The role of religion in a secular university

Last Friday, I took part in a panel discussion on the topic: “What is the role of religion at a secular university? Should we support it, promote it, accommodate it, respect it, or just ignore it?”

The event was moderated by a professor in the department of religious studies who specializes in Buddhism and the panel consisted of the chair of that same department (whose area is Judaism), the director of student activities program that oversees student organizations, and myself. The session began with each of us speaking for about five minutes and then the floor was opened up for discussions. It was a lively session with a sizeable number of faculty, students, and staff present. I am not going to try and summarize the entire discussion since I did not take any notes but just focus on my own impressionistic views, paraphrasing some of what people said.

I went first and trotted out my usual Salman Rushdie quote in order to frame my remarks: “At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

My point of view on the topic was quite simple. Religion should not receive any special treatment. It should be treated like any other subject or aspect of student life. It is undoubtedly an important topic of historical and social importance and deserves academic study so a department of religious studies is perfectly appropriate. (As the chair of religious studies pointed out in his opening remarks, their department does not get involved in the sacred aspects of religion but looks at religion academically.) The role of their faculty does not require them to be religious leaders or to even be believers in the religions they teach, just as in the language department, the professor of Japanese need not to be Japanese.

I also drew two distinctions: (1) that the norms of speech and behavior are different for private versus public spheres and people should learn to appreciate that; and (2) that we should treat the sacred and secular aspects of religion differently. The secular aspects are those that the university can get involved in while we should steer clear of the sacred aspects.

I said that in order to navigate this difficult terrain, secular organizations such as my university would do well to study and apply the guidelines that the US Supreme Court has developed over time for the Establishment Clause of the constitution, which calls for strict neutrality between religion and non-religion and forbids any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing or inhibiting religion or excessively entangling itself with religion. While the Establishment Clause applies only to the government, it provides an excellent template for any secular organization that is looking for ways to deal with religion. So, for example, student religious groups should meet the same standards as (say) the chess club for recognition and support by the university. If they receive less support, they are being discriminated against because of their belief. If they receive more, then the university is endorsing religion. Both those extremes should be avoided.

I found it interesting that some people in the audience kept trying to find ways to argue that religion is somehow special, that it occupies a niche in society that nothing else can occupy, which is the usual precursor to asking that it receive special consideration. The suggestions took the form:

  1. Religion is very important to a person’s sense of identity;
  2. Religion is necessary in order to inculcate ethical behavior; and
  3. Religion is needed to come to terms with the mysteries of life.

My comments during the discussion were largely spent in batting down such attempts.

On the first point, I argued that a person has more than just a religious identity. For example, science may be as important to a scientist (or history to a historian or law to a lawyer) as religious identity may be to a religious person. But we would think it absurd for scientists to get upset if someone treated iconic figures like Einstein disrespectfully by (say) drawing cartoons that made fun of him. But do the same thing with a religious figure and people get offended and, in the case of Islam, can even lead to death warrants. I said that the reason that religious people get so easily offended is because religion has been given a privileged place and not treated like any other belief system. I said that if students spent four years at the university and were not challenged by something that offended the very core of their identity and forced them to confront their beliefs, then we were not doing our job.

On the second point, I pointed out that over two millennia of religious domination of society resulted in the most horrendous atrocities and discrimination. The supposedly divinely inspired religious texts are riddled with god’s commands to commit genocide, murder, and rape. Misogyny and homophobia are rampant in the texts and are still part of the official doctrines of major religious groups. The growth of ethical values and human rights and the expansion of humane treatment of people is a late development and is the result of the spread of Enlightenment values and science which has led to what is effectively a humanitarian revolution. Religions gradually and often reluctantly adapted to them, though even now certain religions’ attitudes towards women and gays can only be described as appalling. It is a bit much for religion now, at this late stage, to claim credit for the advance of humanitarian values.

On the third point, I said that the purpose of the university is to seek truth using evidence and reason. That steady search has steadily transformed mysteries (things that seemed completely inexplicable) into puzzles (things we know how to investigate, what questions we need to pose, and what tools are necessary to obtain answers) and to eventually be able to solve the puzzles. The steady march of knowledge is to replace mysteries with puzzles and solutions. But religions want to keep mysteries as mysteries forever as things that are impervious to evidence and reason, and can only be understood by revelation. As the TV character House puts it, “You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!” The growth of knowledge in general and science in particular has resulted in us being able to steadily fill in the holes. To want to stay in the holes is antithetical to the search for truth that is the major purpose of the university.

In these forums, I take on the persona of the ‘bad atheist’, the one who is not willing to go along with the traditional pieties that religion has been allowed to wallow in that go unquestioned. I challenge the idea that the privileged position of religion should be allowed to continue simply because that is the way things have always been. This makes for more sharply focused discussions in which basic assumptions get questioned.

I find it interesting that at the end of these sessions, people often come up to me and quietly confide that they are atheists too but cannot say so openly because they fear discrimination. For far too long, people have tiptoed around religion, avoiding pointing out its uselessness or negative aspects for fear of offending religious people. Having the atheist view articulated openly and unapologetically helps to create a wider space for discussion so that those who would not go as far as me can now see themselves as in the middle somewhere and thus more comfortable. I see my role as analogous to a blocker in football, making forceful remarks that can create space for others to be able to go through.

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