Harvard faculty recomends required “Reason and Faith” courses

The full report is available in PDF format at: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~secfas/Gen_Ed_Prelim_Report.htm

Here is an excerpt:

4. Reason and Faith Religion is a fact of twenty-first-century life—around the world and right at home. Ninety-four percent of Harvard’s incoming students report that they discuss religion “frequently” or “occasionally,” and seventy-one percent say that they attend religious services. When they get to college, students often struggle—sometimes for the first time in their lives—to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices, the different beliefs and practices of fellow students, and the profoundly secular and intellectual world of the academy itself.

Beyond these private struggles, religion is realpolitik, both nationally and internationally. Wars are fought around the world in the name of religion. Increasingly, policy makers understand that success in international affairs depends on appreciating the role that religion plays in many societies. Here at home, the United States is experiencing a cultural and political tension over religious issues that erupts in debates about the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance, the display of the Ten Commandments on government property, school prayer, and same-sex marriage. Religious beliefs are also shaping vigorous debates concerning issues in science and medicine, such as evolutionary theory, stem-cell research, and abortion. These debates are not simply debates about morality or public policy. They also purport to be debates about the facts. A recent Science article reports that one third of American adults firmly reject the idea of human evolution (a number significantly higher than in European countries and Japan), and the rejection appears to b tied to religious conservatism. The boundary between the secular and non-secular today is confusing and highly fraught.

Harvard is no longer an institution with a religious mission, but religion is a fact that Harvard’s graduates will confront in their lives both in and after college. We therefore require students to take one course in a category entitled Reason and Faith. Let us be clear. Courses in Reason and Faith are not religious apologetics. They are courses that examine the interplay between religion and various aspects of national and/or international culture and society. Moreover, these courses do not center on ethics per se. At the conclusion of taking a course in The Ethical Life area, students will appreciate the nature of moral dilemmas and understand principled ways to grapple with them. In contrast, at the conclusion of taking a course in the Reason and Faith area, students will appreciate the role of religion in contemporary, historical, or future events – personal, cultural, national, or international.

Courses in Reason and Faith can vary widely. They may take up the relationships between politics and religion, science and religion, culture and religion, epistemology and religious faith, and more. They engage with a wide range of topics, from evolutionary theory and intelligent design to comparative religious cultures. These courses are not prescriptive: their aim is to help students understand the interplay between religious and secular institutions, practices, and ideas. They also encourage students to become more selfconscious about their own beliefs and values. By providing them with a fuller understanding of both local and global issues involving religious faith, the courses are intended to help students become more informed and reflective citizens.

Newly developed courses might include:

Religion in Closed Societies. In what ways do religious movements inform personal, ethnic, and political identities in closed and secular political societies? How does that contrast to religious movements that form the basis of closed political societies? Examples include: the Falun Gong movement in Communist China, Judaism in the former Soviet Union, Catholic liberation theology in El Salvador, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Religion and Democracy. How does religion function in open and democratic societies? What role does religion play in the contemporary American political landscape, and how does it compare to the role religion plays in other Western industrial democracies. The history of immigration, assimilation, secularization, and religious freedom are examined in the context of the United States post-September 11, the “Muslim” riots in Paris in 2005, the changing role of the Catholic Church, and the increasing influence of religious political parties in Middle Eastern democracies.

Religion and Science. Since the late nineteenth-century, science and religion in the West have been viewed as unlikely bedfellows and incommensurable epistemologies. At the same time, much natural knowledge has been developed in the service of religious beliefs or institutions, and many scientists profess a belief in God in one form or another. Using contemporary and historical examples (“intelligent design” vs. evolution by natural selection, the origins of life on earth, the Scopes Monkey trial, Einstein’s critique of quantum physics, Galileo’s condemnation, etc.), this course will examine the intellectual and philosophical conflicts between science and religion as a form of a shifting culture war between the spiritual and the secular.

The Wars of Religion. From the Hundred-Years War to the contemporary conflicts between militant forms of Islam and the industrialized West, warfare waged on religious grounds has formed the basis of much of world history. This course will examine the modern history of religious warfare, from the end of World War II to the present. Examples include conflicts between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, Hindu-Muslim tensions in India and Pakistan, the Chinese annexation of Tibet, and the violence in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics.

Medicine, Spirituality, and Religion in Modern America. This course examines the intersections and clashes between medicine and spirituality in the contemporary United States. As Western scientific medicine has become more effective, more expensive, and more reductionist, the rise of “alternative” healing practices has grown dramatically. From Christian Science healing, to the scientific study of the efficacy of prayer, to mind-body practices such as yoga and tai chi, spiritual, non-western, and religious healing modalities have flourished in the last two decades. The course examines the philosophical, social, and cultural bases of beliefs about the body, health, and illness in contemporary America in order to understand the apparent contradiction between the parallel growth of scientific medicine and spiritual healing practices.

Reason and Faith is a category unlike any that Harvard has included in its general education curriculum, but even a casual review of the current course catalogue shows that courses in this area already proliferate. To give just a small sample of courses currently on offer that could be, or be modified to become, a general education course in Reason and Faith: History 1491: Religion and Popular Culture in 19th-Century Europe; Religion 1560: Religion and Society in 20th-Century America; Religion 1550: Religion and American Public Life; Government 90jm: Comparative Constitutionalism: Religion and State; African and Afro-American Studies 192x: Religion and Society in Nigeria; Social Studies 98ic: Why Americans Love God and Europeans Don’t; Human Evolutionary Biology 1355: Darwin Seminar: Evolution and Religion; Ancient Near East 138: The Bible and Politics; Religion 1820: Islam in South Asia: Religion, Culture, and Identity in South Asian Muslim Societies; Historical Studies A-27: Reason and Faith in the West.

Other topics for courses in this area might include: church and state; history of religion in the United States; the politics of religion in medieval Christendom; religion and the academy; philosophical attempt to reconcile faith and reason; gender and religious practices; global Christianity; the Vatican as a religious and secular institution.

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