Required Religion Courses

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.

7 Responses to Required Religion Courses

  1. SLC says:

    This was also mentioned on Rasmussens’ blog. The problem with it is that it appears that the course will be mandatory for entering freshman. Given tha ignorance of science issues in this country, I think that required survey courses in science would be more useful for non-science majors. This was apparently proposed by the much maligned Lawrence Summers, indicating that he wasn’t so bad after all. Such a requirement should not be limited to Harvard, which after all, attracts the creme de la creme of the entering freshman classes but would be useful in all colleges and universities.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Well, both are necessary. Educated people should know both about basic science and about modern religions. If I’m not mistaken, that’s what Columbia does: everyone has to take a few courses (I think 2) in math or science subjects, regardless of major.

  3. SLC says:

    Probably insufficient.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Yeah, probably. But I really don’t have the data to suggest what the curriculum should be. You probably know enough about me to know that if I had even a little data, I’d turn it into a big post.

  5. SLC says:

    The problem is the following: Mr. Levy indicates that two science survey courses are required at Columbia for non-science majors, one of which can be a math course. Thus, an individual can opt for one math course and one science survey course. Assuming the science survey course is 3 units (i.e. meets 3 hours/week) and lasts 18 weeks (apparently, a college semester lasts 18 weeks, (rather shorter then when I was an undergraduate), that gives 54 hours (actually 54 fifty minute lectures, giving 10 minutes to walk to another class) of lectures. In that time frame, one has to cover physics, chemistry, and biology, at least (I am including medical science in biology). It doesn’t seem to me that a lecturer could go into sufficient detail on all the various topics to give students a sufficient background to even understand newspaper or popular magazine articles on science. I doubt that the 54 hours would be sufficient to cover physics, let alone the other sciences.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Oh, that’s not what these courses are about. The survey science courses at Columbia are normal courses in specific subjects. You can take courses in all three major sciences if you want, but you don’t have to (and I don’t think you should have to – requiring students to take one course in each major department will be excessive).

    By the way, I don’t think university semesters last 18 weeks anywhere. I think here they last 14; in Singapore they lasted 13.

  7. SLC says:

    1. As to semester length, I stand corrected. It’s been a long time since I was an undergraduate. I thought 18 weeks was rather short.

    2. This makes the situation even worse then I thought. Sombody who takes the survey course in, say physics, will learn nothing about chemistry, or biology in his/her college career. It seems to me that it would be tetter to require a non-science major to take a survey course in each of the sciences, rather then add mandatory courses in comparative religion. Given the abysmal knowledge of science exhibited by non-science majors of even prestige Universities like Harvard, this would not seem to be asking too much.

    3. The abysmal knowledge of science was first brought home to me by listing to lawyers on cable talk shows discuss the issue of DNA analysis during the O.J. Simpson trial. Almost all of them didn’t have a clue what DNA was.

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