Part III in the JI’s ongoing series on secularism and religious education
In sifting through the thoughts that might be relevant to bring to this conversation, it quickly became clear that I wouldn?t be able to form any kind of comprehensive, useful model, or to get the satisfaction that comes with being able to see something as a whole. The differences that Matt articulated in the last post of the series run deep, and seem to impose considerable gulfs between all kinds of people that might try to talk about religion: we occupy largely different worlds. I also came to realize that the blog post is not terribly well suited to interdisciplinary analysis! All I can do here, I think, is try to illuminate a point of contact between the three broad categories we have been discussing ? secularism, religion, and education.
Taylor and Matt have explored the three broad topics of this series in a sort of cognitive dimension. Respectively, they have introduced discussion about underappreciated or misunderstood aims and merits of religious education and about the disparate conceptions of religion that often make dialogue about it challenging. I?d like to take a more spatial and atmospheric approach to the topic(s). Most of what I understand about religious education and the secular conceptions prevalent in the Academy is closely tied to the environments where much of the action takes place. Discourse along these lines can (and should, I think) take place generally between groups and people, but often the University seems to be the most visible and determinative arena.
Perhaps the most conflicted places in the academic realm are the Schools of Divinity that exist at many long-established Universities in the United States and elsewhere. Often Divinity Schools (and other religious spaces) are located at the heart of academic campuses; sometimes, though (as at Harvard), these schools have been exiled to the periphery. Unlike many of the chapels that are now more memorial and ceremonial than sacred space, some divinity schools are still struggling forward, trying to reorder and reconstruct themselves in the face of radical reconceptualizations of religion. Although some continue to maintain a traditional theological orientation (and slowly diminish), most have forsaken their theological anchors and embraced the academic study of religion. These now offer degrees that are grounded in a more secular, academic paradigm which conceives religion as a dimension of culture. While some schools continue to offer degrees in ministry, they now are in the wings.
In many ways, the Divinity School here at the University of Chicago epitomizes the evolution of the Divinity School.  In others it is relatively unique. Religion has had a special emphasis here from the beginning, when the first University president, William Rainey Harper proclaimed: ?We will do religion? ? a vague but forceful promise. Despite the fact that the Divinity School was among those that absorbed rigorous, independent academic inquiry from early on, it has stayed relatively close to its initial commission, unlike some other, older schools (in the US) whose original commitment to religion was even more emphatic. Much of this probably has to do with the prominence of scholars of religion that have worked at Chicago, including the likes of William Warren Sweet, Sidney Mead, Mircea Eliade, Martin Marty, Jonathan Z. Smith, David Tracy, and Martha Nussbaum. These scholars have preserved something of the sense of dignity that once widely attended the study of religion. Moreover, even as the School has extended its scope to include all the religions of the world, it has somehow not totally lost track of the beauty and vitality and promise of each.
Interestingly, my experience has also borne out the claim made by the Dean of the School when I arrived: he contended that students in the School enjoyed an ?extraordinarily rich? relationship to the broader University. ?To be enrolled in this School,? he averred, is to ?be enrolled in this University.? In general, I?ve found that he was right about scholars of religion being able to engage in genuine dialogue with students and faculty across other disciplines. Although religion finds more respect in some domains than others, it generally retains a certain measure of regard. To me this seriousness is the enabling condition that allows for genuine and continuing exploration of religion?an exploration that must respect the viability and humanity of belief. It prompts the question of whether it is possible to take religion seriously without giving quarter to those who believe in it, and if so, how long this seriousness can endure.
Steven Pinker?s comments about religion are understandable but silly. His objection to the presence of religion at Harvard is that religion is fundamentally unrelated to intellectual inquiry, and that the University as a category is not in the business of fostering belief. He may be correct about this, but his conclusions don?t follow. The mode of operation of Universities may now always be intellectual inquiry, but the subjects of that inquiry certainly are not, and yet they remain consummately human. To cut out religion because it strikes one as unviable would be to commit an act of terrific arrogance and to lop off a pulsing (if arational) part of the human experience. Scholars like Pinker embody the attitude that would potentially undermine the study of religion as a practicable enterprise, both for believers seeking a better understanding of how they are embedded in the world, or for scholars who attempt to study religion as a rich and unique dimension of culture. Secularism in the sense of trivialization of religion is hostile to religion in all its forms.
Maybe some of the modern Divinity Schools, far from being the embarrassments they can seem, help demonstrate what religious study should be like. By their heritage and the solemnity that lingers in their architecture and permeates their goings on, perhaps they support the study of religion in ways that are unavailable to modern Departments of Religion. Clearly, though, these environments are happy accidents of history. The key issue that lies before scholars of religion is how to build and preserve such a space and atmosphere with materials at hand today.
 Mormonism and the University of Chicago Divinity School have a storied past. For a peek into it, see Kevin Barney?s comments at By Common Consent a few years ago. His post also links to Russell Swenson?s reflective article in Dialogue about his experience in Chicago.