Harvard Gate: Too open to religion?














































































































God and Man at Harvard

In 2006, Harvard made religion a core requirement. A year later, a secular humanist explains how the prestigious university got religion right.

By R. Joseph Hoffmann

It might strike anyone as odd that someone who gets his paycheck from a secular humanist think tank would defend Harvard’s controversial general education requirement, passed last year, making religion a core subject for undergrads at America's premier university.

Harvard College has been around for over 370 years—that’s 140 years longer than the United States of America—and was born into a wilderness where the greatest fear of the Puritan colonists was the loss of their ageing Oxbridge-educated ministers. For well over a century, the College trained mainly preachers of the word. The liberal arts were unheard of. The Divinity School only came into existence in 1816, the first non-sectarian theological school in the country, to ensure that "every encouragement be given to the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth"—language considered bold at the time.

A room in Divinity Hall, a space away from the mother ship, Andover Hall, preserves the space where Emerson gave his famous Divinity School Address in 1838, at the invitation of that year’s senior class. Among other pronouncements in that address, Emerson said, “Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages ….It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” Harvard has never been a normal place.

The trouble arises when a subject thought to be isolated on the upper reaches of Francis Avenue seeps back into the Yard, the preserve of what secular Harvard has become since the days of President Charles Eliot, the creator of the famous “five foot shelf.” Eliot, the great reformer of American higher education, wrote in 1909 that his selection of books could be used by anyone as a “portable university,” approached as six courses: "The History of Civilization," "Religion and Philosophy," "Education," "Science," "Politics," and "Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts." Eliot did not consider the books a “canon,” but a curriculum in progress. As Harvard’s historian, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in 1936, the five foot shelf was the vision of a classicist, an optimist, "the best of his age--that forward-looking half-century before the World War, when democracy seemed capable of putting all crooked ways straight--the age of reason and of action, of accomplishment and of hope." For Eliot, the study of religion was part of what is meant to be an educated man.

So why all the fuss when the Committee on General Education tries to fling open the wrought iron gates and let God pass through? After all, without Him, no Harvard.

According to the most eloquent opponent of the “religion requirement” for undergraduates, there are at least four reasons why the gates should remain barred. Steven Pinker, Harvard’s Johnstone Professor of Psychology, listed them in a now-celebrated, and as it happened, decisive letter to the Harvard Crimson last October. Each was worthy of serious consideration, and Pinker’s letter got the attention it deserved. By last December, the Committee had reversed Professor Louis Menand’s proposal that the study of religion would help students understand the dynamic relationship between “reason and faith” and encourage them to unpack some of the thorniest issues of the twenty-first century, ranging from the cultural coordinates of religious violence to the shrill ethical debates over stem-cell research and cloning. In the final recommendation, the eight member task force announced, “Courses dealing with religion—both those examining normative reasoning in a religious context and those engaging in a descriptive examination of the roles that religion plays today and has historically played—can be readily accommodated in other categories.” For example, courses in “What it means to be a human being” might well touch on religious issues. Or not.

Unfortunately, a considered response to Professor Pinker’s objections got enmeshed in worry over the appearance that one of the University’s most distinguished and popular teachers—whose work is (indeed) admirable—would spoil the party: the unveiling of a new general curriculum at Harvard is meant to be a national event, one watched by lesser entities as a model for change and emulation. Yet, almost a year on, it is still unclear why the proposal was not debated more vigorously, why it was set aside so handily, and in particular, why Pinker’s objections were not argued in greater depth. For the sake of providing now what was not done then, here’s a stab at defending the original proposal:

Pinker first states that the requirement tries to escape scrutiny by squeaking under the door as something called “Faith and Reason.” This he says is a malignant way of introducing something that (everyone knows) is really a “religion” requirement. The nomenclature reminds him of the way “faith-based initiatives” are put forward euphemistically, when the Bush administration knows full well it is selling religion-based initiatives, a phrase that invites unwelcome judicial scrutiny. I understand Pinker’s worry. The title sounded suspicious (see below). But the phrase “faith and reason” is actually historically grounded in theology and philosophy. It’s embedded in Aquinas’s thought as a fundamental tension in religious belief. It’s enshrined in historical dialectic, as between “The Age of Faith” and “The Age of Reason,” that is, factually grounded in a description of historical epochs and the traits we can use to categorize social behavior and intellectual trends during those periods. Fortunately for all those history books that have chapters named after the dialectic, the phrase “faith and reason” has its own pedigree, dating from long before the Bush presidency.

