RELIGION IN THE SECULAR UNIVERSITY.
in contemporary state universities face two realities: they work in secular
organizations, and they must keep silent about their religious beliefs. Many
other professionals also experience this same kind of secular reality. Yale
Professor Stephen Carter notes that the problem is not so much that there is
discrimination against religion in public life as it is that religion is
trivialized, that is, treated as a hobby rather than as a grounding for public
moral behavior. In most public settings, Carter emphasizes, religious values
are subordinated to the secular political and legal values, resulting in
"a culture of disbelief."[i]
the prevailing "culture of disbelief" may foster privatization of
religious values in official work settings, this culture does not dissolve
these convictions altogether. Rather religious convictions resurface in
discussions of moral issues in popular culture. For example, Thomas Bender
(1994) argues that "private beliefs are not diminished by being
disestablished, but they are [only] relocated and shorn of formal
authority." He concludes that these beliefs relocate in the popular
culture through its discussions of public moral issues.[ii]
essay considers the culture of disbelief and the relocation of religious
issues in university settings. To accomplish this goal, the essay (1) traces
the evolution of the secularized university, (2) identifies signs of the
relocation of religious belief in popular culture, and (3) explains how
teachers can make use of the re-emergence of religious belief in public
discussions of moral issues.
secularization of the American university took place in several phases
beginning with the rise of science and empirical method, followed by the
re-emergence of the humanities, and ending with the growth of postmodernism.
American universities in the nineteenth century acknowledged the Christian
heritage of their Protestant founders. Jon H. Roberts and James Turner note
to 1870, colleges typically functioned as the intellectual arm of American
Protestantism. Indeed, the Protestant churches had given birth to higher
education in North America and had nurtured it for much of its history. Even
institutions of higher education created under the auspices of the states,
though typically nonsectarian, retained [a distinctly] Christian character.[iii]
the 1880s, the curricula of private and public universities centered upon
moral philosophy and emphasized that knowledge was part of God's revelation.
Eventually, though, the growth of science changed the educational paradigm
from a required curriculum based in moral philosophy to a collection of
courses focusing on the scientific method and empirical observation of natural
phenomena. The high value placed by universities on science eventually spilled
over from the natural sciences into the human sciences, leading to curricula
emphasizing "the scientific explanation of causes and effects of
phenomena in human society."(50) Just as the natural sciences created a
plethora of new specialized courses in biology, chemistry, and geography, the
emergence of the human sciences generated the new disciplines of psychology,
anthropology, and sociology.
preoccupation of universities with scientifically grounded curricula led to a
re-emergence of the humanities in the early 1900s. In many universities,
scientism displaced much of the classical curriculum of literature, history,
rhetoric, and art. By the early 1900s, however, educators recognized that the
humanities not only provided mental discipline, but these kinds of courses
were also "the glue" that held all of the other educational disciplines together. (81) In other words, the
humanities resurfaced, not as courses in moral theology typical of the early
curricula in American universities, but as humanities courses steeped in moral
values located in historical, aesthetic, and literary contexts.(92)
At the same time as universities became increasingly specialized,
American culture also changed. Instead of Protestants being the corpus of
students, learners from diverse backgrounds of Catholicism, Judaism, and non
belief enrolled in universities. These two forces, curricular specialization
and diverse student populations, created what Roberts and Turner call "an
ecumenical remodeling of higher education."(117) The result was the
secularization of the curricula of universities, a process emphasizing
empirical observation, investigation of social behavior, and interpretation of
historical and literary texts. Universities
considered all of these pursuits as legitimate ways to produce knowledge. This
set of assumptions continued to be the norm for universities until the 1980s.
curricula of the 1980s reflected the growth of the postmodern paradigm. Paul
Lakeland describes postmodernism as an "attitude toward the preceding
This attitude debunked science and questioned its emphasis on rational
means of gaining knowledge. Some
postmodernists even called modernism "a gigantic conspiracy"
perpetrated by the privileged, powerful, eurocentric ideologies that valued
scientific progress at the expense of other equally valid approaches to
knowledge.(21) This postmodern paradigm challenged the principles of
scientific objectivity as well as many of the interpretive ideologies created
by the scholarship of primarily white eurocentric men.
counter the adverse effects of modernist assumptions, the postmodern
perspective encouraged knowledge based on the multicultural perspectives of
women, ethnic minorities, and other politically muted persons. Additionally,
postmodernism promoted texts of popular culture as sources for the voices of
oppressed groups. However, the religious perspective still did not reemerge as
part of the voice of oppressed groups. Instead, George Marsden claims,
postmodernism further marginalized religious knowledge.
