Religion Today

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How should Harvard students study Religion?

In October 2006, Harvard University caused a stir when it released a preliminary report detailing a committee’s ideas for a new General Education curriculum. Among the usual science, writing, math, and history requirements was a mandated category of courses called “Reason and Faith.” CNN was typical of the media interpretation when it wrote that Harvard would “require all undergraduates to study religion.” Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker railed against the proposal, saying that even the title “makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing,” while the President and Provost of the University of Notre Dame, an openly Catholic institution, countered in The Washington Post that, “It's time for universities to explore the reasoning that is possible within a tradition of faith.”

This month the committee released its final recommendation for General Education. Gone is the category Reason and Faith. In its place is one called “Culture and Belief.” This new category is much broader and therefore harder to define, but it also more accurately reflects the role of religion in society and the place of its study in a university education.

The Harvard report’s “Reason and Faith” category quickly became the focus of a debate about the role of religion in general education rather than a debate about the requirement itself. The discussion ignored the fact that the requirement did not privilege religion as much as it set religion up for an examination of its weaknesses and failings. The requirement expected the examination of religion primarily in its conflict with the modern world in general. In academic parlance, “reason” is short-hand for the intellectual changes that have shaped the modern world. It refers to science and the scientific worldview, to technology, and to secularism. The report suggested that courses fulfilling this requirement could focus on “Religion and Science,” “Medicine, Spirituality, and Religion in Modern America,” and “Wars of Religion” (not religious attitudes towards war), as well as courses in religion, democracy, and “closed societies.”

Given that Harvard University understands itself as “profoundly secular,” one can imagine how these comparisons would have come out. At best, courses would treat religions as well-meaning but incapable of meeting modernity’s challenges. And having this as a general education requirement for all students would actually end up promoting the idea that religions are inferior to science and hence should be ignored.

By changing the final requirement to one of “Culture and Belief,” Harvard shifts the emphasis from religion’s clash with modernity to religion’s role in the world’s cultures, including our own. Rather than compare religion with science on science’s terms, the courses will focus on religions and the impact (or lack thereof) their beliefs have upon the cultures in which they reside. This enables students to study religions in their own right, as they occur in the realm of human social activity, rather than in the more philosophically posed debates about war, science, and medicine. It also moves away from current American cultural debates towards longer lasting and more enduring approaches. This is good, for after all, this is a requirement of general education, not a major or a degree.

By pairing culture with belief, however, Harvard’s new requirement labors under the meaning of the two words of its title. First, by emphasizing “culture”--that broad category which can refer to nearly all features of human society, from food and clothes, morality and family structure, to music and popular culture--the requirement places religion into a vast sea of human activity. While that is certainly where religion exists and should be studied, it is also in danger of being diluted by the currents of these other aspects as they ebb and flow.

Second, by using the term “belief,” rather than “religion” or even “faith,” the requirement suggests that the importance lies in what people think. It ignores the fact that religions are also about human activity and motivation. While repeated actions such as worship and ethical behavior calmly shape a society on a daily basis, religion also motivates people to monumental deeds that can shift the character and direction of a society overnight.

In the end, Harvard University’s new formulation of its general education requirement constitutes a step in the right direction, but it remains a compromise between those who think that it is important for students to understand something (anything!) about religions, and those who do not.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Coming to Zion

The human desire for friends is probably one of life's few universals. We want to be with people like us, people who like us, and people whom we like. Being together creates familiarity and mutual acceptance. We work to support one another, care for one another, and celebrate personal successes and special times with one another. In general, we find that we enjoy our friends and so we hang out together when we can.
Often our circles of friends exist within larger networks of people organized around institutions like work, sports teams, religion, colleges or universities, or even larger networks like towns or villages, ethnic groups, social class or national citizenship.
We tend to see our social circles and networks as "people like us"; people with similar characteristics, goals and desires. In contrast, we often view people outside our social networks as different from us. These people are perceived as strange, unknown, or even dangerous. In times of social stability and calmness, the difference results in social friction or bigotry. In times of upheaval, calamity and war, smaller groups may find themselves persecuted and attacked by larger groups.
Persecuted religious groups may deal with their situation in a number of ways. They may develop eschatology, a belief that God will end their situation by sending a divine leader or a heavenly army and overturning the oppressive order. Some groups will move, immigrating to a better place. For example, Puritans came to America, while Jews went to what was then Palestine.
Both groups understood their migration in positive rather than negative terms. They were not running away; they were going to a special holy place, namely, to Zion. They were going to a land where they would shape a new life, one guided by a divine hand, and one where all like them would be welcome. It would be a new nation, a beacon shining out and bringing in God's people. The newcomers would be free from the bigotry and persecution they left behind, and would live peacefully among their religious brothers and sisters.
The Puritans had the easier time. They came in ships and then settled into communities based on the ships. In what they perceived as wilderness (overlooking those who already lived in America), they formed isolated colonies, largely free to develop on their own.
The Zionist Jews who immigrated to Palestine faced a different problem, one which became more prominent after Israel's independence in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Jews migrated to the new nation to join fellow religionists. They gained a new identity, but not the one they sought. Once there, the human tendency to associate with friends took hold and exclusive groups developed. The new identity was no longer based on religious adherence because everyone belonged to the same religion. Instead, they were identified with their lands of origin, the places they were trying to escape.
The ironic situation developed in four primary ways.
First, in their place of origin, Jews were identified as members of their religious group to distinguish them from the people around them. The difference became the basis for varying levels of social rejection, from mere friction to outright persecution.
Second, to achieve social acceptance, some Jews migrated to Zion, to Israel.
Third, once they arrived in Zion, they were religiously like everyone else, and so their religious identity carried no distinguishing characteristics.
Lastly, since the people's distinguishing features derived from their place of origin, even though they were religiously accepted, they remained culturally set apart. Their manners of dress, their food, their native language and accents, all came from the place they sought to leave when they came to Zion. That differentiated them from others in Zion. The place they escaped became their primary identity. This can be seen clearly in Jerusalem's restaurants. One cannot go out to eat "Jewish food." Instead, one goes out to eat the foods that Jews cooked for centuries in the countries from which they came: Italian, Polish, Arabic, Greek, French, etc.
In the end, Zion has become a place of separation within unity, where people who came to be with those of their own religion were separated into enclaves made up of those who are like them, who are from the same country of origin. This is true not only for this Zion, but for other Zions as well—that is, for other religious centers to which people migrate.