Most of us who work in higher education are,
at our cores, concerned with the "essence" of
college, with helping our students come to know
themselves and, to quote Matthew Arnold
(2006, 5), "the best which has been thought
and said in the world." We try to convey the
best of what has been developed in our area of
scholarship and to liberally educate our students
in its traditions. Our students want to prepare
for vocation and to develop their social and
intellectual skills. Yet, especially as they make
the transition from high school to college,
students also want answers to the "Big Questions"
of meaning and value. As shown in classic
studies of cognitive development among
college students and young professionals (see
Perry 1999; Knefelkamp 1999; Knefelkamp
and Slepitza 1978),
high school graduates
come to college seeking a set of "right" answers;
they leave, older and wiser, as committed relativists.
The trick is to keep them asking the
Big Questions as they develop intellectually
in our academies.
Our students are spiritual. According to a
study of student religiosity conducted by the
University of California--Los Angeles (UCLA),
80 percent of students express a strong interest
in spirituality (Astin et al. 2005). This could,
of course, refer to a kind of Emersonian transcendentalism.
But they are not only spiritual,
they are religious. Over half of all students attend
religious services at least once per month.
Indeed, according to the UCLA study, eight
students in ten attended religious services during
the past year. Even if some went grudgingly
with their families, that's a very large number.
Moreover, almost eight students in ten believe
in God. The new college student may
need to exert independence from hearth and
family, but sometimes even that age-typical
separation takes a surprising turn. A recent issue
of the Wall Street Journal featured an article
on children who become more religious
than their parents (Rosman 2007).
The faculty and the questions we ask
Although there is a strong counter-current to
piety on college and university campuses, a
faculty survey included in the UCLA study revealed that about 80 percent of professors
consider themselves to be spiritual persons.
We professors haven't forgotten the Big Questions
either. As in all surveys, however, the
"devil" or the "deity" is in the details. Faculty
in religious colleges and small liberal colleges
are more spiritual than their counterparts in
large public or private universities. In addition
to correlating with type of school, it relates to academic specialization: when asked if colleges
should be concerned with students' spiritual
development, the greatest agreement came
from faculty in health sciences, humanities,
and education; the least came from faculty in
the physical and biological sciences.
The current "crisis," the one that gets a lot
of press, is the "faith-reason" fight. I follow it
because I teach biological psychology (from an
evolutionary perspective) in an institution associated
with Orthodox Judaism. I don't find
a conflict; but so many people do that I sometimes
wonder if I am missing something interesting--or at least fun. I quoted Matthew
Arnold above because he was, in the 1860s,
the quintessential humanist--classicist, poet,
and defender of belles lettres--and because he
got into a spat with Thomas Huxley about the
relative roles of literature and science. (Religious
questions were certainly lurking in their argument.)
One of the most cited poems in all of
English literature, Arnold's "Dover Beach,"
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Troubled by the import of continental higher
criticism of the Bible and by that very Victorian
British product, Darwinian evolution,
Arnold wrote the poem in 1861. Nearly a
century and a half later, armies (each proclaiming
the other's ignorance) are still clashing
over the same shoals of religion and
science. And students are perplexed.
Reason and faith on campus
Since the Enlightenment, scholars have had a
tough time handling religion. Religion is not
just about faith and reason. It is also about
emotions, self-examination, social perceptions
and evaluations, and prejudices. The
"solution" to the faith-reason debate--at least
for the university--is not to solve it but to
study it and to let it enrich the curriculum.
William James, in The Will to Believe and
The Varieties of Religious Experience, set the
stage for a solution by introducing a radical
shift in epistemology. In offering pragmatism
as the framework for knowledge, James
birthed all of American psychology and a good chunk of philosophy. That which drives
humankind and forms the basis of the "passional
hypotheses" by which we live is the proper
subject of psychology--including the psychology
of religion. We may not be able to prove or
disprove the existence of God by empirical
methods, but we can evaluate its effects on
James's pragmatism is not a bad formula for
bringing the mysterium into the light of scientific
analysis. In fact, the recent proposal by
Harvard University's general education committee
for a "Reason and Faith" requirement
was part of an effort to move toward a valuescentered
curriculum. The proposal was withdrawn,
following rationalist critique, as being
too narrow; but for some, the entire curriculum
was too values-oriented. In almost every
curricular reform, there is a point of contention
over the sciences or other positivistic
disciplines. Do we teach "appreciation" or
"how to do it"? Do we teach "about it" or "it"?
So, there may be a bit of a conflict on campus.