In fact, multiculturalism promoted the idea that "cultural
influences from one's African, Mexican, or Native roots make a difference in
how things are perceived," but this perspective often denied that
religious culture also was "part of one's social location" and
history of American universities informs the discussion of how religion
disappeared and then reappeared in academic study. The learning environments
of universities changed dramatically with the advent of the specialized
curricula of the natural and social sciences. Even though the return of the
humanities permitted academic discussion of abstract moral values, religion
became detached from university curricula. In fact, public universities
permitted faculties and students to study about religion in specialized
departments in religious studies, but discouraged the study of religion as a
relevant set of assumptions about belief and moral action. As a result of
these historical developments, Marsden claims, "Our dominant academic
culture trains scholars to keep quiet about their faith as the price of full
acceptance in that community."(7) For both professors and their students,
"Scholarly detachment from a religious perspective is the
though faculties and students live in "a culture of disbelief,"
complete scholarly detachment from these beliefs may not be possible given the
complexity of the issues that face professors and students. My experience
confirms that moral questions grounded in religious assumptions frame what
professors and students study, what questions they likely ask about their
subject matter, and what answers they will give to those questions.
AND RELIGIOUS BELIEF
way to recognize the impact of religious belief at a secular university is by
understanding how beliefs are relocated. My religious beliefs became relocated
in my methods of teaching. This
process of relocation began many years ago when I was completing my doctorate.
I recall going to a local hangout with my advisor to discuss the final chapter
of my dissertation. At that time, I was anticipating my defense and my new
life in the academic world. His
comments about the final chapter were short, but the conversation turned to
the future. Since I recently had
signed a college teaching contract, I wanted to share with him my plans for
that job and the teaching life I had envisioned for myself. As usual he was a
supportive academic mentor, sharing with me my dreams for future research and
my enthusiasm about teaching. During
this conversation, he encouraged me to pursue my overly ambitious and somewhat
unrealistic visions. But he also voiced concerns about my religious
convictions. "Jan," he said, "you take your religion too
seriously." He supported this judgment by saying that very few scholars
have been able to retain their religious values, and then he claimed I was
unlikely to find support from any of my colleagues for my interest in such
issues. I was taken aback by this uncharacteristic advice from a man with
strong Quaker values whom I had admired so much.
more than twenty-five years of teaching in secular universities, I have
developed methods for integrating religious beliefs into the courses I teach.
For this reason, I have found my academic mentor's advice only partially true.
My experience disconfirmed his conclusion that I would be unable to maintain
my religious convictions as a university professor. On the other hand, my
experience strongly confirmed that secular universities marginalize religious
beliefs and demand that faculty privatize personal religious views.
AND RELIGIOUS BELIEF
often trivialize religious views, but they rarely suppress these views
entirely. Two forces strongly resist this impulse to repress. One potent force
is the strength of religious belief among our students. The other potent force
is the presentation of religion in popular culture. These two forces underlie
my discussion of how faculty and students relocate religious values into their
way of relocating religious beliefs occurs among students. University students
are typical of the general population when it comes to religion. They have
religious beliefs, and they act upon them. In 1997, the Pew Research
Foundation concluded that 71 percent of respondents believe in the existence
of God, a figure that increased by 10 percent from an identical study in 1987.[vi]
Additionally, this study showed that 61 percent believe in miracles,
and 53 percent say prayer is important in their daily lives, an increase of
more than 14 percent from the 1987 study. In 1998, priest-sociologist Andrew
Greeley showed similar percentages of belief and devotion.
