Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reason and Faith at Harvard

From Inside Higher Ed : Harvard Moves Ahead on Curricular Reform:
One of the proposals in the October draft that received considerable attention was the requirement for study of reason and faith, which would have required in some way study of religion. That was amended — first in December and finalized Wednesday — to a requirement on culture and belief. The proposal to focus on religion drew criticism from some prominent Harvard professors, such as Steven Pinker, who wrote in The Harvard Crimson that the proposal was flawed in logically and rhetorically.

“First, the word ‘faith’ in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for ‘religion,’ ” he wrote. “A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.”

Pinker, a professor of psychology, 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.

While the final report of the Harvard panel did change the name and broaden the category, the report still includes a strong argument for the study of religion. “Religion has been, and continues to be, a force shaping identity and behavior throughout the world. Harvard is a secular institution, but religion is an important part of our students’ lives,” the report says. “When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy.

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