Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students

When students feel adrift, spiritual guidance might help.
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Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

I think religion should be taught in college. I’m not talking about “religious studies,” that is, the study of the phenomenon of religion. I’m talking about having imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clerics teach the practice of their faiths. In college classrooms. To college students. For credit. I think religion should be taught in college because I believe it can help save floundering undergraduates. I’m not talking about “saving” them in Christian sense. I’m talking about teaching them how to live so they do not have to suffer an endless stream of miseries.

If you had asked me when I was a professor whether universities should teach religious practice in order to help undergraduates navigate life, I would have said you were crazy. First, I would have said my students were pretty well adjusted, so they didn’t needed to be saved. Second, I would have said that even if they were in trouble, religion couldn’t help them. Third, I would have said that even if they were in trouble and religion could help them, religion wasn’t real knowledge and couldn’t, therefore, be part of a university curriculum. And fourth, I would have said that even if undergraduates needed saving, religion could save them, and religion could be part of the curriculum, the separation of church and state made teaching religion in public universities impossible.

You may have all of these reservations as well. But I don’t think you should, and I’m going to tell you why.

Undergraduates Adrift

I used to teach at a big land-grant university in Midwest. In that capacity, I did what most professors do. A third of my job was research, a third was teaching, and a third was service (committee work and such). I was a very conscientious researcher, a somewhat conscientious teacher, and avoided service whenever I could. I do not think I was unusual in this regard. Most professors at big universities love research, are lukewarm about teaching, and loathe service. This is why they are always after sabbaticals. They want to write books, not teach undergraduates or serve on curriculum committees. 

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I did not know my undergraduates very well. I taught a “two-two” load, meaning two courses a semester. One of those was a tiny graduate seminar, meaning no undergraduates. Each of my undergraduate courses met for about two hours a week, three at the outside. On average, then, I saw my undergraduates for four to six hours a week one semester and for two to four hours a week in the other. When I say “saw,” I mean exactly that. Typically, I stood at a lectern and lectured to them. I never really interacted with them. They were just faces. Of course, being a somewhat conscientious teacher, I invited them to my office hours. They almost never came, and I knew they wouldn’t. Again, I would say that my experience with undergraduates was fairly typical.

It so happened, however, that as part of my service commitment, I was selected to hold the office of the director of undergraduate studies. This was a position no one wanted because it meant spending hours advising undergraduates without any compensation. I didn’t really want the position either, but my chair told that I had to do something. He was right, and so I took the job.

I’m glad I did, because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the students that I taught. I had in-depth conversations with hundreds of them. I talked to them about their academic progress, of course, but I also talked to them about everything else: where they lived, who their friends were, how much they drank, how much they studied, whether they were depressed, what they ate, how they felt about the university, how they got on with their parents, how their parents got on with each other, where they worked, how much they worked, how much money they had, how much debt they carried, whether they went to church, whether they were involved in extra-curricular activities and, naturally, what they planned to do when they were done with their degrees.

What I discovered was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost. They were bright kids. Many of them had looked forward to going to the university all their lives. College was, in their imaginations, a sort of promised land, a place where you find your calling and get the skills necessary to pursue it. What they found, however, was not a promised land at all. To them, the college curriculum was a bewildering jumble of classes that led to nothing in particular. Take this, take that, it doesn’t really matter so long as it “counts” toward your major and graduation. They learned to pick classes not on the basis of interest or relevance, but simply because they fit nicely into their schedules. To them, campus life revolved around bread and circus. The university funded huge events—football games being the most important—in which drunkenness was the order of the day. One of my standard in-take questions came to be “Have you been arrested for public drunkenness?” To them, the prospect of graduating was terrifying. They knew that the university had not prepared them for any particular line of work. The answer to “What are you going to do next” was usually “Go to graduate school” or “Get a job.” What graduate school and what job didn’t matter; any would do.

I also learned that because they were adrift in so many ways, they suffered. It was not difficult to get them talking about their distress, probably because no one at the university had ever thought to inquire. There were those who drank too much and got into trouble. There were those who were full-blown alcoholics or drug addicts. There were those who were too depressed to go to classes. There were those who cut and starved themselves. There were those who thought of killing themselves and some who even tried. There were those who fought with their roommates. There were those who, having fought with their roommates, were in the hospital or homeless. And, more than anything else, there were those who said “Fuck it” and just dropped out.

