All Diversities But One: Why American Universities Put Religion Aside

Diversity has become a prime goal in the world of higher education. How did religious diversity get left out of the mix?

August 18, 2021 | Jon D. Levenson
About the author: Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

The Duke University Chapel on January 27, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina. Lance King/Getty Images.

Throughout American society, but especially in the world of higher education, diversity has become a prime goal. Almost always, the diversity so eagerly sought is one of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Diversity of religious affiliation is, by contrast, almost never even considered. Some may wish to remedy the omission simply by adding religion to the standing list of key variables. The truth, however, is more complicated. For the way in which an educational institution thinks about religious groups and their distinctive worldviews touches upon the deeper issue of the nature and goals of education in general and upon the mission of individual educational institutions in particular.


Until recently, raising the question of how educational institutions should relate to religious tradition would have seemed baffling. For, in what we may term the “classical model,” education aimed to transmit an entire worldview and the practices that enable and sustain it. The goal was to educate the whole person—mind, character, soul, and heart—transmitting knowledge, forming the students’ consciences, habituating them to correct behavior, and implanting and developing in them their highest allegiances in the hope that they would never depart from them, no matter what life may throw at them.

In the classical model, teachers were to serve as exemplars. The expectation was that they subscribed to the same ethos as the students and manifested it not only in their teaching but also in their lives. They were, in other words, no mere transmitters of information or developers of skills: they were masters forming disciples. Hence, the oft-quoted story of the 18th-century East European Jew who said he went to a famous ḥasidic master not to learn Torah from him, as one might expect, but rather to watch him as he unlaces and laces his shoes. One senses that a YouTube video, had it existed in those days, would just not have sufficed.

Doubtless there were, in this classical model, newcomers to the ethos and practices the masters taught, people who had assumed new personal and communal identities, to the likely consternation of their parents. But, in general, the model presupposed that the students would be continuing their families’ identities and, ideally, deepening their commitment to their community of origins and preparing for an adult life of honorable membership in it and loyalty and service to it.

I recognize, of course, that this description of what I am calling the “classical model” is very general, abstract, and idealized, and a multitude of qualifications and nuances specific to particular religious traditions and historical periods could justly be introduced and in a different context certainly should be. I also recognize that, although I have described that model in the past tense, there are institutions in which it is alive and well today. In principle, such institutions need not be religious, of course, but nowadays it is those with an active and vibrant religious identity that are most likely to conform to the classical model.

What we may call the “modern model” is quite different and, at least in the West, now much more widespread. Although it is not altogether without premodern antecedents, its origins lie in Enlightenment rationalism and the attendant skepticism about religious traditions and their capacity to perceive and transmit truth and morality. In this model, religion can still be important, but it is no longer the principal, to say nothing of the inescapable, medium of truth. As Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza, an early pioneer of this approach, put it in regard to biblical interpretation in 1670, “great caution is necessary not to confuse the mind of a prophet or historian with the mind of the Holy Spirit and the truth of the matter.” Scholars who proceed solely on the basis of such assumptions will (at least in theory) no longer be submissive to the authority of religious tradition, however exercised, and need not necessarily be practitioners of what they teach.

Whatever the hopes of some Enlightenment figures to replace the horrific conflict-ridden history of religion with a peaceable kingdom of worldwide reason, the ultimate effect of the shift in question was to make religion a matter of private choice. People could adhere to the religious tradition of their personal preference or, if they so chose, to none at all. Religious communities survived and some even throve, but all tended—albeit again in a highly variegated and uneven historical process—to be transformed into voluntary associations, in fact if not in their own self-understanding. Now individual experience trumped communal origin and the inheritance of familial tradition. In the curricula of educational institutions subscribing to these new presuppositions, religious matters could still nonetheless find a place, but students did not learn religion there in the same sense that they did under the classical model. Rather, they learned about religion as a universal phenomenon or, as increasingly became the case, about religions in the plural. If they wished to commit themselves to the authority of any particular religious tradition, this had to be (to say it once more) a matter of individual choice and personal experience. Unless constituted for a specifically religious purpose, such as the few Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions that dot the landscape of higher education, most institutions became incapable of requiring any such commitment or of commending one tradition over another.

