A Means of Knowing or a Subject for Study?

What role should religion play in a University?

In her earlier book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think Elaine Ecklund asked 191 scientists at ‘elite’ universities “What place should religion occupy in a university like yours?” Of these scientists, ~42% mentioned some kind of positive role, ~36% saw no positive role for religious people, institutions, or ideas in the university, the remainder are mixed. Approximately 54% mentioned the dangers that religion can have for science.

Ecklund outlines three models or reasons for eliminating religion from the University and three models or reasons for including religion in the University distilled from the comments of these 191 professors across Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Psychology, Sociology, Economics, and Political Science. First, three reasons for eliminating religion.

The Model of Opposition: Religion ought to be viewed in opposition to scientific reasoning. Some of the scientists interviewed view the purpose of the university as “inherently focused on reason and rationality, and little else.” (p. 93) Religion should not be at the university as anything other than a subject for dissection. Because there is no truth in religion that is not also found apart from religion – religious “knowing” or thought simply does not belong. The only real questions are secular questions.

The Model of Secularism: Universities ought to be bastions of secularism.Scientists who talk extensively about separation of church and state argue that there are enough places in the broader society where religion has taken hold and that universities should be places where knowledge is protected from its grip” (p. 97)

The Model of Pluralism: Universities ought to foster pluralism. There is a serious danger from bringing religion into the university because religion is inherently partisan and will privilege one group over another. Proselytizing has no place in the university. Some wonder if one can even hold an exclusive view and be a true scholar.

Of course, it is also possible to take a different view of the purpose of the University. Perhaps the university has a responsibility to students and to society that runs counter to it image as a bastion of scientific secularism. This leads to three reasons for including religion in the University.

The Model of Nurture: Universities ought to nurture students – including spiritually – in their formative years. In general this is not considered part of the intellectual mission of the university, rather the university should provide resource for the development of the whole person, providing athletic facilities, social opportunities, and, for those who wish, the opportunity for spiritual nurture. This is supporting student choice and diversity, not establishing any belief as preferred.

The Model of Legitimacy: Universities ought to extend legitimacy to religion as a subject of study. This is a two-edged sword. While religion should be acknowledged as a subject for study and for the impact it has on some subjects, not just for dissection but from a variety of perspectives, it is separated and bounded and kept away from the other disciplines.

The Model of Connected Knowledge: Universities ought to support the connection of religious knowledge to other forms of knowledge. Ecklund comments on Marsden’s call for “Christian scholars to take bold initiative in connecting their beliefs to their specific disciplines while at the same time playing by the rules of their particular guilds.” This is harder than it sounds. In Ecklund’s interviews social scientists struggled to see a way to connect faith with disciplines, natural scientists saw it as nearly impossible. No one saw faith as having any influence on the scientific method of their discipline.

What do you see as ways that religion can or should have a place within the university?

Is religion a form of knowledge or a subject for investigation?

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