Wednesday, December 20, 2006

According to Harvard University, Religion 'is an American Anachronism . . . the Rest of the West is Moving Beyond it'

Here's how a Harvard professor of psychology critiqued the latest curriculum; excerpts from:

Harvard Redefines Education
By Steven Pinker
The Harvard Crimson
December 1, 2006

My . . . reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. 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.

Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?

There is also considerable disagreement over whether religion really is the driving force behind the conflicts that are commonly attributed to it. Many people in Ireland insist that the Ulster conflict is about British rule versus Irish unification, not about Protestantism versus Catholicism.

And among the Islam-aligned forces with which our country is currently entangled, Saddam Hussein’s Baathism is more secular and nationalist than it is religious. Whether or not religion is a major force is a question best left to our colleagues in history, government, and area studies, in the context of the broadest possible study of world affairs. This empirical issue should not be prejudged in the categories of a general education requirement.

Fourth, if the requirement is supposed to be about the clash in the history of ideas between religion and reason in Western thought, here again it seems far too arbitrary and specific a choice for a general education requirement. Why not rationalism and empiricism, or idealism and materialism, or the subjective and the objective?

Finally, if the requirement is meant to be the union of all or any of these (some students concentrate on Islamic jihad, others on the Reformation, still others on the argument from design or the ontological argument for God’s existence, still others on biblical history), it just doesn’t hang together as a coherent requirement.

Again, we have to keep in mind that the requirement will attract attention from far and wide, and for a long time. For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.

About a week later, the above thought prevailed at Harvard, as you can read in the excerpts below from the Boston Globe:

Harvard panel sets aside plan on religion
By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff
December 13, 2006

Professors designing a new curriculum for undergraduates at Harvard University have rescinded their proposal that all students take a class dealing with religion.

Instead, the faculty task force suggested a different, broader category, "what it means to be a human being," in a revised proposal released late last week. The human nature requirement would encompass religious thought, art, literature, and philosophy, as well as evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

Harvard made waves in October when the task force released a preliminary redesign for general education -- the requirements imposed on students outside their major -- that included a category called "reason and faith."

The original proposal said students often struggle to make sense of the relationship between their own religious beliefs and the secular and intellectual world they encounter in college.

It also noted that wars are fought in the name of religion and that the topic is central to some of the most contentious contemporary debates, over evolution, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. It said "reason and faith" courses were not meant to be "religious apologetics," but examinations of cultural and social context.

"What it means to be a human being" is an attempt to cover important aspects of the humanities that received less focus in the original proposal . . . and is not meant as a direct substitute for religion.

"I think secular and liberal Harvard rebelled," government professor Harvey Mansfield, one of the campus's most outspoken conservatives, said last night.