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Mark Taylor is a religion and humanities professor at Williams College.
"The Devoted Student"
By Mark C. Taylor
More college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.
At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of "political correctness." But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.
The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche's analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)
My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including "unacceptable" books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.
Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
At a time when colleges and universities engage in huge capital campaigns and are obsessed with public relations, faculty members can no longer be confident they will remain free to pose the questions that urgently need to be asked.
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.
Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.
It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.
As religious faith rises, understanding of religion falls.
If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn — one that extends well beyond the academy.
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.
Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.
The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.
Reprinted from The New York Times Copyright © 2006