Why Harvard Students Should Study More Religion

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. There are great teachers of religion at Harvard, she says, but because they're members of other departments, their reputations don't enhance the religious-studies program. Eck mentions Emory, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Smith, Carleton, and Macalester as places where religion departments thrive.

Harvard likes to regard itself as the best of the best. Yet even public universities—the University of Texas, Arizona State, and Indiana University, for example—generate more excitement around the subject of religion than Harvard does. A new religious-studies program at the University of Minnesota was launched last year; already it has more than 50 majors. "I have just been amazed at the breadth of the embrace that we have received here," says Jeanne Kilde, a professor of classics and Near Eastern studies who runs the program. Last year 33 Harvard undergrads chose to major in religion, compared with 704 in economics, 408 in government, 217 in history, and 45 in classics. "Hist and Lit," another boutique major without an official department, had 155 majors. In religious studies, says Eck, "we patch things together the best we can."

Undergraduates with more than a passing interest in religion are pointed to the Divinity School, half a mile away from Harvard Yard, where they can take graduate-level courses about belief from people who are, by tradition, believers. This separation of "faith" from "reason" occurred in the early part of the 19th century, when the American university evolved into a secular place. Even now, in an era when a presidential candidate cannot get elected without a convincing "faith narrative," the scholars who study belief continue to reside in the Divinity School, and when the subject of religion comes up, the scholars on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences sniff at its seriousness.

Such general disdain, combined with the bureaucratic awkwardness of navigating between the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, finally caused American Catholicism scholar Robert Orsi, who had been at Harvard for seven years, to flee for Northwestern University in 2007. "There is [such a thing as] a critical study of religion," he says. "It is a very important and interesting part of the human story, and people are teaching it at small colleges and state universities across America."

In dozens of phone calls and several trips to the Harvard campus, I tried to understand the faculty's anxiety about religion. The facile explanation is that more than a third of elite university professors are nonreligious, a dramatically higher percentage than the population at large. But both believing and nonbelieving scholars clearly can teach about religion in a secular setting without crossing the line into proselytizing. And wouldn't students benefit from having their assumptions challenged in a rigorous way? (Fluency in religious history and texts, in fact, is the sharpest weapon against fundamentalism, as Sam Harris demonstrates in his polemic The End of Faith.) "My colleagues fear that taking religion seriously would undermine everything a great university stands for," the Rev. Peter Gomes, Harvard's chaplain and a professor of Christian history, told me. "I think that's ungrounded, but there it is."

Steven Pinker says his main objection to the 2006 proposal that students be required to take a course in a Reason and Faith category was that it seemed to make reason and faith equal paths to truth. "I very, very, very much do not want to go on the record as suggesting that people should not know about religion," he told me. "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."

Pinker is a public intellectual, a celebrity on the Harvard campus, the kind of teacher who can draw 400 students into a lecture hall and who elicits star-struck stares in the Yard. His specialty is the evolution of language, but all his work, from The Language Instinct to The Blank Slate (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), coheres under the broad notion that a scientific, rational world view is the highest achievement of the human mind. As his wife, the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, put it to him on a day I visited them on Cape Cod, Mass., "All forms of irrationality irk you, but [religion] is the form of irrationality that irks you most." In Pinker's view, human progress is an evolution away from superstition, witchcraft, and idol worship—that is, religion—and toward something like a Scandinavian austerity and secularism. (Pinker is one of those intellectuals who speak frequently about how sensible things are in Europe; one suppresses the urge to remind him of the Muslim riots in the Paris and London suburbs.) A university education is our greatest weapon in the battle against our natural stupidity, he said in a recent speech. "We don't kill virgins on an altar, because we know that it would not, in fact, propitiate an angry god and alleviate misfortune on earth."

That insistence on the backwardness of religion is why, on a warm October afternoon in 2006, at a small faculty luncheon at a Cambridge, Mass., bistro called Sandrine's, Pinker launched his bomb. The topic of the meeting was curriculum reform, but Pinker homed in on religion, declaring that requiring students to take a course in a Reason and Faith category would be like requiring them to take a course in Astronomy and Astrology. "Faith," he said, "is believing in something without good reasons to do so. It has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these." His remarks that day ran in The Crimson and were picked up by the national press.

"For myself," remembers Derek Bok, who was Harvard's acting president at the time, "that was one of the less thoughtful remarks that I heard. This was a rhetorical flourish he threw in there. It caught people's attention—it did. He's very good at that."

