Hat-tip to PZ (who got it from Jim Downey): Harvard considers requiring all students to take a course about religion. While Jim strongly disagrees, and PZ snarks that it’s like a 19th-century institution requiring a course on cholera, I don’t think it’s that bad an idea. The Crimson says,
[Link] The requirement that all students take a course focusing on the interplay between reason and faith—whether in wars of religion or debates over stem cell research—is unique among Harvard’s secular peer institutions. Columbia, which requires students to read parts of the Bible and Koran in its great books program, comes closest.
The so-called “Reason and Faith” requirement emerged early in the discussions that led to the new report, said Bass Professor of English Literature Louis Menand, one of the chairs of the six-professor committee that drafted the proposals this summer.
“Religion turns out to be an enormously important phenomenon in the world, which 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t think we had to deal with,” Menand said.
While the Reason and Faith category is unlike anything that Harvard mandates today—marking a clear break from the more philosophical focus of most present-day Moral Reasoning offerings—the report notes that the course catalogue already includes many options that would fulfill the new requirement.
For example, Social Studies 98ic, “Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t,” and Human Evolutionary Biology 1355, “Darwin Seminar: Evolution and Religion,” would both satisfy the Reason and Faith requirement, according to the report.
I’m not sure about the merits of this specific proposal – for one, if I were designing a curriculum, I’d probably put more emphasis on comparative religion so that students have to be exposed to non-Western religions – but I don’t think it’s pernicious. I submit that in the Cold War, every educated person should have known about the foundations of both capitalism and communism and been exposed enough to the theories of both to take an intelligent stance on any capitalist/communist debate.
Realizing that religion is becoming increasingly influential in the world doesn’t equal religious brainwashing. A hardcore atheist might turn not to the Bible or the Qur’an but to Michelle Goldberg, Sam Harris, Ibn Warraq, and Irshad Manji. It’s up to modern universities to make sure students get exposed to the basic tenets of each major religion, the political movements that have sprung from it, and its contemporary status.
Learning about religion can be more subversive than PZ thinks. Part of learning about modern American Christianity is learning about the precise nature of Dominionism, which is after all an immensely influential political movement. Similarly, everyone should know the historical and political roots of Islamism and the basic difference between a Jihadi and a run-of-the-mill Islamist.