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Mike Johnson '11: Keeping the faith

In his column "God and man at Brown" (Sept. 21), David Sheffield '11 claims, "A religious university is conflicted on a fundamental level." However, it is his column that is fundamentally flawed. Through the use of twisted logic and poor, if any, research, Sheffield claims that religious schools are backward and provide no opportunity to "discover new unknown things about the world."

Sheffield overlooks the fact that some of the most prestigious universities in the nation require their student bodies to take religious courses. I'm sure that Sheffield doesn't mind that the officers in the United States Army, arguably the best fighting force on the face of the planet, are required to take courses in religion at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and to attend services every week. Never mind that Forbes ranked West Point the best school in the country last year.

It's true that universities founded with the express purpose of spreading religion are not your typical liberal university. But the elitism inherent in the fascist imposition of liberal values is just as wrong as fascist imposition of religious values. Brown has evolved from its Baptist roots, but it's clear that all of its students are not as accepting and open-minded as one would hope. I celebrate Brown's open-ended theater of ideas, but I decry those who would attempt to use an open forum to shout down others' ideas, as often occurs in religious discourse at Brown.

The policy that Sheffield proposes is akin to a worshipping of science. He has set up his own dogma, one that "is allowed to color everything" he sees. If it isn't scientific, it's wrong.

Sheffield uses "the Catholic Church" as his benchmark for all things religious, while citing Liberty University, which is Baptist, and Brigham Young University, which is Mormon. Of the universities mentioned in Sheffield's column, only Georgetown University, which is Jesuit, is actually a Catholic School.

Yet he seems to categorize them all through the lens of Catholic dogmatism. He ignores the simple and obvious differences among sects of Christianity, displaying ignorance greater than that which he attempts to speak against. Sheffield glosses over differences in teachings between evangelical Baptists and Catholics, instead generalizing all Christian belief as anti-science. Generalization, on principle, ignores subtleties inherent in complicated questions such as religion, and lumping everyone together shows unwillingness to engage those with whom Sheffield disagrees.

Not all is so bad; Sheffield grants that despite its religious bent, Georgetown is a "decent" school. "Decent"? Georgetown is ranked 21st by U.S. News and World Report, whereas Brown, a "proper institution of learning," according to Sheffield, comes in at 15th, astronomically high by comparison.

The snobbish tone and dogmatic adherence to his personal sense of progress evident throughout the column is an abhorrent display of holier-than-thou philosophy. In order to back up his Swiss-cheese-esque logic, Sheffield submits the Catholic Church's prohibition of contraceptives, and the resulting lack of condoms on RAs' doors at Georgetown, as something that clearly affects Georgetown students' ability to do vector calculus. The school that ranked last in the Trojan Sexual Health Report Card last year is DePaul University, a decidedly non-religious university.

To use access to condoms at college in order to assess the value of an intellectual institution is ridiculous. I didn't decide to go to school at Brown because I could get cheap contraceptives whenever I wanted, and the government doesn't grant research money to institutions based on condom use.  

The quality of an institution isn't based on whether the school is religious or not religious. Quality of education is based on dialogue. Since the time of Socrates, intellectual dialogue has been the cornerstone for progress in education. Schools like BYU and Liberty stifle dialogue and adhere to dogmatic ways of viewing the world, which in turn hinders their ability to progress. While their censorship may stem from religion, it is their inability to critically engage popular topics that sees them swept aside by other universities able to do so.

Brown excels because it harbors dialogue, not because it has eschewed religious tenets as the foundation for its institutions. Georgetown is far better than "decent," and it deserves more than a cursory acknowledgement of its achievements, "despite" being religious. To criticize dogmatic institutions while imposing one's own dogma is problematic, and only serves to extend the lack of dialogue such issues require.

We cannot afford to simply write off those with whom we do not agree. We also cannot afford to jump to wild, sensationalist conclusions for the purpose of getting our columns read — we aren't Fox News. Religion isn't the enemy in higher education — ignorance is, on both sides.


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