You are Cordially Invited to Get Over Yourself

Thursday, February 18, 2010
Technically, I'm an atheist. Because theism is, by definition, an aspect of "belief" or "faith," I would be intellectually dishonest if I presented myself as a person who had some. I don't. This is, of course, distinct from a declaration of knowledge, which is what gnosticism is about. I make no claims about the factual existence of god or gods - because of a lack of facts, I have no opinion on the topic. So to be really, anally, precise, I'm an agnostic atheist.

But in our culture, in our time, the term "atheist" has a negative connotation. I don't care for the connotation much, and I don't self-identify in that way. In many ways, I think the so-called "new atheists" are kind of dicks for the way they treat people of faith, and I don't want to join that particular club.*

Which brings us to this article about a proposed curriculum change at Harvard University. The proposal includes a new requirement for undergraduate students to complete at least one course from a group entitled Reason and Faith, which would include exploration of "big issues in religion: intelligent design, debates within and around Islam, and a history of American faith, for example."

I find such a requirement to be eminently reasonable. I arrived at my own world view only after studying the world's religions (in both a formal and informal way) for many, many years, and there was value in that study. The majority of the world's humans have some form of faith, and just because I don't share it doesn't mean it's less real or important to those people. If I want to be a person with a comprehensive education in all aspects of humanity, then I must include religious studies in my personal curriculum. To do less would deprive me of the understanding of how others view the world around them.

Well, not everyone thinks that's true. Those who oppose the curriculum change at Harvard are (apparently) led by an evolutionary psychologist named Steven Pinker. Dr. Pinker believes requiring students to take a course in Reason and Faith implies
...reason and faith [are] equal paths to truth. "I very, very, very much do not want to go on the record as suggesting that people should not know about religion," he told me. "But reason and faith are not yin and yang. Faith is a phenomenon. Reason is what the university should be in the business of fostering."
To which I say, "Huh?"

I'm all for fostering reason. The lack of reason in public discourse is, in fact, one of my pet peeves. What I don't get is how a refusal to study vast swathes of the human experience leads to reason. The evolution of religion as a human construct, and the sociological ramifications of that evolution, are a critical aspect of understanding human society. How is ignoring it and failing to include it in a comprehensive liberal arts education going to lead to graduates that are more versed in "reason?" I would hazard a guess that many irreligious people arrive at that state not due to an under-exposure to religious studies, although I can't back that up with data. More exposure, more understanding, more knowledge would seem to me to be more in-line with Dr. Pinker's stated goals, rather than less.

Now I'm not suggesting that religious studies should be included as a "science" requirement. Those who read this blog regularly know that I have little patience for the blurring of the line between those disciplines that use and rely on the scientific method and liberal arts studies. But that doesn't mean liberal arts studies in general, and religious studies specifically, don't have value. The article wasn't clear on whether or not a hard science requirement would be eliminated if the Faith and Reason requirement was instituted. If that's true, then I would say, "Go, Dr. Pinker, go!" If it's not true, then I think Dr. Pinker missed the mark on this one.

I'm not an expert on college level curriculum development. Still being a student myownself, I fully recognize that there are other, far more qualified people out there who can make better cases for both sides of this argument than yours truly. But I have to say that the smug assholery inherent in excluding religious experience and studies from a liberal arts education in the name of fostering "reason" is a perfect example of why I won't call myself an "atheist."


*What comes closest to describing my own belief system is the term "secular humanist." Secular, because I truly believe that since the factual existence of god or gods cannot be proven (or dis-proven), the concept is irrelevant to my daily life. And humanist, because I believe what's best about us as a species - our generosity, our love, our intellect, our bravery - has value for its own sake, and should be cultivated. 

9 comments:

Eric said...

I agree that there's nothing unreasonable about teaching a "Reason And Faith" class, or at least one that is structured around understanding comparative religion or faith in historical terms. That said, I don't trust Lisa Miller to present an accurate version of whatever is going on at Harvard; she's not an objective observer of the area Newsweek has assigned her to, and her usual biases become very evident on the second page of the article you link to:

But science isn't the only—or even always the best—tool for understanding human experience, and to hold science up as the One and Only Truth is a kind of fundamentalism in itself. Furthermore, as Menand points out, scientific truths shift over time, dependent as they are on history and culture: just look, he says, at the recent "discovery" of "behavioral economics."

