There was a time when our institutions of higher education were founded on a religious basis — both Harvard University and Yale University began as Protestant seminaries. A century and a half later, the religious landscapes of such schools have disappeared.

In adopting a progressive approach to education, most prominent universities abandoned their prescribed religious view in favor of a liberal acceptance of all faiths. And with the years of religious quotas in college admissions behind us, it seems we now live in an era of general religious tolerance within the world of higher education.

To date, the University has 24 recognized religious student clubs ranging from the Muslim Students’ Association to the Hindu Students Council to Hillel. The University certainly provides a space for religious growth and identity and a vast array of courses on religious studies.

And yet, it seems that the privilege of religious respect on this campus and in many other liberal universities is afforded to a very narrow category of religious persons. It’s specifically reserved for the practitioner of secular observance; the “religiously liberal.”

By “religiously liberal,” I don’t mean to describe someone who identifies with a religious culture — be it Christianity, Hinduism or other — but rather someone whose religious adherence to the rules of his or her religion is, well, liberal. Progressive, reformed, modern or however one sees it, a “religiously liberal” observer often values historical identity and tradition over strict compliance with religious law.

Through a mostly implied disapproval, it seems that the world of progressive attitude regards religious orthodoxy as unintelligent, outdated, exclusionary and judgmental.

Take, for example, the reaction to a letter an orthodox Rabbi issued to Sarah Silverman two weeks ago, which has since gone viral. In the letter — which comes as a response to Silverman’s “Let My People Vote” YouTube video — Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt performs a laughably flawed psychoanalysis of the comedian. He tells Silverman that the reason she has “trouble forging a permanent relationship” with a male partner, something which he dubs as “the most basic desire of the feminine soul,” is a result of her crude treatment of sex.

As much as we may entirely disagree with Rosenblatt’s arguments, the commenters on the site ridicule him — and implicitly, anyone else who adheres to traditional religious teachings — as “archaic” and “ignorant.” This replaces the appropriate task of tackling the argument’s actual points. It’s this attitude that provides the basis of the issue of academic “intolerance” of the religiously observant to arise.

That said, however, there’s a very apparent basis here for a resistance to traditional religious thought. Rosenblatt’s argument resists an emerging discourse as an integral player in the academy: feminism.

A frequently cited criticism of observant religious tradition is the apparent lack of equality between the roles of women and men. Religious authorities will sometimes respond to these criticisms by explaining that the roles of men and women in their respective religions are not unequal, but different. However, many, certainly those concerned in protecting women’s rights, see no distinction between “different roles” and inequality.

Another point of contention between liberal academia and certain traditional religious doctrine is their differing attitudes to expressions of sexuality. The University offers a number of courses dedicated to gender and sexuality studies. The ideas promoted in these classes are often at odds with many strict religious dogmas.

The fundamental disagreement between those who participate in women’s and gender studies and those who adhere to a dogmatic faith — which rejects those very discourses — undoubtedly creates tension. And, an understandable basis for the opposition of liberal academics to stringent religious doctrine exists; it’s ultimately unjustified — maybe even hypocritical.

A defining aspect of progressive academics is acceptance — of different races, backgrounds, sexual orientations and faiths. Extending that same acceptance to a community of people whose beliefs differ from their own, but whose behavior is respectful and understanding, would seem only logical.

Furthermore, Rabbi Rosenblatt is not representative of the whole. In fact, many who lead a religiously orthodox lifestyle are also committed to the ideas of progressive academia, even if the two aren’t 100 percent compatible.

There are plenty of religiously observant people who believe in progressive politics, such as same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. Being religious doesn’t necessarily equate with being discriminatory.

The resolution of this issue is not difficult to achieve. It lies in one of the University’s own mottos: expect respect. If we abide by the progressive practice of respecting different perspectives, we can relieve this feeling of discord on campus.

Sarah Rohan can be reached at

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