Moreover, the very fact that the Committee uses this phrase indicates that the requirement is designed to focus on the intersection between belief and rational critiques of belief, something, judging from his work, Professor Pinker would welcome, since nowhere outside this requirement would the criticism of religious faith be mandated. Aquinas writes, or quotes, in one of his hymns, “Ubi fides est ratio fallitur.” That is, loosely translated, “Where reason fails, faith prevails.” If that were the intention of the requirement, I quite agree – it should be tossed out the nearest upper storey window and never brought up again. But I suspect that’s not what the Committee on General Education has in mind when it proposed the requirement.

Second: Pinker suggests that the juxtaposition of the words “faith” and “reason” make it appear that the two “thought-worlds” are equivalent, on the order of “Psychology and Parapsychology,” “Astronomy and Astrology,” that is, alternatively valid, or parallel, ways of knowing something. But the analogy is strained. Not only because faith and reason have different objects—I take it for granted they do—but because the apposition here would be (using his examples) “true faith and bad faith,” or “reason and irrationality.” “We have to help students navigate between [ways of knowing],” Pinker writes, “But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.”

That’s true. But given the historical lode of the phrase, “faith” as it has been understood in academic philosophy and theology has nothing to do with learning about the ambient world, which doesn’t require it, and “reason” is not a methodology but a term borrowed from Greek philosophy to describe a process of the soul in metaphysics. Like anyone of a certain age, I know what it means to talk about a reasonable man (or woman) a reasonable solution, and a reasonable outcome (even reasonable effort). But I also know that these are metaphors from a bygone era, when they referred to solutions of a certain quality, or people who were acting unemotionally and on the basis of reflection or evidence. A requirement that invited students to consider these important distinctions (and this is just the tip of the ideological iceberg) could hardly be out of place at Harvard, where such debates have been fueling intellectual engines for centuries. The very fact that there is confusion about the distinction seems to me a good reason to confront it in the curriculum rather than leave it enshrouded in semantic confusion. As a commentator on the final CGE proposal wrote, “Hell, I’ll bet Prof. Pinker could insert a course on the psychology of religion into the Core Curriculum’s culture and faith requirement, and he’d pack his course to the gills.” Exactly.

Pinker’s third point is a very important one: If the intention of the religion requirement is to educate students in the role religion has played in world history, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? “Religion is an important force, to be sure,” he says, “but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?” A subsidiary point is that religion may not be all that significant in terms of the conflicts (e.g., Northern Ireland, Iraq, etc.) that have been attributed to it. In a sense the subsidiary point justifies the requirement. For almost one hundred years, and not just at Harvard, the complex relationship between the way religion plays out in behavior and social groups has been investigated. Theologians who may once have claimed proprietorship of definition have had to suffer lectures from sociologists, anthropologists (and psychologists) for a long time.

To reify “religion” apart from social groups—a buzzword among theologians in the 1930’s, inherited from the anthropologists—is now considered impossible, and to talk about religion as “causative” in some abstract sense unrelated to the way in which doctrine (belief) inhabits a culture is becoming increasingly difficult. That makes Professor Pinker’s comment, while very well intentioned, a bit quaint: Religion as it was understood in Darwin’s day is not the way religion is understood or studied in the modern university. The defeat of the original proposal was transacted by turning “religion” into a convenient bugaboo, something secular Harvard would be morally pressed to reject. Assumptions unrelated to modern pedagogy and approaches to the subject matter seem to have prevailed.

