February 25, 2004: Letters

Faith on campus

Iraq reflections

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Faith on campus

In “Keeping the Faith” (feature, December 17) Amy Sullivan GS describes how Allison Binns ’03 tried, in her classes at Princeton, to make sure that religious views were included in discussions. Binns says that she did this by providing “the religious view without necessarily representing it as my own.”

Sullivan then writes that this is a point “with which many religious students, particularly evangelicals and conservative Catholics, tend to struggle throughout their four years at university. Faith traditions that convey a strict sense of certainty about the world and about theology tend to produce strong believers who have little practice in engaging in critical questioning. For them, college is a time of learning the delicate balance of raising religious beliefs in a manner that can bring about, instead of prevent, intellectual debate.” Sullivan then quotes religion professor Eric Gregory: “Dogmatism is always inappropriate in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean that religious beliefs should be left outside.”

Clearly, Sullivan thinks that (1) Catholics (and similar traditional believers), by the nature of their religion, “have little practice in critical questioning”; (2) because they are disposed to being dogmatic and discouraging intellectual debate, Catholics especially have to learn “the delicate balance of raising religious beliefs in a manner that can bring about, instead of prevent, intellectual debate,” she writes. Sullivan’s implication is that traditional believers, unlike secularists and liberal religious believers, have to overcome their over-certain convictions and particular disposition to being dogmatic.

Now, even though I think that this view is fatuous, it’s nevertheless held by many, and Sullivan is free to try to marshal arguments for why she thinks it is so. In her PAW article, however, she doesn’t make any arguments — only assertions. Furthermore, Sullivan does not interview a single Catholic in her entire article, even though Catholics are the largest denomination in the U.S., and according to Rev. Thomas Mullely, they are the largest denomination on campus.

So, then, in a survey piece on religious life, the author fails to interview any representatives of the most populous denomination, asserts that its members (more than anyone else) must overcome a natural inclination to uncritical dogmatism, and provides no evidence for why this is true. Imagine the indignation and hand-wringing apologies that would result from a PAW article that stereotyped homosexuals or African Americans as Ms. Sullivan’s piece has stereotyped Catholics.

During my four years at Princeton I witnessed many instances of ignorance about and derision toward orthodox Christians. This article may just be a minor and relatively insignificant instance of such bias in itself, but it reflects a widespread pattern of prejudice that my friends and I encountered nearly every day at Princeton.

Matthew B. O’Brien ’03
Swarthmore, Pa.


Your article “Keeping Faith” does a nice job of reporting on the Princeton scene, but the issues clamor to be seen in a broader context. The Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. recently reported that nationwide “more than two-thirds of [today’s] college students have a strong interest in religious or spiritual matters.” Such interest is surely, in part, a matter of students’ private convictions. But students also have seen that there is a religious dimension to what is undoubtedly the primary challenge for educators in the 21st century — how can we help young people engage constructively with those who are not like themselves? — and that there are educational implications to this fact.

Part of what students are urging here is a more complete sense of the liberal arts. Colleges like Princeton have long nurtured the fundamental skills of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, along, of course, with competence in a particular discipline. But what about the skill of listening — both listening to others, in all their difference, and listening to oneself, apart from the relentless stimuli of contemporary life? The former is what the Vietnamese Buddhist peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening,” a critical ingredient in peacemaking of all sorts. The latter has historically been called contemplation.

Student intuitions here reflect, often without recognizing it, a long-range historical perspective. Critiques of the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality, at the expense of emotional and spiritual life, and of the Scientific Revolution’s objectification of an inert material world, have been under way in the academy for some time. They have not fallen on deaf student ears. For all of the West’s accomplishments in the areas of freedom, justice, and natural science, students, like many outside the academy, yearn for a greater equilibrium among the component parts of their lives, some of which are profoundly internal — an equilibrium of which they have been deprived by the educational emphases of the modern West.