Among other findings, his research concluded that religious beliefs and
practices have remained fairly consistent in the last part of this century
(that is, about 45 percent of all Americans attend church and pray daily).[vii]
Even more recently, a 1999 CNN-Gallup Poll found that 96 percent of Americans
believe in God or a universal spirit, 63 percent say God is very important in
their lives, and 70 percent describe themselves as religious.[viii]
believers have shifted from traditional denominations to evangelical religions
in the last fifty years, about the same number of Americans attend church,
pray daily, and believe that God is a power in their lives. These polls found
no strong differences between the old and middle-aged cohorts and those of
college age; senior citizens and young adults expressed similar levels of
belief. Even though many
evangelical publications challenge these statistics, and instead preach and
write about the decline of religious values and practices among all age
groups, sociological data disconfirm their views.
national surveys cited here include students and indicate that students also
possess strong religious values and beliefs. My experience in the classroom
confirms these research findings. Students' beliefs surface in the classes I
teach in communication through their discussions of media events, choices of
topics for presentations or essays, office conversations, and selections of
subjects for research papers, theses, and dissertations. In the past few
years, many different kinds of media events about religious issues have
prompted such discussions and research.
example in 1997 involved media stories about a religious cult. Shortly after
posting mysterious revelations on the Internet, Guru Marshall Applegate and
thirty-eight members of the Heaven's Gate spiritual group committed suicide,
claiming that the Hale-Bopp comet would carry them to a higher spiritual
level. Students inquired about
whether Heaven’s Gate was a religious cult, whether the members exercised
free will, or whether they truly believed what their Website claimed was their
dogma. Some viewed this act of mass suicide as absurd; others saw it as
righteous. Others wondered how such beliefs could rule one's life. Still
others mused about the technological savvy of Heaven's Gate members, who
created sophisticated Websites yet espoused such unscientific beliefs about
the conditions of an afterlife. All the students saw the public media coverage
of this event as a religious phenomenon worthy of academic discussion.
second example emerged in media accounts of an evangelical movement aimed at
preserving family values from a Christian point of view. In recent years, the
Promise Keepers Movement has drawn a million or so men to the National Mall in
Washington, D.C., in an emotional display of repentance and a reaffirmation of
men's commitment to marriage, family life, and racial reconciliation.
At the time when this movement received the most publicity, some young
men in my classes appeared wearing Promise Keepers' T-shirts, a quiet way of
declaring their solidarity with men who had joined this movement and attended
public rallies. Students unfamiliar with Promise Keepers were puzzled about
what the term meant and why their male colleagues were wearing these T-shirts.
These inquiries allowed Promise Keeper loyalists the opportunity to
talk about what the movement meant, prompting conversations about beliefs
among students from different religious backgrounds. In this instance,
students relocated their beliefs from personal and social contexts into
third example resulted from the deaths of two public figures. For students,
the death of Princess Diana, shortly followed by the death of Mother Teresa,
stimulated discussions about what a contemporary saint does and how women
should act out their religious and moral values in the contemporary world.
Most young women identified more with Princess Diana than Mother Teresa. But
most also recognized why Diana's media star outshined that of Calcutta's saint
of the streets. Television's visual depictions of the gorgeous, tall princess
with her arms on the shoulders of the wrinkled and tiny nun pointed out both
the difference and the solidarity between the moral actions of these women.
One student saw these depictions as a parable: "I always wanted to be a
princess when I was a child," she said. "Diana showed me that behind
the glitzy dresses there exists so much pain, a different kind of pain than
Mother Teresa saw in the streets of Calcutta but real pain nonetheless."
Thus the deaths of these two public figures caused students to reflect on
their own moral lives and sparked discussions about how others are to lead a
moral life in the complex contemporary world.
fourth example came from public discussions of science and religion in the
media: reports about suicides assisted by Michigan doctor Jack Kevorkian, the
cloning of "Dolly" the sheep by Scottish scientists, the reality of
human genetic engineering–all these were provocative topics for students
engaging in debates and writing argumentative essays. The perceived threat of
technological interventions inevitably forced students to grapple with
tensions between scientific possibility and moral responsibility. Two central
questions in these controversies were: How much should human beings intervene
into the workings of nature? Do human beings have the right to intervene in
natural matters once reserved for God?