Conflicts are good. In the academy, argumentation,
reason, analysis, and debate are
the tools by which knowledge is advanced and
transmitted. Culture wars are things outside
our walls; they are made into course topics,
taught, and savored as social problems. The
historical examples form good literature:
Galileo and the church; Socrates and the
Athenian governors; Biblical Aaron arguing
for the human need to represent concretely
the divine versus his brother Moses's insistence
on abstract logocentrism; Creon and
Antigone disputing the role of conscience and
authority. Safely distant, they may leave our
cores untouched. But what happens when the
culture war--or conflict of civilizations--
passes through the walls of today's academy?
What happens when the fundamental questions
about which students fret are preempted
by the debates of scholars? There may be a
conflict between student educational need
and scholarly debate. Indeed, just such a conflict
may be occurring now.
Some sources of the conflict
There have been intra-campus conflicts before
now. The medieval European university,
based on the trivium and quadrivium (the former
an instantiation of the trinity), evolved
into a rather more scientific institution in the
German universities that emphasized detailed,
systematic knowledge (Wissenschaft). In the
twentieth century, the American university
democratized the system, producing a "culture
of aspiration" in which students might enter
the academy based on merit rather than background.
The historical transitions through
which the university passed led to conflicts as
bloody as those we have in the contemporary
university. Arnold, as inspector of schools
(a monad cohabiting the same body as the
scholar/poet), strove for a classical education
bringing "sweetness and light" to a materialist
British culture threatened by modernism
(evolution, scholastic study of religion).
Today, it sometimes appears to be a shouting
match. Instead of two sets of players, there
are three: the rational atheists, the theistic religionists,
and the postmodernists who deny the
possibility of any permanent value system or
Lyotardian "metanarrative," whether scientific
or religious (Lyotard 1984).
Perry (1999), Boyer (2002), Knefelkamp
(1999), Astin (Astin et al. 2005), and Kuh
(Kuh & Whitt 1988)--the psychometricians
of the undergraduate mind--have commented
on the need for values clarification. Most
American students in most of the country are
religious--certainly more religious than the
faculty, particularly the science faculty--and are
struggling with family relations; they are trying
to make their way in a twenty-first-century
rendering of Arnold's "darkling plain." Though
the Wall Street Journal article mentioned
above describes students who turn more religious
than their parents, the student arriving
on campus and gelatinizing his or her parents'
religion is the canonical case. If Durkheim
(2001) is right that society is bound together
by religion, that God is society functionally,
then this moving away is difficult indeed.
This may be one of the reasons faith-based
colleges are receiving support from parents
afraid of "losing" their children.
The conflict between "religious" and "secular"
is a complicated one. It is part of students'
evolving quest for self-definition. Anthropologists
point out that virtually every human society
has displayed ritualistic, religious, and/or
supernaturally oriented behavior. Indeed, one
of the most active areas of biological psychology
today is the study of the evolutionary origins
of the religious practices and beliefs as
specialized forms of categorical thinking and
behaving. Biologically speaking, religion is a species-typical behavior; and
species-typical behaviors have
strong cognitive and motivational
mechanisms driving the
individual organisms comprising
the species. The so-called
biopsychological roots of religion
are not only matters of faith and reason.
There is also an emotional tug, a set of "aha"
Religion is a universal. It works best not
only when it is rational, but also when it contains
that "something special." Scholars in religious
studies have been discussing what's
"special" for a long time. There is almost always
something visceral in it, certainly something
emotional. Faith and reason are cognitive
abilities; they are "believing in" and "believing
that." The human condition also includes
emotions, allowing us to experience feelings
of awe. One of the pioneers in the study of religion,
Rudolph Otto (1950, 12), grappled
with the extra-rational "mystery"
of the religious experience.
Non-rational should not
be confused with irrational,
he warns. He describes it as
numinous: "The feeling…may
come sweeping like a gentle
tide…. It may pass…continuing…thrillingly
vibrant and resonant." Otto drew the analogy
between religion and the perception of beauty.
To move one step beyond discussions of
beauty, and to cite one of Woody Allen's best
lines--perhaps mixing sacred and profane--
sex is dirty "only if you do it right." Religion is
fullest precisely when it is more than cognitive.
There can also be a negative side to the
emotive or religious experience: the discomfort
of the adolescent asking the Big Questions
that sometimes have unhappy answers.
At the most extreme, depression or angst
can occur--even in the most religious of college
Adolescent, collegiate despair has no more
extreme value than that represented by
Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called "Unabomber."
I knew Ted slightly; we were classmates at
Harvard. The good news is that we knew he
was strange; the bad news is that he wasn't the
strangest "dude" on campus. (Many of the
other strange ones got tenure.) In Harvard and
the Unabomber (2002), Alston Chase describes
Kaczynski's reaction as one of "despair."
Despair is a very good word; it is the antipode,
not of faith, but of joy; it is the "bad news"
countering the "good news" (of the evangelist).
