Faith and Only Faith

Religion must be studied on its own terms

With the Task Force on General Education’s proposed Reason and Faith requirement, the administration has commendably recognized the importance that religion has played—and will long continue to play—in our society.

We believe understanding the interaction between reason and faith is one of the cornerstones of a liberal arts education.

Yet, the report also acknowledges that we live in a global world. It is a world where Harvard brooks more skeptics than elsewhere, where globalization’s spread of ideas has not made the world at large less unctuous—or many people more prone to temper their faith with reason.

We wonder if the study of religion on its own terms might not be more helpful in assisting us to understand our “global society,” as the Task Force is fond of calling it, than the particularly Western notion of faith’s interaction with reason.

Yesterday, Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein published an excellent piece in The New York Times relating his troubling experience asking every government employee he could—FBI agents, congressmen, and State Department employees alike—if they understood the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

The results are dismaying, if predictable—few of the officials who should know the differences actually do. If we had our druthers, every Harvard graduate and civil servant would have understood immediately the importance of the bombing of the al-Askari shrine this past February in the Iraqi city of Samarra. Who could have noted it at that time as one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest sites, and how many Harvard students could have predicted the upswing in violence, now bordering on civil war, its destruction immediately caused? We would have Harvard students likewise know which group of Muslims eagerly awaits the coming of the twelfth Imam, who has reputedly been hidden for a millennium and who, it is said, will redeem the world when he returns. These bits of knowledge may seem pedantic, but they matter to a great many people (Iran’s unstable and millenarian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, to name a notable one) who, in turn, matter a great deal to the West.

We cannot see how such important knowledge, with its attendant modern-day relevance, would be imparted by the Reason and Faith requirement as is.

One thing is certain—had the distinctly irrational Islamists of 9/11 not committed the crime they did, Reason and Faith would not appear today as a requirement. More must be done to draw this requirement’s inspiration and its proposed form together.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Mather House. Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Mather House.