Reconciliation of Intellectual Inquiry and Religious Education in American Universities

As my junior spring semester at Harvard ends, I am beginning to reflect and wrap up learnings for the year. I came across this essay I wrote a few months ago for my “Democracy and Education in Modern America” class, and I thought it might be of interest to anyone curious about history of American universities, history of religious education, and/or my personal development of ideas about “value systems.” Since I wrote this essay, my Christian friend Brian Zhang has added to my thoughts on religious belief (especially to William James’s interpretation of it), yet I think it is interesting to see my thoughts on religious belief before I considered his perspective.

Reconciliation of Intellectual Inquiry and Religious Education in American Universities

When asked about the value of their higher education experience, many American university students will talk about their intellectual education, which Charles Eliot describes as “a mental training inferior to none in breadth and vigor [and] a thirst for knowledge” (Eliot). Yet fewer students will talk about their “religious education,” by which I mean their process of learning the core beliefs and values according to which they should live. But a religious education is, to varying degrees, an important part of many university students’ experiences as well. Separated from their parents and hometown morals and placed into an environment with incredible freedom and many choices—including the freedoms to choose how they use their time and which peers to befriend—many students are initially overwhelmed by their newfound freedom and the accompanying realization that “freedom is responsibility” (Eliot). When these students start asking the questions “How should I choose?” or “What should I do now?” they necessarily start asking harder value questions such as “What do and should I care about?” They might look to their peers, families, and role model professors for answers. The difficulty of answering such questions is the beginning of their lifelong religious education to uncover their core beliefs and values; such religious education is one of the great purposes of higher education, alongside intellectual education.

Before 1900, American university educators sought to meet this need for difficult answers by simply telling students the answers given by Christianity. Such “telling” was a very direct form of religious education—it consisted of chapel services for students to instill good morals and a sense of community (Reuben 119) and courses in “Natural Theology and Evidences of Christianity” (Reuben 89). However, as the late 1800s saw the spirit of open intellectual and scientific inquiry begin to sweep the academic fields, including philosophy and religion, the dogmatism of “telling” in religious education no longer sufficed, and universities struggled for 30 years to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education in their students, ultimately giving up by outsourcing religious education to competing student groups and outside religious groups (Reuben 132). Although university leaders ostensibly failed to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education after losing control of religious education during 1890-1920, the resulting decentralization of religious life into a diverse set of student communities has actually reconciled intellectual inquiry and religious education by giving students the control to both design more emotional and personal religious education for their peers and conduct their own investigations of the religious systems by which they want to live.

From 1890-1920, American university leaders failed to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education in their students because they failed to understand that religious education is mostly initially relevant to students because of the emotional strength—not intellectual wisdom—it provides. It was a natural mistake for universities to make, since one of their main goals is to provide their students with an intellectual education, and since the institutions most easily under university control—the teaching of courses and research—were intellectual. This is evident from the universities’ first attempts at this reconciliation—university presidents started by searching for professors who combined intellectual inquiry and good religious character in their teaching, “who were independent thinkers… who were sympathetic to Christian beliefs and values” (Reuben 90); then sought to create new fields of research under the umbrella of “science of religion,” which included the psychology and sociology of religion as well as literary criticism of the Bible (Reuben 102); and then even tried to secretly insert religion into courses that were deceptively named scientifically, such as “The Things That Shape a Nation’s Character” (Reuben 116). That all efforts at reconciliation focused on improving courses and research indicates the intellectual focus of these universities’ first attempts at religious education. Faculty’s assumption that students would take courses on religion if “taught scientifically” (Reuben 95) is also telling of their misunderstanding of the value of religious education to students.

In fact, as William James emphasizes in his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” it is emotional strength—not intellectual challenge—that is religion’s most relevant benefit to religious people. He discounts the value of intellectual pursuits in religion when he says that “personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism” (James 744), the intellectual and organizational outgrowths of personal religion. James later demonstrates that this “fundamental” characteristic of personal religion is the emotional strength it provides to the participant: “There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others… The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived… No other emotion than religious emotion can bring a man to this peculiar pass” (James 755). James’s physical images of “deep breathing,” “relaxation,” and “anxiety” suggest that religion’s great appeal is the happy and peaceful “religious emotion” it brings, not intricate theological arguments or doctrinal differences. We can easily imagine, then, why universities’ first attempts to add intellectual rigor to religious education failed to appeal to students. Evidence of failure includes “student rowdiness at [chapel] services” (Reuben 119) and declining attendance of classes concerning religion.

