Should Colleges Teach Religion?

Marshall Poe makes an interesting argument for colleges to use religion to teach their students how to live:

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that all religions, if seriously practiced, do precisely what this “religion” had done for me: They teach you how to live. It is true, of course, that clerics often tell their flocks to believe things that are frankly unbelievable. And some even tell the faithful that if they don’t believe these incredible things they will suffer some harsh penalty, like going to hell. But most clerics of my acquaintance are not very interested in fire and brimstone. Rather, they are interested in making sure those in their care are spiritually fit. The way they do this—and, so far as I know, always have—is to give people a higher purpose and a set of guidelines necessary to pursue that purpose. They bring order to the thoughts and actions of people whose thoughts and actions are naturally disordered. They give people a way of life.

It was in this way that I became convinced that college classes in religious practice might help suffering undergraduates learn to live successfully. The classes would at the very least introduce undergraduates to the idea that there were practical ways to alleviate their suffering. They would plant the seed. Even if the students chose not to follow the practice they had learned, their recollection of it would remain in store for the day they would need it. The day would inevitably come and when it did, they would have someplace to turn for help.

This promise—that teaching religious practice might help students now and in the future—is, I think, reason enough try it. Before it can be tried, however, we have to address several objections to putting religious practice into the curriculum…

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?”

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