Harvard had previously announced that it was adding a religion or “Faith and Reason” course to its core-curriculum requirements for all undergraduate degrees. This week it reversed this decision. The university’s Task Force on General Education instead recommended adding a “What it means to be a human being” course to the curriculum. This course certainly sounds interesting and a worthy addition, but I do think that a religion course would also be beneficial. We see the far reaching effects of religion in its various manifestations on a daily basis in our own lives in the workplace and home, as well as on the national stage as politicians trumpet their devotion on the campaign trail. Religion is also a major piece of international diplomacy and conflict.
Therefore it was surprising for me to see Harvard’s own Steven Pinker, professor of psychology, make incredibly irrational conclusions in his objections to adding either a religion or faith and reason class to the core curriculum:
Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like â€œfaithâ€ and â€œreasonâ€ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faithâ€”believing something without good reasons to do soâ€”has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for â€œAstronomy and Astrologyâ€ or â€œPsychology and Parapsychology.â€ It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.
Pinker makes several misjudgments in this statement:
- “universities are about reason, pure and simple”–if only it were that simple. Almost every issue that I face in my discipline of biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies is difficult and complicated. I’m not sure Pinker is living in the same academic environment that I am. Furthermore, there is a vast amount of stuff that comes out of higher education that is anything but reasonable and flows merely from one’s faith position or lack thereof (which I would argue is still a faith position).
- “Faithâ€”believing something without good reasons to do so” If there ever has been a more inaccurate and completely biased definition of faith I have not encountered it. And this blunder is from someone who is engaged in “reason, pure and simple.” I agree with Pinker that beliefs that lack proper grounding do not have a place in academics, but our definitions of faith come out of different dictionaries. And to say that faith positions a priori lack proper grounding says more about one’s naivete concerning faith positions than it does about the faith positions themselves.
- Pinker brings up epistemology in his denigration of faith as a valid source of knowledge and opts only for reason because faith and reason are not parallel ways of knowing. Let me just say that I think the Enlightenment project of reason alone as the conduit of knowledge has run its course and we now see that it is a dead-end road. An epistemological methodology of reason alone is self-defeating and ultimately leads to nihilism or nihilism’s fraternal twin existentialism. We see this today in countless college and university departments which make conclusions that are based on anything but reason.
I think Harvard would do well to add a religion course to its core curriculum. It would help prepare their students for the world in which they live–a world that contains many opportunities and pitfalls bound up in religious ideas.
What do you think?