There are good reasons that the modern model has survived its infancy in the Enlightenment; its strengths are many and impressive. For example, by not establishing any given religious tradition as the touchstone of truth, it enables a franker and more wide-ranging discussion, with informants from the minority traditions (whether from the present or the past) now speaking in their own voices and, ideally, without fear. Those who study any tradition will attain a larger conspectus on it when they place it in the world of modern knowledge and no longer restrict themselves to familiar in-house sources. When students encounter traditions other than those they affirm (or those their cultural antecedents once affirmed), they more readily become aware of the degree to which their image of the other tradition is based on self-interested caricatures and polemics and how the same simpleminded thinking may have been deployed in critique of their own religion, or could be. This process can be unsettling, to be sure, and continued allegiance to their own tradition will almost certainly require some degree of reformulation and refinement on the part of the more reflective students. Some may abandon their community of origin altogether, but the resulting affirmation of those who remain is likely to be hardier and more convincing precisely because it is founded on wider knowledge and no longer defended by special pleading.

It must not be overlooked that a thoughtful encounter with religious diversity is not of use only to those with vibrant religious identities. For stereotypes and prejudices about the religious Other affect students without such identities, including secular students, at least as much as they affect the devout. Having no personal religious belief or practice does not make one open-minded on such matters. Usually, it simply means that one carries along without examination the flotsam and jetsam of past religious affirmations available in the ambient culture. Thus, just to speak from my own experience, over the years I have had more than a few students who think that all Protestants who affirm scriptural authority believe in the literal historicity of the biblical narratives; in many cases, it becomes clear after a little questioning that their information on the matter derives from nothing more than having viewed a televangelist, read about the Scopes trial, or the like. (More than occasionally, it also seems informed by a negative view of those hailing from the American South.) The notion that the God of the Hebrew Bible, in contrast to that of the New Testament, is without love, grace, or forgiveness is widespread; I have encountered it among the highly educated. Similarly, I have had students who were practicing Buddhists from east Asia whose view of Judaism conformed suspiciously to Christian supersessionism. To give one last example, I was once at a meeting of a group of religion professors when someone mentioned the Latter-day Saints (Mormons): several individuals spontaneously giggled.

In sum, encountering religion in its bewildering diversity is essential to the task of liberal education and by no means a matter only for the devout. Without it, misconceptions about the deepest formative convictions of a great many Americans abound.

Another important asset of religious diversity to the academy is the enrichment of discourse that results from considering different modes of reasoning (whether textual, ethical, legal, or what have you). Surely, we understand contentious contemporary issues such as abortion, sexuality, or the nature of human identity better when we have learned how they are addressed from varying—and to some degree inevitably conflicting—perspectives, such as Roman Catholic moral theology, Jewish law, or Hindu reflection on dharma (cosmic law). In cases like this, the advantages are both substantive and social: we understand the complications of the issues themselves better, and we also understand how some of our neighbors may be approaching them. This sort of exercise is unlikely to result in unanimity—it will not solve the substantive problem—but, if executed properly, it will broaden and enrich the discussion and make all thoughtful participants, including (and especially) the secular ones, more aware of their own presuppositions and less inclined to regard the latter as self-evident.


I readily acknowledge that many have a different view from what I have been calling the “modern model” for the role of religious groups and religious studies in the university and that the model as I have described it is again an ideal; as with the classical model, the empirical reality is more complicated. I would, moreover, argue that the modern model is a highly fragile arrangement and one that is chronically in danger of morphing into something very different. Maintaining it is like walking a tightrope. For, on the one hand, the model presupposes that the religious traditions have systemic integrity of their own and deserve to be heard in their own voices (this includes religions that lack contemporary informants and must be reconstructed from textual and other remains). On the other hand, it also presupposes that all participants, whatever their religious or irreligious commitments may be, will manifest intercommunal respect and openness and refrain from absolutizing their own backgrounds or resorting to conversation-stopping arguments from authority or individual experience. Those commitments are important but cannot be absolutized, lest the dialogue, the debate, and the openness to new material disappear.

