Among the effects of the tragedies of 9/11 and its aftermaths has been a renewed interest in understanding the religions of others. Not least has there been a concern with the dangers of fanaticism and the ways in which devotion can be co-opted by ideological certainties and ethnic and political causes. While now largely secular in their pedagogy and administrative policies, a number of colleges and universities have recognized that they have become microcosms of religious pluralism in America. Some of their faculty and a surprising number of undergraduate and graduate students -- a growing number of them from around the world -- had not, as Peter Gomes at Harvard once observed, left their religious interests and practices at home.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and the universities of Chicago and Southern California are among major, private universities that have followed a similar trajectory with respect to religion during the 20th century. Founded by Protestant Christians with considerable enthusiasm and hope in progress through both education and the up building of Christian character, these institutions espoused the faith and ethics of increasingly liberalized forms of Protestantism. Through the Second World War and on into the 1950s their constituencies remained predominantly Protestant with then a slowly growing number of Catholic and Jewish students and faculty. All this changed dramatically during the next two decades. As the number of Americans taking advantage of higher educational opportunities grew exponentially, and through the excitement and turmoil of the civil rights movement, sexual revolutions and war protests, the demographics of gender and race, ethnicities and religious affiliations altered quite visibly.
No where was this more true that at Princeton -- a university that through the 1950s had retained a strong majority of at least nominally Presbyterian and Episcopalian students and had not dropped the last vestiges of required attendance at religious services until 1964. By 1979, however, Princeton found itself with a greater combined number of Jewish and Catholic students than Protestants. The Protestants were also more diversified -- not least among African-American students. There were smaller but not insignificant numbers (particularly among graduate students) of adherents to other religions and a growing group that identified with no religion but sometimes noted that they had spiritual interests and aspirations.
While each institution responded in its own ways to these constituency changes, Princeton made at this time a deliberative decision to try to be supportive of theists and non-theists -- the beliefs, practices, questing, disbelief and questions of all. Although not accomplished without controversy, the preeminent sociologist of American religion. Robert Wuthnow, affirmed the "complex, sometimes torturous and for the most part effective decisions that faculty, students and administrators have made -- and continue to make -- in adapting to religious diversity."
The 1999 establishment of Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion was another step in this direction. At its founding President Harold Shapiro noted that "It is quite extraordinary to realize that, while millions, even billions of people view so many concerns through the eyes of religious faith, this crucial subject remains one of the most understudied phenomenon of the twentieth century. We are determined to change that for the twenty-first century."
Like its peer universities, Princeton today is an essentially secular institution which yet -- with Christians, a Hindu, Jew, and Muslim on its chaplaincy staff, along with the university-sponsored Center for Jewish Life -- has found ways to be supportive of not only the study of religion but the faith of its members who wish to practice and/or learn more about their religion and the religions of others. In contemporary society and the world such universities have become special and privileged settings where faith practice, learning and dialogue can take place in a context that requires mutual respect and where students of many nations can come better to appreciate the values of freedom of and from religion and for religious pluralism. This learning and dialogue can take place not only between the several religions but also among them: different stripes of Jews and Hindus, Sunnis, Shiites and other Muslims from the United States and abroad, and Christians from Episcopalians to Mormons, progressive and conservative Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals. Through this learning individuals are also given opportunity to test the claims of their own religions that the heart of their faith is about mercy, fairness for others, care for the poor and peace.
Wuthnow again: "Our rhetoric about respecting religious diversity rings false if we don't really understand these other faiths. Colleges and universities have a major role to play in promoting those conversations among the diverse people on campuses and in communities."
As Princeton and Yale graduate and former United States Senator John Danforth put it, "the university's active support of interfaith dialogue and cooperation makes an important contribution to the 9/11 world."