One of the regrets of my educational life is that Robert Bellah, the great interpreter of American civil religion, removed himself toBerkeley from Harvard at the height of his career. It was Bellah’s title “Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World” (1970, a title shamelessly exploited by others since) that set the tone and understanding of the complex relationship between religious ideology and social behavior. Together with his studies of Emile Durkheim (“On Morality and Society,” 1973), Bellah made it clear that religion permeates the very things that Pinker regards as of parallel value: questions of nationalism, identity, class, social status are tied to it, and in its turn, religion is factorial in achieving a deep understanding of any of these issues. It is true, of course, that nationalism and globalization are “modern” topics, or at least modern as they are sometimes construed in university departments. For religion scholars, however, they have a long history, stretching back to Sumer, walled cities, and Reformation theologies of the state and the individual (even Boston).

As to the larger question: Why should we not count on this “deep understanding” arising from the existing Harvard courses such as “The U.S. and the World,” or an equivalent world civilization course, the answer is simply this: it is difficult to achieve an understanding of religion based on the general education history syllabi of most colleges in America. Indeed there is a legend that at the sub-collegiate level, students graduate from high school not knowing that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister, let alone what Martin Luther’s contribution to western civilization was. If Professor Pinker is satisfied that a student could learn enough science from knowing that Madame Curie was a Polish scientist who experimented with polonium and radium, or that a solitary work by Freud is included in a great books curriculum, then he will have a rough idea of how easy it is to trivialize content—or more exactly—how easy it is not to learn a subject simply through the handmaidenship of history and general surveys.

Professor Pinker’s fourth objection was less poignant and depends on accepting all of the previous points as settled: Because the topic is “too specific” for a general education requirement, why not call it “rationalism and empiricism, or idealism and materialism, or the subjective and the objective?” I imagine the philosophers in our midst will see that this suggestion is a further narrowing of the topic to treat themes, or schools of thought, in the history of philosophy, and not a broadening of it for general education purposes. It is perfectly possible—and perhaps this is the point—to deal with any of those pairs without dealing in any specific way with religion. But religion puts itself forward as something that ought to be studied in its own right, not because in doing so the student learns to value its influence or validate its claims, but so that the student will be able to evaluate it within a particular analytical frame of reference. And it is in providing that context that Harvard excels.

Having said all this, one can still wonder why the Committee chose originally to label the requirement “Faith and Reason,” defensible as it is, rather than “Examining Religion,” or “Religion and Human Society.” For me, this is the real challenge: not to oppose the plan because religion is understood one-dimensionally to be something alien to the liberal, secular or scientific consciousness--but to articulate the need for it in a more persuasive way. Religion left alone, religion unstudied, sequestered, absorbed in other subjects where it gets but passing mention, does not get you science and a progressive world view; it gets you naiveté about religion. While sympathetic to the rationale of not juxtaposing “Religion and Reason,” (inference: all religious people are irrational), I am troubled that the unvarnished, critical and non-confessional study of religion was not deemed appropriate by the curricular gurus on the Committee.

If Pinker is right, that the University is first and foremost in the Reason business, then there should be no hesitation in studying religion like any other subject matter. If in its broad sense, science is a “way of knowing”, then there should be no reason why science should not also provide ways of knowing about religion. And Pinker was right about something else: Europe has moved on, but it has moved on by providing more sophisticated ways of discussing a topic that is still very much alive in European universities.

The Harvard controversy demonstrates nothing so sharply as that America—even America’s premier university—is quite immature in knowing what to do with religion, a fact underscored in the final report which clings to something re-titled “Belief and Culture” (again?) as the substitute for “Reason and Faith.”

“Harvard is a secular institution,” the final report intones, in language that might be taken from the pages of a self-help manual, “but religion is an important part of our students’ lives….When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy.”

In short, all the wrong reasons for studying religion—because it is popular, widespread, and personally significant—triumph over the good reasons for studying it.

It is not, in the final calculation, whether religion ought to be studied—it should—but how this might have happened at Harvard. Now it will not. Not really. That’s a shame.


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R. Joseph Hoffmann is Senior Vice President of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., a twice-over graduate of Harvard Divinity School and still a watchful observer of trends there. He is also Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). He received his Ph.D. from Oxford University, where he was senior scholar at both Keble and St Cross College and University Lecturer in theology at Harris Manchester College and Westminster College.

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