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A University Without Religious Freedom Is Not a University

Grant Jones, May 13, 2014

“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom.” As the young Benjamin Franklin notes in these cogent words, the pursuit of knowledge and freedom to think, contemplate, and consider go hand in hand. Though a man of questionable morality, Franklin’s palpable intellect assisted him in—many years following his transcription of these words—shaping a nation based upon the defense of one’s right to individual thought and expression.
The modern university is the tangible manifestation of the pursuit of those rights. It is, for many, a contemporary rite-of-passage during which one spends time engaging with new and challenging topics and circumstances. The college years are more than just a time for academic preparation and development; they are a time for us to wrestle with our past experiences, personal beliefs, and current worldview and to try to place them in context with those held by others.

In his book The Global Public Square, Os Guinness presents the concept of soul freedom, which he explains to be the conglomeration of freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. To Guinness, these freedoms are inseparable from one another. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees this same group of liberties, which according to Guinness, “alone does full justice to the dictates of our humanity.” Without soul freedom, we cannot be truly human because we cannot have the opportunity to explore and question the world and its beautiful complexities to our fullest capabilities.

So what does this mean for the contemporary university? We find ourselves in a time of transition. Thousands of university students across the country are receiving their degrees in recognition of their academic accomplishments over the past few years. But I believe we fall short in grasping the true meaning behind the ceremony of commencement if we only look to scholastic success. The men and women walking across hundreds of stages to receive their diplomas in the coming weeks have been forever changed by their collegiate experiences.

Through the late night discussions in dorm rooms, through the hours of debate and conversation with peers and professors, through the unexpected sparks of passion that steered their lives in new and unexpected directions, through all these times and more, they are forever changed. For four years, students fortunate enough to attend institutions who foster and encourage growth in questioning and critical thinking skills have had the chance the pursue their humanity to the fullest. They have had the opportunity to satisfy their curiosities, religious and otherwise, and now have greater self-confidence as they move into the real world. Those who were not given this treasured opportunity due to restriction were intentionally deceived.

Universities that inhibit freedom of religion inhibit freedom of thought. Therefore, whether intentionally or not, these institutions place a strict limit on the amount of wisdom their students can acquire through their academic pursuits and fail in their fundamental societal purpose. Universities that limit soul freedom through the restriction of freedom of religion limit their student’s humanity. And by curtailing religious freedom in any capacity, they in essence redefine higher education as higher recitation and demonize contemplation of our most fundamental human question: Why are we here?
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Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.