After these failures, universities gave up control of religious education to student groups and religious organizations leading up to 1920 (Reuben 132). This move would appear to symbolize the ultimate failure to reconcile intellectual inquiry and religious education; after all, William James’s claim about the fundamentality of religious emotion seems to make such reconciliation impossible. But, after broadening “religion” to encompass its general aforementioned definition as a set of values and beliefs according to which one should live, we will see that the end of the university “monopoly” on religious education and the rise of diverse student communities each attempting to serve different students actually fostered each student’s process of inquiry into the religions of each of these communities. This is the reconciliation of open intellectual inquiry and religious education.

There are two main reasons that a diversity of student communities, rather than the single university, has succeeded in reconciling open inquiry and religious education. The first is that students now have the control to design more emotional and personal “religious education” for their peers. For example, to look at Christian groups temporarily, the 1910s saw the rise in influence of student YMCA and YWCA groups as well as University of Chicago Christian Union (Reuben 129), and today at Harvard there exist a variety of Christian organizations include Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) and Asian American Christian Fellowship (AACF). The reason these groups have hundreds of students in modern times is that students running these organizations understand the strong emotional and personal needs of other peers that are elsewhere unmet in a university; these include emotional strength during such existential crises as I previously identify as the “overwhelming freedom” of college, as well as a close community to which one feels a special connection. The diversity of these communities is particularly important since today’s student bodies are much more diverse; thus the Harvard Christian groups have specific ethnic appeal (e.g. AACF), gender appeal (e.g. YMCA and YWCA), and denominational appeal (e.g. Orthodox Christian Fellowship). It is difficult to imagine a single university coordinating the religious education and close community of such a diverse set of students as today’s, and even the diversifying set that entered university in the 1920s; this set included women in coeducational schools (Angell) and students of different denominations (Reuben 122).

The other reason for the success of diverse student communities is that they enabled a student to conduct his or her own inquiry of the various religions offered by the various communities on campus. Here I will broaden my definition of “religion” as above to encompass any set of values and beliefs according to which one should live, so that we can interpret traditional theistic religions as examples of this broadened definition but also include secular belief systems. This implies that we can interpret student communities to have meanings broader than organized student groups; they also include the students from one’s concentration, one’s house, and one’s sports teams. From the point of view of a student at Harvard beginning to grapple with the questions I pose above regarding what one should do or what one values, the diverse set of communities at Harvard is a perfect field for open inquiry into the religions by which one would prefer to live. Each community has its own set of beliefs and values, and by analyzing and choosing communities, a student is doing exactly the intellectual inquiry into which type of religious education he or she desires.

For example, I recently became a member of the effective altruism community at Harvard, which is dedicated to doing good for the world in the most effective way. The community has as its religion—or core beliefs and values—that one should do the most good one can in the world, and that it is possible to figure out which methods of doing good are better than other methods. The reason I chose to surround myself with people in effective altruism is because I have felt the strongest emotional and intellectual connection to it. It is filled with people who think mathematically and rationally, which appeals to my desire for rigorous evidence and proof in making decisions, and who are searching for ways to improve the world. Moreover, I have evaluated how strongly I connect with the effective altruist community compared to other communities around Harvard—including the Christian communities, math academic community, or the community that embraces the philosophies of classes like Justice or Chinese Philosophy—and concluded my search with effective altruism. This is how I have reconciled open inquiry with religious education of my own beliefs and values, making the choice of religion ultimately my own.

In sum, the decentralization of religious life into a diverse set of student communities has actually reconciled intellectual inquiry and religious education by giving students the control to both design more emotional and personal religious education for their peers and conduct their own investigations of the religious systems by which they want to live. Because of this decentralization, both open inquiry and religious education have complemented each other in constituting a large part of the value of higher education for me.

References

  1. Angell, James. “Presidency of the University of Michigan.” In The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell. : Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911.
  2. Eliot, Charles. “The New Education.” The Atlantic, February 27, 1869.
  3. James, William. The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, Including an Annotated Bibliography Updated Through 1977. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
  4. Reuben, Julie. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.