Chase deconstructs Kaczynski--the child
of an unhappy home, a student who was perhaps
admitted to college too young, and most
telling for our purposes, the product of an inherently
conflicted general education curriculum
at Harvard. Based upon the positivism of
the natural sciences and mathematics, on the
one hand, and the goal of inculcating a humanistic
(Christian American) set of values
on the other, Chase sees the Harvard general
education curriculum of the 1950s and 1960s
as being at war with itself. From humanists,
Kaczynski learned that science threatened civilization;
from the science faculty, he learned
that positivistic science cannot be stopped.
This led to an irreconcilable conflict--and to
either madness (a defense rejected by the legal
system) or anarchic despair.
While an extreme, the case of the Unabomber
points to the role of intellectual conflict--
coupled, to be sure, with idiosyncratic
biographical influences--in the production of
psychological tensions during the adolescent
years. According to Perry (1999) and Knefelkamp
(1999), most students adjust and adopt
a somewhat relativistic acceptance of differing
points of views. The argument I offer here is
that it is quite proper for universities to address
intellectual questions that concern students.
Each faculty member will do so within
a discipline and within a worldview.
In part, the "Reason and Faith" requirement was
dropped from the current Harvard curriculum
review because of concerns about why, of all
the cultural questions, this particular question
was being privileged. The larger question is
whether the curriculum was too values-oriented.
This is the same question raised by the 1950s
Harvard general education curriculum. Probably,
the question has been asked in some form on
every campus in America. So, let's take a look
at a few works that have been disseminated
widely in the academic community. It is not
really faith versus reason as process but the
subject of each. Reason is a set of mental operations
(studied by cognitive scientists) that are
used by organisms to derive conclusions or hypothesis
from certain premises. It is the premises
that are in question. The subject can be the
structure of the atom, the nature of a deity, or
the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice in
Wonderland. None has ever been seen--at
least by the ordinary naked eye. However, all
have been described, discussed, and analyzed
by reason. The argument does not really pit
faith against reason. Rather, it concerns
whether both can be legitimately applied
within an individual's worldview. The first
citation, a defense of coupling faith and reason
within the religious framework, was written
by an eminent Catholic theologian:
Critique of modern reason from within has
nothing to do with putting the clock back to
the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting
the insights of the modern age. The
positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged
unreservedly: we are all grateful
for the marvelous possibilities that it has
opened up for mankind…. The scientific
ethos, moreover, is…the will to be obedient
to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude
which belongs to the essential decisions
of the Christian spirit…. Modern scientific
reason quite simply has to accept the rational
structure of matter and the correspondence
between our spirit and the prevailing rational
structures of nature as a given, on which its
methodology has to be based.
The second is the work of an eminent biologist:
the God Hypothesis [holds that] there exists
a super-human, supernatural intelligence,
who deliberately designed and
created the universe and everything in
it…"the God hypothesis" is a scientific hypothesis
about the universe, which should
be analyzed as skeptically as any other….
The third is a counter-attack against the atheist.
It asserts that God is not like any other object
of empirical scientific investigation. When
philosophers of religion refer to God in ordinary
language, they are doing so for convenience in
communication, not for analytical explication.
A Jewish philosopher once argued strenuously that God is neither actually body nor a potentiality
in a body (a proposition dealing with
the Father, separate from the critical Christian
theology surrounding the nature of Jesus's
relation to the Father):
We are to believe that he is incorporeal,
that His unity is physical neither potentially
nor actually….None of the attributes
can be predicated of Him, neither motion,
nor rest, for example….Whenever Scripture
describes Him in corporeal terms like
walking, standing, sitting, speaking, and the
like, it speaks metaphorically….The Torah
speaks in human language…. He has no
body at all, actually or potentially.
Oh, the sources. The first, the eminent Catholic
theologian, is Pope Benedict XVI (2006);
the second, the eminent biologist and the primate
of evangelical atheists, is the Oxford
evolutionist Richard Dawkins (2006, 2, 31);
the third is the medieval Jewish philosopher
Maimonides (1972, 418) articulating the
third of his thirteen articles of faith incumbent
Dawkins concludes that intelligence is the
product of Darwinian evolution and that evolutionary
process is the only true basis for values.
Rejecting faith as superstition, Dawkins is
continuing the Enlightenment program--particularly
the British post-Enlightenment distilled
through positivist science, which rejects
anything not empirically verifiable and observable.
