Our religious studies programs are in trouble. Here’s what we miss out on if we don’t save them.
As universities reopened this past fall, the educational landscape was significantly altered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The switch to remote classes, discounted tuition and the delay or even cancellation of football season are just a few of the unprecedented changes experienced on college campuses. What is not new, however, is the compromise universities make when faced with financial setbacks. Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., for instance, responded to its $20 million deficit with layoffs, salary cuts and the elimination of nine majors. Though Canisius is a 150-year-old Jesuit school, its eliminations included the religious studies major.
Canisius is not alone in this decision. Elmira College, Hiram College and Connecticut College have either eliminated or expect to eliminate their religious studies programs. The humanities are often the first victims of budget cuts, but the fact that a Jesuit university eliminated religious studies says something about religion’s place in academia. Religion and, more specifically, Christianity is not only expendable at universities but often actively excluded. From my personal experience in graduate school at the University of Chicago, professors derided religion, students readily signaled their lack of religious views, and I received surprised looks when I shared my Catholic faith. It was as though the study of English literature and Catholicism were incompatible.
I once attended a panel titled “Religion, Identity, and the Construction of Faith” that had been described as a debate among “an atheist and two believers” about the future of religion, but I found the believers rather lukewarm in their faith. In fact, during the question and answer period, one attendee called their discussion a “secular love fest.” One member of the panel, an ordained minister and divinity school professor, expressed an ethic much more existential than Christian.
The humanities are often the first victims of budget cuts, but the fact that a Jesuit university eliminated religious studies says something about religion’s place in academia.
The Great Divorce
The evidence for the diminishing place of religion in higher education and for Christianity’s diminishing place in academia is overwhelming. In times of financial hardship, religious studies is often the first program to go. This happens at schools that, at least traditionally, have Christian affiliations. Moreover, scholars, even those who study religion, seem reluctant to admit they are religious. Many also hold the assumption that one cannot be religious and intellectual. In part, this could be because the currently most famous intellectuals have divorced religion from rational thought. For instance, Sam Harris (one of the so-called Four Horsemen of Atheism) claims that “the conflict between religion and science is inherent.”
How we arrived at this moment is not obvious. The problem of the perceived conflict between religion and intellectual pursuits is twofold. This view of the two in conflict emanates from these public intellectuals who proclaim the disconnect between religion and progress. From the bottom up, students and faculty members perpetuate the image of the atheist intellectual. The university is the place where public intellectuals cut their teeth. It is where we cultivate the future Sam Harrises dedicated to completely secular scholarship. This, however, need not be the norm. Society needs to find a way to make it O.K. to be a religious intellectual, to be a Catholic intellectual.
The exclusion of religion from intellectual circles is a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of Western history, religion was not just acceptable in intellectual circles; it was the means for the greatest thinkers to explore the cosmos or ask philosophical questions. The Hellenistic Greeks, for instance, thought Pauline theology amenable to their philosophy. As St. Paul wrote letters to Diaspora Jews in Greek cities like Philippi, his teachings resonated with their Stoic practices.
Christianity built upon this philosophy to develop the ethic that dominated Western thought for centuries. Thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas More continued the Catholic intellectual tradition. Their writings shaped philosophy, politics and literature. During a time when the vast majority of the population was illiterate, Catholic monks and members of the clergy were the European literati.
Many hold the assumption that one cannot be religious and intellectual.
From Questioning to Rejection
The exclusion of Christianity from academia began when religious thinkers became secular thinkers and when thinkers began to distrust institutions. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther rebelled against the most important institution in Europe, the Catholic Church. From the writing of Luther’s 95 theses criticizing the church to the present day, there has been a gradual shift from questioning institutions to outright rejection of them.
The Enlightenment was the next major event that accelerated the rejection of institutions. After Catholicism, religion itself became a target, as many Enlightenment thinkers turned their skepticism toward the Catholic Church to skepticism toward religion, absolute monarchies and rigid class systems.
Though we have this skepticism to thank for the political freedoms we enjoy today, the Enlightenment bolstered the notion that a religious setting was no longer the best place for intellectual inquiry. Even those who invoked God to substantiate the rights of individuals (including some of the founding fathers of the United States) saw God more as a detached creator than the Christian God. Thus, in academic and intellectual circles, religion continued to wane in importance.
While religion enjoyed a meager presence among Enlightenment intellectuals, late 19th and early 20th-century philosophers often completely excluded it. These philosophies, not coincidentally, were the most iconoclastic; they were devoted to undermining institutions. Karl Marx, for instance, called religion the “opium of the people.” There would be no place for religion, the nation-state or other traditional institutions in a communist social system.