While the first part of what she says may seem tepidly reasonable--after all, one supposes that art, philosophy, history and other fields might offer insight into the "human experience"--what Ms. Miller really means comes next in her favorable quotation of Menand: Ms. Miller is the kind of person Professor Pinker is afraid of, one who believes faith is the equal of reason and science just another kind of dogma. (And, I'm sorry, when did economics become a science, anyway, or at least a non-dismal excuse for one?)

If you don't believe me, read some of Ms. Miller's other pieces. Go ahead. I double-dog-dare you. It'll be fuuuuuuun! (Sometimes I'm a bad friend. I'm sorry.)

Janiece said...

Eric, you are indeed a bad friend.

I understand Dr. Pinker's concern from a "slippery slope" perspective. There will always be individuals who couldn't think their way out of a paper bag trying to make their tautological reasoning the moral equivalent of the scientific method. To be sure, those people suck, but I fail to see why their inability to think should preclude everyone else getting a better education.

I don't claim to have all the answers on this issue, but I did think (given the information presented) and my own belief in the value of a well-rounded liberal education, Dr. Pinker's argument was weak.

Eric said...

I agree Pinker's argument is weak. Indeed, I'd go further and say that religious study is vital to an education, particularly one in liberal arts (in the most traditional sense of that phrase). Practically every Western intellectual idea of the past two millenia (at least) can be framed in terms of support or opposition to religious doctrines of an era.

Unfortunately, one suspects that Ms. Miller's (and possibly Professor Menand's) agenda isn't "Rationalism can be historically understood in terms of its outrgrowth from and eventually rebellion against religious modes of understanding," but rather, "Feelings are just as important as ideas, and just because your religious views can't be objectively validated doesn't mean they're not truuuuuuuuue, you rationalists are just mean!"

So I know where Prof. Pinker is coming from, he just needs to dial it down a bit; Professor, if you're reading this--you're up around a nine or ten and really clipping the meter like a bastard right now, think maybe you could try a five and see how that registers?

Janiece said...

Yeah. We rationalists ARE just "mean," with our insistence on "proof," and "facts," and "objective reality." We really do suck.*

Eric, you and I are basically on the same page when it comes to traditionally liberal arts education - we've had that conversation many times before. Perhaps I'm over-sensitive to the idea that a traditional liberal arts education may be marginalized in today's higher education, and that's why Dr. Pinker's comments irked me so. If so, then he has my apology, but I can't get over the idea that his objections are based on things he's not expressing rather than on the things he is. Which is just sloppy argument, even if it is more politically expedient.

*Suck it up, you big babies. Jeez.

Anne C. said...

The thing that irritates me is that over the top reactions like Pinker's color the issue as a black and white war-against-faith kind of way. He said it himself - they are not equivalents. One can have faith and be rational. One can be irrational and have faith. One can be rational and lack "Faith." (I maintain that rationalism is based on a faith in humanity's ability to be objective, but I digress.) One can be irrational and lack "Faith." They are not mutually exclusive. Pinker's reaction not only supports the delusion that "Faith is under attack," but actively fuels it. So much for rational discussion and learning!

I would say that it's Harvard's responsibility to select faculty that reach some standard of intellectual rigor, but some of the worst propaganda I've ever experienced in the classroom was experienced in an honors class in a small liberal arts college. It's one reason I have a particular bias against sociology.

Janiece said...

Anne, I wish more people had a moderate attitude like yours.

Alas and alack, I fear it is not to be.

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

I agree with this, wholeheartedly.

If more people studied religion at some depth, they'd come to the conclusion that it's a morally-bankrupt set of practices bent on human control.

(I'm convinced that most people who say, "I'm a _________[fill in the name of your favorite Imaginary Friend or the practice thereof]" has simply never done the research. If more did, we'd be free of religion in a generation or two. Imagine!!)

Will (Astra Navigo) said...

I agree with this, wholeheartedly.

If more people studied religion at some depth, they'd come to the conclusion that it's a morally-bankrupt set of practices bent on human control.

(I'm convinced that most people who say, "I'm a _________[fill in the name of your favorite Imaginary Friend or the practice thereof]" has simply never done the research. If more did, we'd be free of religion in a generation or two. Imagine!!)

Janiece said...

Will, there may be people of faith who are uninformed hillbillies, in fact I know there are, but such generalizations don't apply here.

At least half of my regular readers and commenters are people of faith, and none of them are guilty of believing without thought or research. Not all people of faith are irrational. Such generalizations about people of faith are just as dangerous (and wrong) as those about Atheists.