Since the natural theological basis
for the existence of a deity has largely diminished
over the past two centuries, but the urge
to find reasons for design in nature has grown,
there are two separate responses. This history
has been chronicled most thoroughly by the
philosopher Michael Ruse (2004, 2006), who
speaks of evolutionary studies as three sets of inquiries: a set of facts or observations, a theory,
and an explanatory system. This last, which he
calls "evolutionism," has been battling "creationism,"
which originated in a rather restricted
interpretation of the Bible that has developed
largely in America and has been driven largely
by fundamentalist Christians, with a few Jews
thrown in to provide ecumenical balance.
Dawkins and his supporters are, I believe,
responding to a rise in politico-religious fundamentalism,
which has intruded on the scientific
enterprise with concepts like Intelligent
Design. This concept is not new; it was raised
to counter Darwin--in fact, versions of the
argument are ancient. But it has taken on a
new political life. Science is now on the defensive,
at least in conservative American political
circles. While there are religious scientists
who are trying to keep religious doctrine and
scientific reasoning in proper perspective, it is
not just the positivist scientist who pits faith
against reason as an essential dialectic. Some
religious fundamentalists do the same, and
when they win a school board vote, it sets our
teeth on edge. "Faith" and "reason" used in
this way represent a Lyotardian differend--a
case of conflict, between (at least) two parties,
that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments
(Lyotard 1988). The rules of logical positivism
preclude papal speculation on reason operating
upon a faith-based revelation. Scriptural literalism
precludes empirical evidence that apparently
contradicts revelation. Both science and religion
are being gutted; both specific faith and
reason are being attacked by a postmodernism
according to which no single metanarrative
can attain truth. The Church could suppress
Galileo; the postmodern philosopher can now
deny both Galileo and the Church as authoritative
sources of "truth."
So, where does this leave the discourse on
campus? If students take a course in the philosophy
of science or evolution, they will
come upon some of these arcane questions. I
guarantee, though, that they will go back to
the dorms and talk about leading the "good
life." Some scientists, who may also be religious
practitioners, will continue to examine
how evolution and biology interact with modern
theology. I suggest that we continue the
debate but that, this time, we include the students.
Departments of literature offer courses
in utopias and dystopias. James's monumental
work, The Varieties of Religious Experience,
which is standard reading now in psychology
and religion courses, could be brought into a
new course: "The Varieties of Irreligious Experience."
Sociologists, psychologists, and political
scientists are all concerned with the rise
of global political fundamentalism. In Divinity
schools, faculty study "It"; they prepare
ministers, priests, and rabbis. These schools
often have eminent scholars who could teach
"About It" to undergraduates, without violating
anyone's intellectual integrity. Why is religion
universal? Is it biological? Why did the
pope's lecture, excerpted above, include a section
criticizing the use of violence in spreading
the word of God that lead to mass protests
and to the shooting of four nuns by angry fundamentalists?
Teaching the Big Questions means just that:
the Big Questions stay. Disciplines emerge; we
gain new tools; we accumulate new art and
literature and new philosophical arguments.
But the questions remain part of the human
enterprise. We should teach all of it. Matthew
Arnold would approve.
Norman Adler is University Professor of Psychology and special assistant for curriculum development and research initiatives at Yeshiva University. The author wishes to thank Isaac Chavel, Steven Fine, Diane Pearl, and David Tritelli for their critical but sympathetic help in preparing this article.
Arnold, M. 2006. Culture and Anarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Astin, A. W., H. S. Astin, J. A. Lindholm, A. N. Bryant, S. Calderon, and K. Szelenyi. 2005. The spiritual life of college students: A national study of college students' search for meaning and purpose. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California--Los Angeles.
Benedict XVI (pope). 2006. Faith, reason and the university: Memories and reflections. Lecture delivered at a meeting with the representatives of science,
University of Regensburg, Germany.
Boyer, P. 2002. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. New York: Basic Books.
Chase, A. 2003. Harvard and the Unabomber: The education of an American terrorist. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Durkheim, E. 2001. The elementary forms of religious life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Knefelkamp, L. 1999. Introduction. In Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme, ed. W. G. Perry, xi--xxxviii. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Knefelkamp, L., and R. Slepitza. 1978. A cognitive-developmental
model of career development: An adaptation of the Perry scheme. In Encouraging development in college students, ed. C. A. Parker,
135--50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kuh, G. and Whitt, E. 1988. The invisible tapestry: Culture in American colleges and universities. Jossey-Bass.
Lyotard, J. F. 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
———. 1992. The Differend: Phrases in dispute.
Theory and History of Literature 46, University of Minnesotta.
Maimonides, M. 1972. A Maimonides reader. Ed. I. Twersky. New York: Behrman House.
Otto, R. 1950. The idea of the holy: An inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. New York: Oxford University
Perry, W. G. 1999. Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Rosman, K. 2007. Religion's generation gap. Wall Street Journal, March 2.
To respond to this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, with the author's name on the subject line.