Religion to the Rescue

I tried, of course, to get help for these students. But there was no help to be had at the university. I called their advisors—if I could discover their names—to see if they might render aid. In most cases these advisors did not even know the students’ names. I called the university’s counseling center to see if there was anyone on staff who might be able to help. “Have the student come in and make an appointment. We should be able to see her in a week.” I would have gladly called their parents, and I imagine their parents would have been more than willing to reach out. But, remarkably, the “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” forbids university officials from contacting parents in all but the most extreme cases. These lost students, then, had nowhere to turn.

My eyes now opened, I began to think hard about their situation. What could be done to help undergraduates at sea? Perhaps the mechanisms already in place—advisors and counseling services—could be beefed up? Having been an advisor myself, I knew that no tinkering with the advising system was going to help. Nobody likes academic advising.

I also knew that enhancing the universities counseling services wasn’t a likely fix. First of all, it would be expensive. Trained mental health workers do not come cheap, and if the university were to attempt any reasonable sort of coverage of the student body, dozens of them would have to be hired. And even if the university were to bring on bunches of psychologists, there’s good reason to believe that students in trouble would not visit them. Perhaps it has something to do with being in the Midwest, but I got the distinct impression from the students I talked to that they believed visiting a “shrink” was something to be ashamed of.

So what’s left? I thought about my own life and what had helped me weather particularly nasty storms. About ten years ago I experienced an acute psychological crisis. My spirit was broken and I did not think I could go on. Because of this crisis, my life was in shambles. I was lost. Being a well educated, middle-class type, I naturally sought the aid of psychiatrists. They were very helpful in treating the symptoms of my malady, but they could not identify, let alone fix, the core problem.

What to do? I had never been religious. Far from it, I was a confirmed atheist. But, in desperation, I began to attend what might generically be called a “spiritual program.” Some call it a “religion” and others call it a “practice.” It doesn’t matter. The important point is that the people in this spiritual program embraced me, identified with me, and told me to do a specific set of things. There was talk of God, but they explained that talking was secondary to doing. I didn’t have to believe in God, they said, all I had to do was practice the teachings of the “religion.” If I did that, they said, I would be relieved of much of my suffering. 

I practiced, and indeed I was relieved. When people ask me why this spiritual program worked for me, I usually say that it gave me a “way of life.” Without a way of life, I would say, one’s thoughts and actions tend to move at random, like water poured on a surface, spreading out and seeking the lowest places. With a way of life, I would continue, one’s thoughts and actions move in a single direction, like water poured in a channel, moving in a single direction toward a final end. I do not wish to say that my life now is like a still pool of water. Far from it. There are waves, and I’m powerless to stop them. But now that I have a way of life, I’m less bothered by these disturbances, there are fewer of them, and they are easier to quiet. My spirit is no longer broken. I have a purpose and the tools needed to pursue it.

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.

Religious Knowledge

Even if you’re convinced that undergraduates are suffering and that religion might help them, you may still not agree that religion should be taught in college. You might say that religious practice cannot be in the college curriculum because it is not knowledge, but rather belief. Knowledge rests on observation; belief rests on faith. Universities, you say, should teach knowledge, not belief. So religious practice classes are out.

This is what I thought before I actually had experience with a spiritual practice. Now I know that religion actually consists of two kinds of knowledge.

One philosophers call “knowledge-that.” Knowledge-that is the kind of knowledge you have when you affirm some proposition about the world: You know that something is true. The proposition “He can ride a bike” is knowledge-that. It can be tested by observation and is either true or false. When people say that religion is just belief, they are saying that religious people affirm propositions about the world that are very likely false. The knowledge-that propositions “Moses parted the Red Sea,” “Jesus rose from the dead,” and “Allah revealed the holy Qur’an to Mohammed” are all, they say, most probably untrue. They can, therefore, only be beliefs resting on faith. And they can, therefore, have no part in a university curriculum based on knowledge-that.

But religion also has what philosophers call “knowledge-how.” Knowledge-how is the kind of knowledge you have when you know how to do something. Being able to ride a bike is knowledge-how. You can ride a bike, can’t ride a bike, or somewhere in between. Most religions have plenty of knowledge-how. Take Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism has a dogma, that is, a set of beliefs to which one must adhere. But Orthodox Judaism is also an all-encompassing way of life. It is governed by over 600 mitzoth or “commandments” that cover everything from giving alms (do) to eating insects (don’t). Orthodox Judaism is something you do, not just something you believe. It is knowledge-how, not just knowledge-that. Orthodox Judaism is an extreme case, but we can see the distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-how in reform Judaism, the many forms of Christianity, Islam, and virtually every other world religion.