Students actually find reinforcement for such intuitions in contemporary neuroscience. Last October’s much publicized conference at M.I.T., for example, reported on the decade-long dialogue between Western scientists and the Dalai Lama, where those trained to meditate show altered prefrontal brain activity both resting and when confronted with an emotional challenge.

As the Dalai Lama put it in a New York Times op-ed piece last spring, “mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a new way to create a kind of buffer between the brain’s violent impulses and our actions.” In a post-September 11 world that is so fraught with peril, students clearly are open to his exhortation that, in order “to respond wisely and effectively, we need to be guided by more healthy states of mind, not just to avoid feeding the flames of hatred, but to respond skillfully. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too.”

As so often in the past, the student voice is prophetic, a call to educators to attend to matters that they themselves see with greater clarity than many of their elders.

Thomas B. Coburn ’65
Boulder, Colo.

Coburn is president of Naropa University.


In regard to your article on “Keeping Faith,” Matthew Alper wrote a short book entitled The “God” Part of the Brain (2001), in which he set out to prove to himself the existence of God. In the course of his search, he describes and analyzes how the spirituality of mankind came to be. I recognize much of what he had to say in Princeton’s students seeking to better understand their faith.

As Alper points out, there are as many variations of religious faith as there are of different languages to express that faith. Each has its religious symbols, its common prayers, even a different God. Alper comes to the conclusion that mankind has been “hot-wired” into the concept of a God and life after death. He believes that the pain and the anxiety that man has had to face over the thousands of years of his evolution has forced him, for his own survival, to look beyond himself for relief and comfort. As man became more sophisticated (and more social), he banded together with others, to share his fears and doubts, and his anxieties.

I do not wish to belittle today’s students as they ponder the concepts of a religious reality. I would only point out to them that much in our lives to this day makes us very fearful of the future. Of what I might term as the simple things, like passing an exam, to the more complex, like understanding September 11, and then finally to the realization that all of us are going to die eventually.

Perhaps having faith, and getting together and sharing this faith with others, is the answer. It certainly has been beneficial to mankind through the centuries.

Then again, it may all be a white lie, something that we have conjured up to prove by faith that which cannot be proved by fact. Alper came to the conclusion that it was not God who created man, but it was man who created God. The urgent need for a superior being, when mankind still lived in caves, developed as man evolved, and gradually this need became a spiritual gene in the “God” part of the brain.

I think that what Princeton students are seeking does not exist. I have wrestled with the concept of God and life after death for many years. I have come to my conclusions; they will come to theirs.

William K. Mettler ’51
Naples, Fla.


For the second time in eight years, PAW has run a long article on religious faith at Princeton (the last one was June 5, 1996).

Although most Princeton students are not affiliated with a religious organization, PAW has not seen fit to give the nonbelievers equal treatment.

When will we see a story about the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and skeptics of Princeton?

Jeffrey Shallit ’79
Kitchener, Ontario


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Iraq reflections

Thank you for this simple yet exceptional piece (cover story, October 22). There is nothing more enlightening than a diversity of first-hand perspectives. In particular, one sentence from Captain Tally Parham ’92 will stay with me for a while: “Our sortie was uneventful: We dropped our bombs, shot our missiles, and went home.” Uneventful?

David Bonowitz ’85
San Francisco, Calif.


When I read your article on Iraq, my mind was reeling with thoughts of my husband, an Army reservist with a military intelligence specialty, serving in Iraq. He had been gone almost two years, spending most of 2002 on an assignment in Europe. His end date had been pushed back twice. And the latest return estimate was going to take him over a 24-month deployment limit for reservists. He watched active duty forces leave after six-month tours. He watched foreign army soldiers working with him receive the best equipment, while he paid from his (our) own funds $500 for a bulletproof vest, $70 for a gun holster, and $200 for a Global Positioning System so he would not get lost in the desert. He watched one of his soldiers die.

After mass writings to congressmen by families affected by the 24-month limit, my husband was sent home three weeks shy of two years, just before Christmas. That was the best present of all.

Sheila Dooley Holmes ’85
Silver Spring, Md.

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