Columns

Bhatia ’15: Are religion and academics incompatible?

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, November 3, 2014

The debate between science and religion is among our species’ oldest and most controversial dialogues. College campuses, especially Brown, epitomize the distance between religion and scientific academic inquiry.

In many classroom discussions, religion can be a conversation-stopper, representing a point of no return that many are afraid to touch and often tiptoe around for fear of offending another. This fear to touch upon religion in the classroom keeps us from engaging in religious dialogue outside of religious settings on campus.

A 2010 article for the website First Things, which is published by the nonpartisan Institute on Religion and Public Life, features college descriptions including one that claims “the average Brown student is probably not religious, nor do they participate in religious activities,” and “those who are religious are more subtle about their beliefs and practices.” One student interviewed for the article said that her roommate goes to church every week, but if she did not live with her, she probably would not have known that.

In an article published by the University of California press, researchers examined the intellectual tensions between religion and science as well as the possibly secularizing effects of education. The researchers found that much scholarly work assumes that scientists’ religious beliefs are a function of their academic inquiry more than anything else. But in reality, demographic factors such as age, marital status and the presence of children in the household were stronger predictors of religious difference among scientists. And researchers found that academics in the natural and social sciences at elite research universities are less religious than the general American public and found that younger scientists are more likely to believe in God than older scientists.

Brown’s foundation as a haven for dissenting voices continues its legacy, with our university being renowned as one of the most liberal campuses in the world. On the surface, our campus seems institutionally liberal. Yet there seems to be some aversion to religious dialogue on campus. It is not that Brown students are not religious. A recent column by Andrew Feldman ’15 discussed the balance many students struggle to find in maintaining a moderate religious practice in college.

Academics and religious beliefs seem to be separated since they seem incompatible with academic validity.

Religious beliefs govern how we act and think in appropriately “religious” contexts but not necessarily beyond. By excluding or disregarding religious points of view, do we Brown students inject into our classrooms the very closed-mindedness we think we are fighting by avoiding religious dialogue?

If curiosity is more important than knowledge, why is it that we avoid intellectual inquiry that addresses the pervasive discomfort around religion? Especially with increased tensions surrounding the teaching of evolution in public schools, this is an increasingly important debate.

It makes sense, of course, that the creationist view was discussed in my evolutionary biology class. But this view was presented mockingly. Understandably, it makes sense that this biology class would support biological theories and methodologies. Yet those theories can be presented without the mocking attitude toward alternative epistemologies. What if there were students in the classroom who supported the creationist view?

A friend mentioned to me after class that she felt somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that our classmates, rather than engaging in dialogue about the two opposing perspectives, simply mocked the religious approach. Can factual belief coexist along with religious belief? What if some biologists were to believe in a creationist view of the universe? Would that detract from their academic validity if their scientific research clearly and rigorously supported their scientific beliefs?

Is it not the essence of Brown to include various perspectives without denigrating them? In being boisterously “liberal,” are Brown students becoming theophobic? Are students intentionally rejecting another’s point of view by claiming liberalism? This isn’t about which view is right or wrong, but this lack of dialogue suggests that the campus climate is not one that respects this dialogue across differences — something we are known to take great pride in.

Events this fall semester — including the Muslim Students’ Association’s Eid Banquet, the South Asian Student Association’s Diwali celebration and the Ignus event hosted by the Brown Christian Fellowships — suggest prominent religious presence on campus. Can we as students be more cognizant toward balancing religious beliefs with factual beliefs without making students feel uncomfortable sharing their perspectives with other students, both in the classroom and outside?

There is a lack of religious dialogue at Brown, and not every viewpoint is included and respected on our campus. To make students more comfortable both as scholars and members of a faith group, we should make the effort to listen to various perspectives rather than correlating religion with a lack of academic integrity. Through this, we can make our campus a more open and accepting environment where all religious viewpoints, including the lack thereof, are represented, respected, challenged and celebrated.

 

Divya Bhatia ’15 can be reached for comment at divya_bhatia@brown.edu.

  • Alum ’12

    “It makes sense, of course, that the creationist view was discussed in my evolutionary biology class. But this view was presented mockingly. Understandably, it makes sense that this biology class would support biological theories and methodologies. Yet those theories can be presented without the mocking attitude toward alternative epistemologies. What if there were students in the classroom who supported the creationist view?”

    “Alternative epistemologies”, really? You either accept the scientific evidence for evolution, or you don’t. If the latter is what you want to euphemistically call an “alternative epistemology”, then you are free to do so. But don’t expect that view to gain any traction with anyone (yes, including religious folks) with a “mainstream epistemology” (as known as an understanding of reality) on evolution.

  • Student

    How to (try to) say this without starting the typical Internet religion debate…

    Religion is empirically untenable. Philosophy grounded in supernatural beliefs is subsequently unfulfilling because it does not follow – if A implies B, C and D, but A is wrong, what good are B, C, and D? That’s not to say we can’t take religious philosophical ideas and find good justification for them without the supernatural, though.

    With respect to evolution, I’d rather not start *that* discussion here, but I will say two things. One, creationism is dismissed because it’s wrong – plain old wrong like 2+2=5, and no insistence on the matter makes it any less wrong, nor academia any degree of closed-minded. Two, the followup – would you seriously contend that alchemy is a viable alternative to chemistry, or balancing the four humors an alternative to modern medicine? That’s what the pleas for “alternative epistemologies” amount to.

  • random

    I think it’s about the social circles and courses you partake in. I often talk about religion in class and among friends, because we opt in to including it in our discussion. Like class, race, etc. it’s a taboo topic that can bring out ugly prejudices, and so we tend to avoid all of these conversations on campus. Just because religion has been a legitimized distinction for centuries should not mean it’s the only thing you find lacking in the conversations at Brown.

  • alum 12

    Without sounding too preachy, some of us do express our religious beliefs at Brown… through our deeds. For some of us, religion is more about deeds than creeds. That is to say, I’d rather show it than debate it in class. I’d rather give to the poor than talk about the incompatibility between the big bang theory and the deistic origins of the universe. I’d rather be polite and considerate than analyze the role religion has had through the centuries on the course of human history…

    Not that those things are not important. But this is inherently risky. Religions have a significant impact on how people act and think. The study required to understand the depth and breath is… a life time endeavour. To properly apply it to a secular mindset is… work that would extend beyond a semester at Brown.