Similarly, the participants must respect the autonomy of modern disciplines such as philology, anthropology, and history, however much they may be inclined to critique the claims that these disciplines make in any particular case. In other words, the participants learn not only from other religions but also from newer disciplines that, at least in theory, treat all religious traditions and all cultures the same way, often engaging in a critical sifting of truth claims that can be, again, unsettling to believers.

In sum, there are two opposing dangers internal to the modern model. One is that the participants will absolutize their own pre-established religious framework and fail to sense the importance and complexities of the unfamiliar materials they encounter. The other is that they will absolutize the modern disciplines and the conceptual world that produced them, thus disallowing the transcendent claims internal to the religious traditions themselves a priori. The first threat we can call “religious absolutism” and the second one, “secularist absolutism.” The first shuts the window onto other religions and onto the distinctively modern ways of interpreting religious phenomena. The second shuts the window onto transcendence itself, interpreting religious phenomena as a mystification of social processes, power relations, the dynamics of the human psyche, or the like. Both are founded on presuppositions that authorize their characteristic modes of analysis, and, by totalizing those presuppositions, both threaten to trivialize religious diversity in the curriculum and on campus alike. Religious absolutism does so by closing its ears and its mind to other religions. Secular absolutism does so by closing its ears and its mind to religion itself as a potential medium for the disclosure of transcendent truth.

These are by no means the only internal threats to the modern model. Its greatest vulnerability lies, in fact, elsewhere—in the lack of a transcendent goal or comprehensive vision of its own and the distinguishing practices and the communal structures that sustain such things. The aspiration to become well-educated and broadminded is admirable but unlikely to generate the passion, focus, and sense of personal purpose and social solidarity characteristic of religious communities—or, for that matter, of comprehensive ideologies. And it is such ideologies that have been steadily chipping away at the modern arrangement over the past three decades.

In 1991, speaking of the state of the American university, Glenn W. Olsen made this observation:

Although Protestantism still influences the culture at every step, it has lost almost all its symbols of occupying the center, and no one thing has replaced it, although in the university one form of liberalism has come closest. This liberalism is not, say, the kind of philosophic naturalism one might associate with Sidney Hook, but that common form of liberalism which expresses the denial of absolutes, particularly in ethics, and resists the notion of universal truth grounded in nature.

What a difference 30 years make! To be sure, today one still hears little about “universal truth grounded in nature.” But, with all the necessary allowances for the exceptions and the special cases, one could hardly say that liberalism in the classical sense and the denial of ethical absolutes now dominate cultural life, and certainly not academic life. Quite the contrary. Not only are there now absolutes but there is also an orthodoxy—not a religious one, to be sure, but a social and political orthodoxy. Woe betide those who contradict the reigning views on matters like race, gender relations, sexuality, the American founding, economic disparities, policing, climate change, border security, or, increasingly, the nature of the state of Israel.

The problem is surely not that such issues are being raised or even that very extreme positions are being voiced. The difficulty, rather, comes with the absence of the dialogue and debate that are essential to the enterprise of liberal-arts education; with the highly effective identification of civilly expressed dissent with violence or bigotry; and with the “canceling” of those who express dissenting views (and the resistance among faculties, usually unexpressed, to hiring or sponsoring them in the first place). In short, the problem is the atrophying of viewpoint diversity in the face of the righteous indignation of those who adhere to the new orthodoxy.

In certain ways, the emergence and rapid spread on campus of this new political activism represents a regression to what at the outset I called the “classical model” of education, and, not surprisingly, some observers have likened the new political radicalism to a religion. The analogy has its strengths, but it is important to note that the current situation, if it is like a religion, evokes religion at its worst (a condition in which, alas, it has often found itself). For, in their better moments, religious communities strive to hear the best case against their positions and to respond intelligently, as in the give-and-take of talmudic dialectic, or the openness of many modern groups to face and absorb the results of historical-critical investigation of their scriptures and traditions, or their willingness to engage in serious interreligious conversation on sensitive matters, especially with those whom they have ill-treated.

