Examining religion on campus

I have come to believe that theology, and religion in general, is allowed little public voice on campus. This stems from the fact that students have few opportunities to study religion as a living philosophical and theological tradition in which they might participate.

We lack the tools to think about our religions with the same seriousness as we can think about economics, or English, or political science. As a result, students tend to be largely ignorant about their religions and are forced to make one of two moves. We can take quasi-fundamentalist dualistic positions in which we sever the connection between faith and reason, or we can make religion the handmaiden of every other discipline (e.g. religion is only “true” when not contradicted by science or politics). How did we get into this unfortunate position?

We are heirs to an Enlightenment era ideology that feared that religion expressed publicly would interfere with our ability to think, as well as all of our rights and freedoms (these rights and freedoms, of course, we could know by praying to that humanistic deity, “objective” reason). Religion was relegated to the private sphere: one might perhaps be concerned with it on Sundays (this worldview is particularly good at understanding all religions as essentially the same as Christianity), but it would be gauche to talk about it any other time.

Certainly, religious principles should not “stand in the way” of science, economics or ethics. The justification for all of this was, of course, that religion has done “bad things.” It would be “medieval” for us to let it continue to structure our lives.

I hope it is relatively obvious that we should move beyond this self-righteous and repressive stance towards religion. First of all, it is not consistent with the values we hold as a community. We claim to be tolerant, and yet we seek to put religion in a closet. In Anri Wheeler’s column a couple of weeks ago criticizing the “Chastity 101” talk, she suggested that in the future, the Newman Catholic Association “could speak behind closed doors so as not to invite a large group of people and then offend them.” A policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell’ might be fine for some, but I’m pretty tired of it.

Of course, Wheeler is not the only one to express this kind of view. Maureen Dowd, an ordinarily insightful columnist at New York Times spends her entire 10/9 column mocking a potential Bush appointee for “let[ting] his evangelical beliefs influence his work.” This man’s opinion, that it is “dangerous to compartmentalize life into categories of Christian truth and secular truth,” she deems both “medieval” and “for the sake of politics.” One does wish that we were consistently good at engaging with people who have different perspectives from our own.

There are further reasons why religious privatization should not be advocated. I think it is difficult (probably impossible) to come up with an ethical system without recourse to religious traditions. It seems that without the notion of a transcendent teleology, “ethics” is just a polite word for force. Perhaps it is true that “might makes right,” but if that is the case we’re in big trouble.

That aside, to think that religion should not even contribute to secular ethical discourse puts one in a number of awkward positions. One would be forced to argue, that during World War II, the German Christians who bought Nazi ideology were more moral than those who fought the Nazis and were martyred for their religion. Again, if this is so, we’re already damned.

There is little intelligent discussion, or sustained discussion of any sort about religion at Williams. This is a natural result of the privatization that I have pointed out above. What debate exists is often uninformed, unproductive and, most of all, not sustained. Look at the religion and sexuality talks we have had over the years. I do not mean to criticize their organizers, who are sincere and hard-working individuals. But the participants often do not have the means necessary to force people to think about these issues.

I would like to open up a dialogue on theology and religion on campus with a series of articles. I come from a Catholic Christian background and most of my study has been in that tradition, so I will write about what I know. If people with similar or different religious commitments would like to contribute, that would be great. Since religion tends to be so controversial, I’m sure that many people will disagree with what I have to say. And that’s just fine. And if anybody wants to write a column saying why I am an idiot (an easy argument to make, I’m sure) that would be fun as well. Finally, please e-mail me feedback, positive or negative, at 03dal.