Menand—who was co-chair of the curriculum-reform committee and had come to think that Reason and Faith was "a really great idea"—was not surprised by Pinker's remarks. He does not see himself as an advocate for the study of religion per se, but he does want students to engage fully with the messiness and contradiction of clashing ideas. He and Pinker have been intellectual rivals since 2002, when he eviscerated Pinker's book The Blank Slate in The New Yorker. ("Oh, I was pissed," says Pinker. Both now characterize their relationship as collegial.) Menand believes that Pinker's "scientistic" world view—that is, submitting everything, from painting to romantic love to empirical measurement—leads to a narrow and sometimes wrongheaded understanding of things.

Neither Menand nor anyone else is suggesting, in any case, that Harvard elevate God's Truth over the progress made through enlightened rational inquiry. But science isn't the only—or even always the best—tool for understanding human experience, and to hold science up as the One and Only Truth is a kind of fundamentalism in itself. Furthermore, as Menand points out, scientific truths shift over time, dependent as they are on history and culture: just look, he says, at the recent "discovery" of "behavioral economics." A humanist, he cracks, would never have expected people's saving and spending habits to be anything but irrational. For Harvard—or any liberal-arts college—placing value on the study of religion poses no threat to secularism, science, or rationality. As Menand puts it, "We teach stuff we don't believe in all the time."

Menand's strongest argument, though, centers on relevance. In his new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, he takes the modern university to task for its narrowness. Professors exist in their slim silos of expertise, training graduate students in esoterica to perpetuate their own interests. But since only a tiny fraction of Harvard students pursue academic graduate degrees, Menand says, the academy is not serving its students very well. Menand believes—passionately—that, as he wrote in the final document summarizing the new goals and categories for curriculum reform, college is a time to "unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what's going on beneath and behind appearances." Forcing kids to grapple head-on with the world view of a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist, say, would be a part of this unsettling.

By floating the idea of a religion requirement, then, Menand and the other members of the committee were essentially saying that religion matters. It matters in the world, and it matters to our students. In their adult lives, Harvard grads will have jobs that take them to far-flung places, and they will live with people who are dramatically unlike themselves. They may live in a town where the school board is considering teaching creationism or the library is aiming to ban Harry Potter. Just because the study of religion does not fit into the narrow categories the university has created for itself does not mean that students should not equip themselves—in a rational, secular context—with a vocabulary for thinking about it.

Menand insists that Pinker's rhetorical assault did not kill the religion requirement. In the political climate of the time—this was just after Larry Summers's spectacular flameout as Harvard's president—it was crucial to get curriculum reform passed, and in the interest of efficiency the religion requirement was bartered away for a broader category. But Menand agrees that Pinker's vocal antipathy contributed to a campuswide concern that the religion debate at Harvard could become a media sideshow and detract from the goal. "We dropped it because there was a ruckus," he says. In retrospect, he says, "I wish we'd hung onto it a little bit longer. It was a conversation worth having."

This year's freshmen, the class of 2013, are the first to benefit from the new General Education requirements that passed, finally, in 2007. During their tenure at Harvard, undergraduates now have to take one course in each of eight categories, including two in science and one in math. They have to take one course in a loose category called Culture and Belief, which includes religion courses but also classes in photography, mythology, and the literature of the quest. A student, in other words, can graduate from Harvard without having to grapple directly with questions about a world in which people define themselves and their histories according to their views of God.

Harvard students are increasingly "churchgoing, Bible-studying, and believing," says Jay Harris, the dean who administers the General Education program. "We have a very strong evangelical community. We have women walking around in hijabs." The disinclination of the faculty to bring religion front and center puts teachers at risk of being radically out of step with their students. Pierpaolo Barbieri, who sat on the Crimson editorial board at the time of the 2006 religion debate, agrees: "Growing up after 9/11, you need to fathom how other people think. With rationality, it would be very difficult to understand how someone could get on a plane and do that." Barbieri, who is now getting his master's in economics at Cambridge University, supported Reason and Faith in an editorial.

On one of my visits to the Yard, I met a sophomore named Ryan Mahoney in a basement pub. Raised in Queens, N.Y., and educated, as generations of Irish Catholics have been, by Jesuits who saw in him some promise, Mahoney was forthright about a despondent feeling he had, in class and among his friends: neither the Catholic theology that framed his thinking nor the religious community that gave him comfort were appropriate subjects for discussion. He once overheard students in the dorm making fun of his rosary. "I do not think there would be any openness to discussing God in any of the classes I took last year," he said. "But acknowledging the fact that religion exists and that it's not lunacy to believe in God would be helpful." To dismiss the importance of the study of faith—especially now—out of academic narrow-mindedness is less than unhelpful. It's unreasonable.

Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor. Her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife is due out from Harper in March.