Interestingly, we can also see a lot of knowledge-how in spiritual practices that many people do not consider religions at all. The primary example is Buddhism, particularly as it is practiced in the United States. Buddhist scholars debate whether Buddhism really has a notion of God or not. But most Buddhist practitioners will tell you that it doesn’t matter. Believe in God if you like, or don’t. What matters is what you do. And what you should do, they will tell you, is embrace the Four Noble Truths and follow the Eight-Fold Path. This type of Buddhism is something you practice like you practice skating, tennis, or golf. The more you do it, the better you get. The better you get, the more enlightened you become. The more enlightened you become, the less you suffer. At least that’s the promise.

So religion is in part knowledge-how. But this raises another question: Should we consider knowledge-how appropriate for the college classroom? Judging by current practice, there is no question that it does. Every professor of the performing and fine arts teaches knowledge-how. Dancing, singing, playing, writing, drawing, painting, and sculpting are knowledge-how, and they are all well established parts of university curricula. And why not include engineering? You can either build it or you can’t. Or mathematics? You can either solve for X or you can’t. Or chemistry? You can either synthesize it or you can’t. Any discipline that teaches students how to do something in the world rests to some degree on knowledge-how.

Teaching Religion vs. Teaching About Religion

You might be convinced that undergraduates are suffering, that religion can help them, and that religious knowledge-how can be taught in the university. You are almost ready to believe that we should teach religious practice in college. Yet you still have one reservation. It looks, you say, like teaching religion in college mixes church and state in an unconstitutional way. If it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, it’s out.

That’s what I thought a number of years ago. Now, however, I don’t. Teaching religious practice in college is constitutional because it not proselytizing, but rather teaching about religion. The constitutionality of teaching about religion is very well established. In Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court said that while school-prayer and Bible reading in public schools were unconstitutional, the study of religion was allowed and should be encouraged. According to Justice Tom Clark, writing for the court:

[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

This might be thought of as the ruling that launched a thousand religious studies departments in universities. Thanks to Judge Clark, et al., you got to take “The Bible as Literature” in college.

It is also the ruling that could open the door for your kids or grand kids to take religious practice classes when they go to university. The religious practice classes I imagine would be taught by clerics, suitably credentialed and vetted. As a condition of their employment, they would be required to teach students how to practice their religion: what they should believe in terms of dogma, how and when to perform necessary rituals, and how they should live their daily lives in accordance with the ethical principles of the religion. These instructors would be forbidden from pressuring students to join their faiths, from discriminating on the basis of church membership (or non-membership), and from suggesting that their faiths are in some way superior to others. In other words, the cleric-instructors would be asked to assume a position of neutrality with reference to their own religion and the religion (or lack thereof) of the students in the class. Their purpose would only be to inform students about how to practice the religion, that’s all.

You may have other legal objections as well. For example, you might argue that by teaching any religious practice class the university is promoting religion as opposed to atheism. One obvious way to blunt this line of argument is to make sure that atheism is taught as it should be. There are, of course, purely secular spiritual practices. American Buddhism, as we have mentioned, is close. Transcendental Meditation and Yoga both come in God-less forms. The American Humanist Association encourages people to do “Good Without God.” One could even imagine a completely secular class that used the research produced in “Happiness Studies” to teach a-religious people how to live happily.

Further, you might argue that by teaching a class about, say, the practice of Lutheranism, the university is promoting Lutheranism. The obvious way to blunt this criticism is for the university to cover all the mainstream religions. In practice this will often be unnecessary. There is no reason to offer “The Practice of Taoism” where no student is ever going to want to take a class in Taoism. In practice it will often be impossible. My Midwestern university was a religiously diverse place. I don’t know how many faiths the students practiced, but I would be surprised if it were under 25. The university should not be required to provide classes in all these religions. It seems sensible simply to mandate that it make a reasonable effort to cover the spread of faiths represented in the student body.

American higher education is the envy of the world. Students come here from all over the globe to study. And American higher education is something we, as citizens, should be very proud of, for we built and fund a large portion of it. It’s really one of our crowning achievements as a nation.

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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 Marshall Poe is a writer and historian. He is the editor in chief of the New Books Network.

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