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January 18, 2018

I-House Panelists Debate Religiosity and College Campuses

Panelists debated the role that religion should play on college campuses and in American society at an event co-hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute and International House on Thursday.

Held at I-House’s Assembly Hall, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat argued for the reintroduction of religious awareness in university education, whereas Geoffrey Stone, a professor of constitutional law in the Law School, made a case for secularism as the basis of freedom of thought.                    

Three professors in the Divinity School—Laurie Zoloth, Willemien Otten, and William Schweiker—each spoke on the importance for a university to remain neutral in terms of religious matters and to encourage a diverse community. William Cavanaugh, a professor of Catholicism at DePaul University, added to the emphasis on the exchange of ideas.

“There’s been a worrying tendency in higher education that technocracy gradually triumphs over humanism and religion,” Douthat said. He argued that because universities are viewed as powerhouses of economic growth, educators and students are encouraged to pursue technological progress at the cost of religious awareness.

According to Douthat, problems such as campus sexual assaults should be addressed through the reintroduction of moral-religious education among students, in addition to the anti-harassment policies that are already in place.

Douthat argued that spiritual enthusiasm does not dissipate when people become less religious; instead, people tend to find secular ends to express passions that they used to channel through religion. Left-wing political student protests, according to him, are examples of this kind.

Stone emphasized the importance of academic freedom in higher education and stressed that universities’ religious affiliations should not stand in the way of intellectual inquiry. “It is wholly inappropriate for a university—a real university, to insist that any set of beliefs are right,” he said.

He mentioned that ever since University President William Rainey Harper’s time, the University has been committed to the idea of free and critical inquiry, including into moral and religious issues that are potentially controversial.

Stone recalled a discussion on abortion rights from his constitutional law class, where several students of Catholic and Evangelical backgrounds felt uneasy at first. He commented that the only way to resolve this sensitivity is for him not to take a position as the instructor, but rather leave the answer up for debate.

Zoloth said that the development of the modern university owes much to statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon’s method of empiricism. She asserted that close investigation, without any presupposed standpoint, is the only path to discovery.

Otten added that, as a diverse community, UChicago has a particularly strong responsibility to remain open and neutral. “[Those principles] define not only who we are, but also who we strive to be.”

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