Today’s public intellectuals are a product of movements and philosophies, including the Enlightenment, nihilism and post-structuralism. As provocateurs who question every assumption from ethics to politics, many public intellectuals act as if institution-probing were their job description. For many contemporary scholars, institutions like marriage, the mainstream media, capitalism and, yes, organized religion are not to be trusted. Their probing of institutions, however, has gone so far that it is leading to their unraveling.
The Enlightenment bolstered the notion that a religious setting was no longer the best place for intellectual inquiry.
Science: the New Religion
Instead, in many circles, science has become the hallowed institution that will solve all problems (even moral ones). Though the vast majority of Christians embrace the study of science, a number of prominent scientists see Christianity as inimical to rational, scientific approaches to thinking. Steven Pinker, a psychologist and author of Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature, warns against relying on “dogma” rather than trusting science to fill in the gaps of human understanding.
Thinkers like Mr. Pinker and the Four Horsemen conform with the archetype of the atheist intellectual (or, to use the softer label, “secular humanist”). It is an archetype toward which many young students strive and one that shuts down religious approaches in academic spaces. To be a religious student or professor in the pursuit of intellectual inquiry is to not be taken seriously. How could someone, say, criticize patriarchy when his or her beliefs are grounded in an institution as traditional as the Catholic Church?
A number of prominent scientists see Christianity as inimical to rational, scientific approaches to thinking.
Signaling a lack of religious views can be about more than just fitting in with fellow students and faculty; it can also be a way of avoiding ridicule. There is a way in which a reference to religion has become a punchline. While all religions face ridicule, the readily visible symbols, practices and leaders of the Catholic Church make it an easy target. The television comedy “South Park,” for instance, once ridiculed the reverence of Catholics for ritual and authority in an episode that culminated in the Vatican consulting “The Queen Spider” to amend church law.
Catholics can certainly take a joke. The question is how we contend with the fact that religion is too often treated as a joke or a threat. For many, it is funny to rely on faith when science can dispel its notions. But it is also seen as unscholarly to approach intellectual questions with religion when secular tools are at our disposal. For young people, especially those in an academic setting, the association of religion with the ridiculous (the “religulous,” as Bill Maher puts it) makes it difficult for them to share their faith when they want their scholarship to be taken seriously.
So how might academia and society at large make space for the religious intellectual? First, we need to stop thinking of religious scholarship as a separate category from other modes of inquiry. Right now, the public is fine with intellectual Catholics weighing in on politics, human rights or culture. People are far less accepting when the opinion comes from a Catholic intellectual. The distinction? Catholics have their fair share of doctors, professors and authors—not to mention a disproportionate share of Supreme Court justices. Their faith probably influences their work, but their work does not take place within an explicitly acknowledged religious framework.
Signaling a lack of religious views can be about more than just fitting in with fellow students and faculty; it can also be a way of avoiding ridicule.
The Possibilities of Religion
But where are the public intellectuals who make their inquiries through their Catholic faith? There are Catholic intellectuals everywhere, but their work is often relegated to the realm of “the religious” and treated as a separate category from secular work. Take, for instance, St. John Paul II. He weighed in on human rights, ethics and politics, often through scholarly writing in books like Love and Responsibility and Person and Act. He was our era’s Thomas More. His role as pope, however, made people regard his work as specific to Catholics. His ethics were Catholic ethics, his politics Catholic politics. As a recent graduate student, I can attest that at a secular university, one would be wise not to refer to John Paul II in a philosophy paper.
The task, then, is to use the work of Catholic intellectuals like St. John Paul II to answer questions that secular modes of inquiry cannot. Catholic scholarship like the theology of the body has the capacity to argue a sexual ethic that science or secular thought do not make apparent, such as the sacred nature of sex or the value of monogamy. The importance of these questions is by no means limited to Catholics.
If society is to make space for religious intellectuals, for Catholic intellectuals, the work starts at the university. Professors who have tenure and the freedom to pursue the projects they wish should not refrain from using their faith in their projects. A few intellectual Catholics have shown us what that looks like. The Yale law professor and author Stephen Carter, in books like God’s Name in Vain, argues for the productivity of religious belief in political movements. Mr. Carter went from intellectual Catholic to Catholic intellectual when he made a crucial step: He spoke of his faith in his scholarship at a secular elite university while writing a book in a field dominated by secular thought. And he was taken seriously.
But the work of intellectual Catholics begins before they get tenure. Students who may one day assume the name recognition of these lecturers and authors need the courage to use religion. They must overcome the raised eyebrows or ridicule. Moreover, the risks of not finding an advisor, of not landing a tenure-track job in a difficult market and of not being taken seriously as a scholar are real. But the bravery of students and faculty members is what will keep religious studies off the chopping block when times are tough. It is what will make intellectuals sit on a stage and express not lukewarm approval but exuberance for the possibilities of religion in scholarship.