Harvard's Crisis of Faith

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, February 22, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Harvard's Crisis of Faith


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

Can a secular university embrace religion without sacrificing its soul?

It doesn't take a degree from Harvard to see that in today's world, a person needs to know something about religion. The conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians; between Christians, Muslims, and animists in Africa; between religious conservatives and progressives at home over abortion and gay marriage--all these relate, if indirectly, to what rival groups believe about God and scripture. Any resolution of these conflicts will have to come from people who understand how religious belief and practice influence our world: why, in particular, believers see some things as worth fighting and dying for. On the Harvard campus--where the next generation of aspiring leaders is currently beginning the spring term--the importance of religion goes without saying. "Kids need to know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia," is something you hear a lot.

But in practice, the Harvard faculty cannot cope with religion. It cannot agree on who should teach it, how it should be taught, and how much value to give it compared with economics, biology, literature, and all the other subjects considered vital to an undergraduate education. This question of how much religion to teach led to a bitter fight when the faculty last discussed curriculum reform, in 2006. 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. A more brutal fight was put off for another day. But that's a pity--for Harvard, its students, and the rest of us who need leaders better informed about faith and the motivations of the faithful. Harvard may or may not be the pinnacle of higher learning in the world, but because it is Harvard, it reflects--for better or worse--the priorities of the nation's intellectual set. 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.

Harvard's distaste for engaging with religion as an academic subject is particularly ironic, given that it was founded in 1636 as a training ground for Christian ministers. According to the office of the president, Veritas was only officially adopted as its motto in 1843; until then it had been Christo et Ecclesiae ("For Christ and the Church"). While it's true that other Ivy League colleges don't require undergrads to take religion (with the exception of Columbia, where readings in the mandatory Contemporary Civilization course include selections from Exodus, the Book of Matthew, Saint Augustine, and the Quran), it's fair to say that the study of religion at Harvard is uniquely dysfunctional.

Religion at Harvard doesn't even merit its own department. Professors who teach religion classes generally belong to other departments--anthropology, say, or Near Eastern languages. A Committee on the Study of Religion oversees the courses, but it can't hire and fire, and it can't grant tenure. Diana Eck, the top scholar of world religions who runs the program, argues that its second-class status prevents it from drawing the biggest talent to campus--and, as a result, the most gifted students.

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