NewsNote: Just How Secular Can an Education Be?

NewsNote: Just How Secular Can an Education Be?

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
February 15, 2010

Lisa Miller of Newsweek begins her article with what would seem to be a statement beyond dispute:  “It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard to see that in today’s world, a person needs to know something about religion.” Note that she does not make any specific religious or theological claims, and that her horizon of concern is decidedly this-worldly. She simply makes the common sense observation that a knowledge of religion is important in these times. This would make perfect sense to any journalist, and to just about any other person of intelligence and curiosity.

Nevertheless, that opening sentence about it not taking “a degree from Harvard” to see all this is filled with intentional irony, for Lisa Miller is taking Harvard University to task for its “crisis of faith” — which amounts to a crisis in its curriculum for undergraduates. As Miller explains, “the Harvard faculty cannot cope with religion.”

As she looks around the globe, Miller sees religion as a driving force of world events. In her words:

The conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians; between Christians, Muslims, and animists in Africa; between religious conservatives and progressives at home over abortion and gay marriage—all these relate, if indirectly, to what rival groups believe about God and scripture. Any resolution of these conflicts will have to come from people who understand how religious belief and practice influence our world: why, in particular, believers see some things as worth fighting and dying for.

But a 2006 proposal to require Harvard undergraduates to take at least one course in religion was flattened by faculty opposition. In that year, Harvard was considering a revised curriculum for undergraduates. Louis Menand, an influential English professor, and Steven Pinker, a well-known evolutionary psychologist, locked horns in a battle that went public, but ended with no religion requirement. Pinker argued that the modern university should be a completely secular space, where reason, and not faith, was the only legitimate concern.

Miller explains:

In the end, Menand & Co. backed down, and the matter never made it to a vote. A more brutal fight was put off for another day. But that’s a pity—for Harvard, its students, and the rest of us who need leaders better informed about faith and the motivations of the faithful. Harvard may or may not be the pinnacle of higher learning in the world, but because it is Harvard, it reflects—for better or worse—the priorities of the nation’s intellectual set. To decline to grapple head-on with the role of religion in a liberal-arts education, even as debates over faith and reason rage on blogs, and as publishers churn out books defending and attacking religious belief, is at best timid and at worst self-defeating.

In the midst of that fight, Pinker wrote a column for The Harvard Crimson that roiled the waters at Harvard. In that column he chided Menand and other colleagues for even contemplating a “faith and reason” component of a Harvard undergraduate education. First, he suggested that “faith” is just a code-word for religion. Then, he added:

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

In other words, even the use of “faith and reason” is illegitimate for Harvard (or for any other university) because faith has no place at all in the secular space of modern academia.

Miller recognizes the awkwardness of this claim, given Harvard’s history. “Harvard’s distaste for engaging with religion as an academic subject is particularly ironic, given that it was founded in 1636 as a training ground for Christian ministers,” Miller notes.  “According to the office of the president, Veritas was only officially adopted as its motto in 1843; until then it had been Christo et Ecclesiae (“For Christ and the Church”).”

She also notes that other major universities, including schools such as the University of Texas, Arizona State, and Indiana University, do include religion in the undergraduate curriculum and enroll a considerable number of majors.

Peter Gomes, Harvard’s chaplain, told Miller, “My colleagues fear that taking religion seriously would undermine everything a great university stands for . . . . I think that’s unfounded, but there it is.”

The secularization of the modern university is one of the most significant intellectual developments of the past century. The most elite institutions of higher education have, by and large, been the most ardent secularizers. Many of these, like Harvard, were established on explicitly Christian beliefs and for the purpose of educating future ministers. To professors like Steven Pinker, this is an embarrassment.

Pinker’s evolutionary psychology, well documented in his many writings, is one of the most reductionistic models of thought to be found. He reduces the human being and all human experience to the merely physical — everything experienced or imagined by the human being is nothing more than the work of biochemicals and physical entities that emerged out of the evolutionary process. Nevertheless, Pinker’s insistence on keeping Harvard free of any noteworthy study of religion at the undergraduate level prevailed.

Lisa Miller is perplexed by the Harvard faculty’s “anxiety about religion.” She is rightly distressed that students “can graduate from Harvard without having to grapple directly with questions about a world in which people define themselves and their histories according to their views of God.” Idolizing reason, the university has become unreasonable.

By now, evangelical Christians are well aware of the secularization of modern academia. Nevertheless, the secular extremism of faculty members like Steven Pinker — who won the battle at Harvard, after all — is unknown to many outside the modern university.

Lisa Miller is right to call this ideological secularism “unreasonable.” It is more than that, of course. It is a clear and undeniable example of what might best be described as secular fundamentalism.


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Lisa Miller, “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith,” Newsweek, February 11, 2010 (published in the February 22, 2010 edition of the magazine).

Steven Pinker, “Less Faith, More Reason,” The Harvard Crimson, October 27, 2006.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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