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Letters from alumni about Faith on Campus

March 2, 2004

There were various letters written in response to the article about including religious views in class discussions (“Keeping Faith,” December 17). These letters bring to mind the comment about the Church (being, in this case, the Church of England), in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.

I cannot faithfully quote the excerpt, but in paraphrase the comment was in regard to the social charm of the pastors and rectors, who “. . . at the age of eighty still think the same thoughts they were taught to believe when they were eight.”

The same comment might be applied across the board to any group that is bound (perhaps hand and foot), by the frozen dogma of scripture. There is (I should think of course), a place for all perspectives in any discussion, just as long as the discussion remains discussion and does not regress to proclamation and edict.

Rocky Semmes ‘79
Alexandria, Va. 

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January 26, 2004

In "Keeping the Faith" Amy Sullivan 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 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 immediately 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) therefore, 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." 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 make up one-quarter of all undergraduates.

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.

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January 11, 2004

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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January 9, 2004

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 have also 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 peace-making 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 now. 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 modem 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-9/11 world that is so fraught with peril, students are clearly open to the 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.”

What we see, then, in the Princeton evidence is part of a larger sea-change in the way we in the West situate ourselves in religious or spiritual life. 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

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December 17, 2003

In regard to your article on "Keeping Faith" on the Princeton campus these days, Matthew Alper wrote a short book entitled The 'God' Part of the Brain, 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 repeated 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 9/11 and then finally to the realization that all of are going to die eventually.

Perhaps having faith, perhaps getting together and sharing this faith with others is the answer. It certainly has been beneficial to mankind down 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 personally feel 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.

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