More fundamentally, religious traditions have historically tended to affirm that reality is larger than the human mind can ever grasp and therefore to counsel an epistemic humility that is the diametric opposite of the unshakeable certainty of today’s (or yesterday’s) politically radical true believer. And, lastly, the ancient and momentous religious conviction that even the misguided and the wicked, including one’s own enemies, are children of God and thus deserving of respect or even love, regardless of their socio-political identity or convictions—this, too, is light years away from the unreflective assumptions of so many campus radicals. If the modern university has historically had something of value to teach traditional religious communities, as indeed it has, then the tables are now in some ways turned.


Taking the history and contemporary experience of religious groups into account need not mean ignoring other factors currently receiving the lion’s share of attention, such as race. We can, for example, take the brutal history of racism (and ethnic prejudice more widely), both in the United States and throughout the world, into serious and sustained account without dualistically reducing American history to a struggle of whites versus persons of color, or the like. That such a duality is defensible in certain contexts does not justify making it into a metanarrative or the exclusive lens through which all history is viewed. From the vantage point of religious history, groups as disparate as Greek Orthodox Christians, Scotch-Irish Baptists in Appalachia, Albanian Muslims, Ashkenazi Jews, Irish Catholics, and the Amish all qualify as white. Their experiences, historical and contemporary, including their experiences with people of color as well as with self-declared white supremacists, are quite diverse and cannot be responsibly equated simply because of a commonality of skin tone. (The inability of the dominant racial binary to do justice to persons of Asian descent is an important aspect of this that we cannot address here.) The same point can be made about the very diverse populations conventionally grouped together as black or as brown. To repeat, avoiding these common errors need not condemn us to ignoring or sugarcoating the ugly history and contemporary manifestations of racism.

As I see it, a key task of scholars of religious studies is to draw attention to the large differences in worldview, culture, and history that the study of religion discloses. Performed well, this task adds to the diversity and the intellectual excitement of higher education by challenging the socio-political monoculture of so many academic institutions. Here, too, there is a great danger. For, to the extent that religious-studies scholars simply conform to the regnant ethos, the challenge dissipates, and viewpoint diversity suffers. My point is not that the teachers, as in the “classical model,” must be practitioners; they needn’t be. Nor is it that delivering a critique of traditional materials is somehow out of bounds. My point is, rather, that if the religious materials are genuinely to have a voice in the discourse, those teaching them must rein in any instinctive inclination to critique them prematurely, without fully reckoning with the divergence of their own worldviews from those of the sources studied.

For some teachers, this will, alas, prove a formidable challenge. For more than a few scholars of religion are, in fact, former adherents of the traditions they teach, and for them it is particularly tempting—and wondrously convenient—to present what they teach through the lens of their own disaffection and dissent, interpreting the materials as endorsing the values and priorities now regnant in the academy. There is without doubt room to express such attitudes and the reasoning behind them, but where such expression dominates, a precious opportunity to expand the students’ intellectual and perhaps spiritual horizons is lost. Just as, in this model, preaching and proselytizing are inappropriate, so are intellectually strained efforts to dismiss the materials studied because of their departure from the academy’s current values and priorities. In the present academic environment, to treat religious traditions with respect can, in fact, be a profoundly countercultural act. This is especially the case with traditions that now tend to be very much out of favor with secular intellectual elites, such as evangelical or Roman Catholic Christianity.

The causes for the steep decline in the liberal arts in recent decades are many, and not all are internal to the academy itself. A robust appreciation of religion and the role that religious diversity can play will not by itself turn the situation around. But, especially if it is combined with an awareness of the larger conceptual issues that religious diversity raises, it can make an important contribution to the recovery.