God and Man at Harvard

Demanding a better discourse

A few weeks ago, my friends and I were joined at dinner by a tutor in our House. As conversations tend to do, ours drifted from topic to topic until it somehow settled on religion. The tutor expressed strongly anti-religious views: Religion’s claims are not only false, but contrary to reason; it engenders fanaticism; it causes people to behave in irrational and dangerous ways. To make matters worse, all these things are obvious, and religious people are too blinded by their myths to see the plain truth.

I was shocked to hear someone I had always considered thoughtful and intelligent level these reductive charges against religion, and with such a lack of nuance. (I want to make it clear that his remarks caused no offense, that he spoke without malice, that the conversation which followed was civil, and that he somewhat moderated his views.) But as we spoke, it became obvious that he held pernicious assumptions about all religions and all religious people. I wondered what would happen if he made analogously bad assumptions and generalizations about something else, like race, class, gender identity, or sexual orientation. That conversation left me with a keen awareness that, for some reason, many people here at Harvard view religion as peculiarly bad, dangerous, or silly.

I am not trying to argue that religion should not be criticized. Far from it: I think that criticizing religion—both religion in general and particular manifestations of it—makes religion and its votaries better. It forces people to reflect on the institutions and traditions associated with their faiths, and to be informed and aware as to what they believe and why. It also serves as a catalyst for necessary change. As a person of faith, I am glad there are critics of religion. However, I wish that more of those critics were informed, that more of them did better than simply parroting Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, and that more of them understood what they were criticizing. In other words, I wish that critics of religion took more time to familiarize themselves with the thoughtful religious perspective.

But more than this, I wish that we expected this of them. I wish that we expected their arguments to be as logically rigorous (and modest) and historically informed as we expect the arguments of religious apologists to be. As one of those apologists, I am aware that my defense of faith cannot be premised on uncertainty, the miraculous, or a lacuna in our understanding of the natural world. Atheist critics, however, are given passes when they casually blame religion for both virtually all historic and present-day suffering and violence, when they ignore the metaphysical or moral problems with their own theories, or when they conflate tradition with superstition. Being a community whose common purpose is scholarship and intellectual exploration, we fail ourselves when we fail to question attacks on religion as vigorously as we do its defenses.

The purpose of this column is not to defend of religion. Offering an adequate defense, one that is able to fairly articulate the points made by critics of religion and give thoughtful responses to them, is too large a project to take up here. Instead, I hope to bring to light an atmosphere where religion is, in very subtle yet unmistakable ways, looked down on.


Anecdotes abound. I could write about the time when two of my friends were sitting in a dining hall discussing the declining influence of religion in America and a stranger felt compelled to insert himself into their conversation just long enough to say, “Isn’t that great?” Or I could write about how some people listen to me explaining my religious beliefs with palpable amusement or condescension. Or I could write about how and why a Catholic student I know, when telling people he is involved with various Christian student associations, feels the need to include, “and I ‘believe it.’” But I am not a skilled enough writer to tell a story in a way that would communicate the subtle bias many people have against religion.

Harvard is a wonderful place, filled with wonderful people. I am not trying to say that we go to school in a hot-bed of anti-religious fever. All I mean to do is make people aware of a prejudice that, although mostly benign, can do real damage to our discourse. I will close with an observation my roommate made: Harvard has myriad classes, tutors, and resources specializing in racial and sexual sensitivity, but nothing analogous for religion. I do not want to create an office of religious sensitivity, but I think it is telling to examine what we choose to be sensitive toward, which sometimes is just another way of saying what we choose to be informed about.

Isaac G. Inkeles, ’16, lives in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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