Culture At Large

Should public colleges teach religion?

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

This semester, I taught a class about rhetoric of religion in U.S. politics. I proposed the class for a number of reasons, one of which was that a lot of people are ignorant about the ways religion and politics have intersected in different ways across our history.  As part of our final exam, I asked my students to use our class readings to engage with this article about a proposed core requirement at Harvard. Obviously, since I have taught such a class, I believe our population is grossly undereducated about religions, including their own. College classes teaching about religious beliefs, and how they impact larger political or cultural questions, seems like one way to lower ignorance about what people think others believe.

For example, when Mitt Romney was running for president, reporters and citizens revealed a lot of confusion and stereotypes about what Mormans really believe. The recent controversy about the National Day of Prayer demonstrates some legitimate public disagreement about the place of religion in national politics, but it also reveals that many people have not put a lot of thought into the question.

It’s no wonder people tend to avoid talking about these questions. Talking about religion in a diverse group means that you will run into people who misunderstand your views, and might insult them, intentionally or accidentally. Of course, this is part of living in a democracy, but religion is especially touchy because it is something we feel so personally, and identify with so strongly. On the other hand, where better than college to interact with others who are different then you, understand a variety of views, and understand your own better.

A few of my students felt that the requirement at Harvard was a bad idea. They believed that faith should be taught by ministers, not professors. That it was a job for the church, not the classroom.  I will admit that my experience isn’t the best example here: I went to Christian schools through college, where I knew that my teachers and most of my fellow students started with the same values and assumptions as I did. When we debated issues like predestination, prayer in schools or abortion, I didn’t feel like my faith was under attack, I felt like I was engaging in a discussion of serious topics that were relevant to my faith. Greater diversity means greater risk of misunderstanding.

On the other hand, all you have to do is look at our political landscape to see a lot of people who never learned how to engage productively with people who have different beliefs than them, and who are very ignorant about the beliefs of others.  I think believers have a lot to gain from addressing religion in college courses, understanding how others see the world, and hopefully providing a more accurate image of religious belief for outsiders. Not only that, but applying things I learned in my scholarship to my faith has led me to a richer, deeper faith life. This was modeled for me by Christian professors, but could perhaps be a benefit without the same direct examples.

How can our education system better equip everyone -- believers, atheists and agnostics -- to talk to each other respectfully? Are college classes a good tool, or is it overly-optimistic to believe professors can teach these skills they sometimes lack themselves? Would you take a course about religion at a public university?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Other Religions, News & Politics, North America