media coverage of legal issues sparked a fifth focus for several other
classroom discussions. Should Christian based pro-life groups encourage
fanatics to bomb abortion clinics? Did President Bill Clinton deserve to be
impeached because of the sexual transgressions he admitted committing with the
young intern Monica Lewinsky? Did
the gunmen at Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado, single out Christian
students as their victims? Should a group of religious leaders have helped the
Department of Justice to force the transfer of the young Cuban refugee, Elian
Gonzales, to his father? Media coverage of all of these legal events raised
moral issues related to religious beliefs of students.
the messages of religious leaders sparked student interest. Pope John Paul's
recent visits to Cuba and to the Middle East promoted media discussions of the
blurred lines between religion and politics, showing that a religious leader
may in fact influence governmental decisions. The concessions made by longtime
Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- to allow the celebration of Christmas and to
sponsor the visit of the pope -- gave hope to the free world that religious
worship would resume in this neighboring country. In another example, the
papal visit to the Holy Land regenerated hope that peace would eventually come
between Jews and Muslims. The visits of the pope stimulated questions among
students about the meaning of religious freedom and the connections between
religious belief and political ideology.
of these issues and resulting discussions convince me that students have
strong interests in religious issues and that they will bring their religious
perspectives into the classroom whether or not the university wants to
suppress these views. I believe these interests should not be suppressed but
instead should be encouraged as a step toward achieving the goals of the
university in the form of reasoned decision making and problem solving,
representation of diverse points of view, understanding of human values, and
ability to express ideas. In my
classes students manifest these interests in the way they develop written
essays about media effects, their analysis of contemporary public discourse,
and the perspectives they adopt in oral presentations.
OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE
culture and the public discourse it fosters create a contemporary public
sphere that can and should be incorporated into the classroom. German
philosopher Jurgen Habermas takes a middle ground when he relates university
curricula and his idealized
public sphere. On the one hand, he acknowledges the value of modernism through
disciplinary specialization, the importance of reason, and the value of
empirical evidence as the foundation of learning.
On the other hand, he agrees with the postmodern ideal that knowledge
be created in an open discussion resulting from a consensus of all types of
people representing a variety of different experiences.
notion of a public sphere classroom derives in part from Habermas's
philosophical concept of the public sphere.
Habermas defines the public sphere as a place where rational and
critical discourse occurs; it is a location or site where private people come
together as a public to engage in debate about public affairs and political
relationships. Habermas's conception of the site of the public sphere fits the
way students and faculty come together in a university classroom. Like
Habermas's public sphere, the secular university classroom is a place where
all sorts of topics over which church and state have exercised a monopoly in
the eighteenth century are now open to interpretation and discussion.
Habermas emphasizes a normative ideal, what he calls "ideal
communication," that is, reasoned and civil communication between persons
from different perspectives who use their knowledge and information as a
critique about the issues, persons, institutions, and power structures that
enforce the public order. Habermas concludes that communicative action
requires an openness toward the other, a commitment to equal participation,
and an intersubjective way of arriving at norms. His communication-based
community accepts the rule that all knowledge must be tested by appeal to
evidence and that every member of the community must be accorded equal access
to the discourse.[ix]
ideal of the public sphere parallels the learning environment of a
contemporary university classroom. This ideal applies to my discipline and
perhaps to others in the social sciences and humanities as well. In short,
then, public university education should be a sphere in which the existing
beliefs and values of students gained from their families and their cultures
expand and change as their knowledge increases. Knowledge should be expressed
and challenged in an environment of reasoned discussion where diverse points
of view are recognized and appreciated. The university needs the kind of free
and open discussion envisioned by Habermas as "ideal communication."
can this ideal be achieved in a public university?
If it can be achieved, one necessary step is to acknowledge the
religious interests of the students and the moral and religious voices of
popular culture and public discourse. Popular culture refers to the culturally
disseminated information of newspapers, magazines, television, film, music,
and art that express contemporary values and assign cultural meaning. Thus,
popular culture can be a vehicle for the illumination and elaboration of
religious and moral issues.
get closer to the ideal of the public sphere in the classroom, the content of
popular culture needs to be informed by historical and critical research in
order to frame a lively, reasoned discussion. For example, the following
lesson in my classroom stimulated student debate about the use of the death
penalty. It shows how teachers
relocate religious beliefs into the classroom and how students incorporate
their religious perspectives into their papers and oral presentations on
public moral issues. This teaching method attempts to integrate religious
values into classroom content and create a learning environment resembling the
first step was to encourage students to gain background knowledge through
general readings about the death penalty from proponents and opponents, to
learn historical background on the issue, and to understand current
statistical information related to the policy. For example, students learned
about the disproportionate number of minorities on death row as well as the
number of death row inmates who later through DNA testing were shown to be not
guilty of the crimes for which they had received the death penalty.
