A Religious Awakening

At Harvard, students are encouraged to critically engage every dimension of our lives except one: religion. Such peculiar institutional myopia harms students and reveals an unfortunate inconsistency in Harvard’s pursuit of its motto, Veritas. In truth, since religion is a no less prevalent nor less valuable form of diversity as race and class, the university should encourage discussion of this facet of the human experience as well. Harvard should also ensure that those who are unsure of their beliefs can be accommodated and not grant de facto preferential treatment to those with a religious affiliation.

First, consider the attention that we are told to give to equally controversial topics. Before freshmen even set foot on campus, the Freshman Dean’s Office tells students that “questions about identity and privilege seem especially important to consider”—identity with respect to “race and class,” that is. Socioeconomic and racial components of one’s life are worthy of focus, but these are not the only areas about which critical thought would benefit students. In the instance of Community Conversations, the College places an “emphasis not on finding ‘right answers’ but on figuring out where you stand.” Crucially, this demonstrates that issues of a debatable and personal nature are, in fact, the very exemplars of the dialogue “central to a Harvard education.”

Second, note how there’s no public forum for the general discussion of religious opinions. To be sure, there are a variety of specific religious student groups on campus. But there is no collective space in which critical thinking about religion in general, rather than a specific religious tradition, can occur. It’s true that the programming at Memorial Church is helpful with respect to a general Christian perspective, but there needs to be a place where students of all persuasions can ask more fundamental questions about religion. The Institute of Politics is responsible for fostering conversation within the political realm, but there is no similarly organized place for discussion of religious issues.

The IOP’s recent panel discussion “Challenges to Faith at Harvard” revealed more clearly Harvard’s need for a general religious space on campus. The IOP’s Harvard Political Union astutely recognized the lack of dialogue about religion, and held the event for this reason. As Shankar G. Ramaswamy ’11, chair of the HPU, noted, “We decided to have this event because it’s the type of matter that students might be reluctant to strike up a conversation about, because of the controversy around it.”

Third, a distinctly religious public discussion space would be an extension of current, albeit incomplete attempts to engage with students’ faith-based identities. Rather than being completely foreign territory, a university-sanctioned, interreligious place of dialogue would be an augmentation of current efforts. Harvard currently organizes a “Reflecting on Your Life” program for first years to see how their “personal values” might affect their desire for a particular “life dream.”

Yet this approach is insufficient. The College needs to recognize sooner or later that many students currently use a distinctively religious vocabulary, with all its metaphysical baggage, to address these same questions. And until the advantages of a faith-based approach to questions outside of students’ career or academic choices can be shown to be inappropriate for some students’ needs, Harvard should not be afraid to foster a distinctively religious dialogue.

Some without a particular faith might eventually want to try religious language, in all its diversity and complexity, on for size, perhaps without reference to a particular faith. These students, situated on the religious spectrum somewhere between agnosticism and a particular belief, should have a non-denominational space in which to voice their beliefs both with fellow students as well as with different religious groups on campus.

This new dialogue could take a number of different forms. One viable solution would be for all Harvard Chaplains to regularly extend invitations to students to ask questions about faith in general. Alternatively, student groups, in the spirit of this semester’s IOP event, could send a representative to a general religious caucus. These meetings would expand the dialogue among religious groups and provide a space in which students could find out more about this fundemental element of human experience.

True, not everyone desires to participate in religious life. But by offering the opportunity for communication between faiths and between believers and nonbelievers, the College can accommodate the diversity of student needs on religion. Yes, theists of nearly all faiths have communities to join, while atheists and agnostics have the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. But students who are interested in religion but are unsure whether a particular community will fit them should have a place, too.

The College has not yet chosen to foster religious dialogue in this way. There are many students who self-identify somewhere between pious and skeptical, and their interests have been unjustly neglected for fear of controversy. The University needs to facilitate discussion for those students who are interested in faith but are not yet ready to turn to a particular denomination.

As Community Conversations shows, clarification of the issues surrounding personal identity often involves debate and even some discomfort. But if an endeavor is worthwhile so long as it helps students better understand others’ identities, then the College needs to help students “become more aware of the diversity in society”—a society that is religiously as well as racially and economically diverse. The College should internalize its motto and realize that the examination of religious matters is an undeniable aspect of student life here at Harvard that deserves to be accommodated.

Gregory A. DiBella ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Mather House