taught in these fields.
I wonder if Miller et al are pursuing slightly more, and in the spirit of both religious and postmodern critics alike, calling for a breakup of reason’s monopoly on knowledge in higher education.
Image by David Gallagher used under CC license.