the students viewed an artistic conception of the issue by watching the film Dead
Man Walking. The film story is about the work of a Catholic nun, Sister
Helen Prejean, as a spiritual advisor for a convicted criminal facing the
death penalty. The story reflects Prejean's strongly held religious position
on the death penalty. The film also presents some biblical teaching about love
of one's neighbor and forgiveness. As students watched the film, they were to
react to a number of questions, such as: What is the theme or argument of the
movie? How do the characters reflect different perspectives about the death
penalty? Can viewers understand the point of the film without understanding
the religious viewpoints of its characters? How do the verbal and visual
depictions of Matthew Poncelet, the man facing death, show the inconsistencies
of his moral point of view? How do the religious beliefs of Sister Helen
Prejean affect her public actions? These questions promoted discussion about
the connections between belief, communication, and action and invited analysis
about the way people reason on the death penalty issue.
third step for students was to research a recent death penalty case. Some
students read the testimony from the death penalty phase of the Timothy
McVeigh trial. Other students read the testimony of the victims, especially
those using religious imagery and biblical justification. Still others read
the pleas by McVeigh's family to save him from death. After students had read
several of the examples of testimony, I asked them to identify examples of
what they believed were particularly powerful examples of persuasive discourse
on the subject.
fourth step was to review public discourse on the subject. Students received
excerpts from political remarks made over the past several years on crime,
violence, and the death penalty. Then students read essays and speeches made
by religious leaders and families of crime victims who both supported and
opposed the death penalty.
students formulated issues, collected evidence from political, religious, and
legal sources, and presented an oral debate on the death penalty. In order to
approximate the ideal of the public sphere, students constructed their
arguments using traditional academic research, information gleaned from
popular culture, and their own religious beliefs. The students' oral debates
on the issue, presented to classmates, mirrored
the public sphere, at least partially. This
was shown by students' openness toward others' opinions, equal participation,
and the intersubjective method of debating public norms. Students who
participated in the death penalty debates located popular conceptions of
religious culture into their reasoned approach about a public moral issue.
This learning activity incorporated modernist principles of reason and fact-
finding with postmodern methods of interpretation in which the voices of the
oppressed enter into the analysis. Together these methods led to a reasoned
deliberation grounded in religious viewpoints about a salient public moral
issue. Moreover, this learning activity demonstrated how students relocated
religious beliefs identified by popular culture into their own discourse.
secular universities are part of the "culture of disbelief," faculty
and students can relocate their beliefs into their learning environments when
they research and reason about public moral issues. This relocating of belief
detaches the beliefs from religious authority and instead attaches them to
public moral issues. If my doctoral advisor were alive today, he may have
changed his mind about the advice he gave me so many years ago.
For example, he might recognize that not only can college professors
incorporate religious perspectives, but they garner support from students who
find these perspectives to be a useful and informed way to learn about public
moral issues. Although secular
universities may try to marginalize the religious beliefs of faculty and
students, the teaching methods of the faculty, the interests of students, and
the predominance of popular culture can relocate religion into the mainstream
of the university learning environment.
L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics
Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), passim.
Bender, review of The Soul of the American University, by George M.
Marsden, in CultureFront 3 (Fall 1994): 78-79.
H. Roberts and James Turner, The Sacred & the Secular University
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 20.
Lakeland, Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 1.
M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1997), 27.
Research Foundation, 1998 Poll on American Religious Practices (www.ffrf.org/fttoday/jan_feb98/polls.html).
Greeley, "Religious Values and Law." Paper presented at the 1998
Conference of Legal Educators in San Francisco, California.
poll questions and result appear at the following Website:
of the works of Jurgen Habermas develop his concept of the public sphere: Knowledge
and Human Interests (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971); Theory of
Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987); The Philosophical
Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987);
and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: A Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989). For a critical approach to the public sphere, see Craig
Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press,
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