Pursuing Faith at a `Godless' School

Tension Between Sacred and Secular Marks Study, Practice of Religion at Harvard

Religion and Harvard have never had a simple relationship.

The University was founded as a divinity school to train Puritan ministers. For years, Harvard's presidents were themselves ministers. Even today, the song "10,000 Men of Harvard" sings the praises of Puritan ideals.

However, according to The Harvard Century, by Richard Norton Smith, "Seventeenth century Harvard opened its doors to Copernican theory, in clear contradiction to Scripture and more than a hundred years in advance of European universities."

Harvard's "heresy" so repelled then-President Increase Mather that he left in 1701 to found a "new, more pious academy" in New Haven. And today, one of the most common adjectives tacked in front of "Harvard" when speaking of religion is "godless."

Clearly, Harvard is no longer the Christian fortress of the past. But neither is it the bastion of atheism that some claim it to be. More than 350 years after the founding of the school, the tension between its sacred and secular sides has yet to be resolved.


University Marshal Richard M. Hunt, who chairs a faculty committee on religion says that currently religion at Harvard is "a mixed picture of lights and shades."

"There is questioning and serious interest in various religious phenomena that was not there before," he says, referring to increased attendance of religious services. "[But] some of the interest may be superficial."

As chair of the religion faculty, Hunt advises President Neil L. Rudenstine on religious issues.

He also endorses appointments to the United Ministry of Harvard, which, according to the Handbook for Students, is "an association of denominational chaplains who are united in an interfaith ministry to the University."

Founded in the late 1970s, the Ministry is intended to mediate between religions groups on any misunderstanding or cooperative effort.

Needless to say, the sort of pluralism represented by the Ministry--where all religions are treated equally--is a far cry from the days of Puritan monotheism.

"This is a multi-cultural environment--some of the tension comes out and into play," Hunt says.

But Hunt believes that the attitude towards religion at Harvard is characterized by neglect rather than opposition or discouragement.

"The University is a secular community. Religion takes place within it, but not especially supported by it," he says.

Father Richard J. Malone, co-chaplain of the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Students Center, agrees that religion is not particularly encouraged at Harvard.