Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017

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Teaching Religion In Secular Universities

          Harvard University, only 25 years younger than our University of Sto.  Tomas, also started as a training ground for Christian ministers.  In fact, its flagship program was a course in theology which is still being taught in its Divinity School.  As Lisa Miller wrote in Newsweek (February 11, 2010) in an article entitled "Harvard's Crisis of Faith," Veritas was only officially adopted as its motto in 1843; until then it had been Christo et Ecclesiae ("For Christ and the Church").  The irony is that an initiative to include Religion in its core curriculum failed because of a strong lobby of some secularists in its faculty.  As Ms. Miller reported:  "This question of how much religion to teach led to a bitter fight when the faculty last discussed curriculum reform in 2006.  Louis Menand, the Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and English professor, together with a small group of colleagues tasked with revising Harvard's core curriculum, made the case that undergraduate students should be required to take at least one course in a category called Reason and Faith.  These would explore big issues in religion:  intelligent design, debates within and around Islam, and a history of American faith, for example.  Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist, led the case against a religion requirement.  He argued that the primary goal of a Harvard education is the pursuit of truth through rational inquiry, and that religion has no place in that."  Unfortunately for Harvard students, the anti-religion lobby won the debate.

          When I left for Harvard more than fifty years ago to start my graduate studies in economics, I remember some of my teachers at De La Salle College warning me that I could lose my faith in that "Godless" institution.  I realized that their fears were exaggerated because in my four years in the university, I met many, both in the faculty and among the students, who practised their respective faiths.  The Harvard community in the early 1960s was no different from what it is now.  Ms. Miller quotes Jay Harris, the dean who administers the General Education program: "We have a very strong evangelical community.  We have women walking around in hijabs.  Harvard students are increasingly churchgoing, Bible-studying, and believing."  The success of the anti-Religion lobby seems to be another case of a minority tyrannizing the majority.

          In the Philippines, the vast majority of our university students enroll in secular universities that are run like business enterprises or at least as social enterprises.  A few of them like Holy Angel University and Angeles University in Pampanga and Centro Escolar University and Philippine Women's University in Metro Manila include Religion subjects in their core curricula.  It would be desirable for more of the non-denominational educational institutions to follow the example of these universities in including Religion subjects as part of the core curriculum that imparts general or liberal arts education to the students as a foundation for their future specializations.  The students can be given the choice of religion subjects according to the faiths they profess, i.e. Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, etc.  Even those who do not profess any faith can be required to take a course which surveys the major religious beliefs.  Such a knowledge is important for understanding the beliefs of others. As Pierpaolo Barbieri, who sat on the Crimson (the Harvard newspaper) editorial board at the time of the 2006 religion debates, quipped:  "Growing up after 9/11, you need to fathom how other people think.  With rationality, it would be very difficult to understand how someone could get on a plane and do that."

          Contrary to the views of the secularists at Harvard, religion or faith is not inimical to reason.  In fact, the Catholic faith is taught in college courses with the use of a lot of reason.  It is precisely denominated as "Faith seeking understanding."   With the right pedagogy, the Catholic religion can be presented as being in complete consonance with reason.  For those non-denominational universities who would like advice on how to incorporate religion classes into their core curriculum, I would be happy to put them in contact with the Religion department of the University of Asia and the Pacific, an example of a non-denominational university that has fully incorporated the teaching of religion into its core curriculum.  For comments, my email address is