First, Der Spiegel accuses some Harvard students of being "abstinence apostle[s];” then, Newsweek accuses the faculty of harboring “general disdain” towards faith? Is it a case of being “damned if we do, and damned if we don’t”—or is it the case that we are just damned period?
Newsweek Senior Editor Lisa L. Miller, in a recent article titled “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith,” reported on “Harvard’s distaste for engaging with religion as an academic subject.” Ironically remarking that “it doesn't take a degree from Harvard to see that in today's world, a person needs to know something about religion,” Miller justified her assertion in light of the controversy raised after Harvard's 2006 “Report of the Committee on General Education.”
Suggesting the possibility of a General Education category titled “Reason and Faith,” the report raised serious questions about the role of religion in the classroom. "Reason and Faith" was eventually scrapped after serious opposition from faculty members like psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, who argued that the study of "faith" has no role in an institution that seeks to train students in the practice of rational inquiry.
Miller went so far as to characterize Pinker’s views as representing a belief that “human progress is an evolution away from superstition, witchcraft, and idol worship—that is, religion—and toward something like a Scandinavian austerity and secularism.”
She also cited committee co-chair and English professor Louis Menand, who disagreed with Pinker. “For Harvard—or any liberal-arts college—placing value on the study of religion poses no threat to secularism, science, or rationality," he said.
Reverend Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, echoed these views. "My colleagues fear that taking religion seriously would undermine everything a great university stands for. I think that's ungrounded, but there it is."
Miller wrote that she believes that this problem is also reflected institutionally within the College. The lack of a “Faith and Reason” General Education requirement, for instance, allows students to graduate without ever taking a formal class on religion. But we noticed that classes on religion abound at the College and fulfill three other General Education requirements. One of these requirements, "Culture and Belief," covers content remarkably similar to what would be included in the proposed "Faith and Reason" requirement.
Still, Miller pointed out that only 33 students graduated with a degree in comparative study of religion in 2009—a number that pales in comparison to the 704 economics concentrators who graduated the same year.
But even disciplines as seemingly dissimilar as economics and religious studies may not be as different as some might believe: after all, Economics 1776: “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" counts for both concentration credit in economics and the "Culture and Belief" General Education requirement.