ne of the most serious charges brought against the typical American university
of the moment is that its graduates are, for the most part, either antagonistic
to religion or else, more commonly, indifferent to it. There seems to be no
doubt that the facts bear out the allegation. Occasionally this undoubted
irreligion becomes vocal, as in the case of the man who lately wrote for the
Atlantic Monthly the account of what happened to his faith while he was at
Harvard ['What College Did to My Religion' by Philip E. Wentworth, June, 1932].
But more often religion is simply ignored. It is quite true that students talk
a great deal about it, rather strangely much if it be as dead a thing as they
commonly insist. 'Bull sessions' turn to it as the most usual alternative to
talk about sex. But this chatter is for the most part vague and uninformed, and
gets nowhere. Probably that is why it makes such an excellent subject for those
interminable bickerings which undergraduates substitute for intelligent
But religion as a subject for serious intellectual concern enjoys no vogue
among the great majority in university halls. It is rarely a subject for
serious study, and the students are conspicuously absent from worship.
Systematic spiritual culture they almost never undertake. Most of them appear
to be ignorant that there is such a thing. Expected attendance at chapel is for
the most part gone, nor has voluntary association with religious bodies taken
its place. University alumni are not commonly to be found among those who
support, by personal activity or otherwise, the religious bodies of America.
These are facts, to be faced by honest men.
It is, to be sure, quite possible to maintain that these things are the
necessary result of modern enlightenment; that to believe in God and to adore
Him are incompatible with scientific ways of thinking; that religion is merely
a curious survival of primitive superstition. If anyone desires to explain
things that way, it is permitted him; but to most thinking people such a
contention seems somehow too simple to be quite true. For countless generations
man has sought to approach Truth by way of three experiences: the scientific,
which has to do with what the senses may show; the artistic, which reveals
truth and beauty through creative activity; and the religious, which consists
of intuitions of personality. It seems an odd thing that all of a sudden man
should have found out that the first of these (plus a tolerated, though not
much respected, use of the second) is valid, while the third, equally
instinctive to mankind, equally venerable, and equally a part of racial
experience, has become absurd.
There are those who remember, with more than a little distress, how the Middle
Ages ignored one of the modes of experience, the scientific, to its great
deprivation. Bowing religion out, as of no possible validity, seems also a
little supercilious, and dangerous. An experience attested by all the ages
probably has something to it. That it may safely be ignored or laughed at, by
any individual or culture, would seem to need some proving. If it is to be
abandoned, the forsaking of it should be a last resort, not something to be
accepted with nonchalance and gayety, in the typical undergraduate manner.
As a matter of fact, modern scientific thought does not prevent a belief in God
or the practice of religion, not by a very great deal. Nor are the greatest
leaders of science the ones who despise the faith. Newton was a convinced
Christian. Laplace, Laennec, and Pasteur were faithful Roman Catholics. Dalton
was a devout Friend. Galvani was a Franciscan tertiary. Ampere sympathetically
and regularly read Thomas a Kempis. Faraday was a lay preacher, and J.C.
Maxwell a Presbyterian elder. Romanes and Claude Bernard reasoned their way
into Christianity. Lister died a faithful communicant. Fabre was a mystic, who
said that atheism was a mania. Kelvin saw no incompatibility between his
science and a faithful and regular worship of God. One could multiply such
examples. Even Darwin was a theist, as may be seen by anyone who reads the last
paragraph of the Origin of Species.
All of these men are now dead; but it is notorious that many of their
successors of the moment are so anxious to promote the consideration of
spiritual values that they all too frequently tumble into print, some of them
exhibiting more zeal than knowledge in profession of faith in that which passes
scientific knowing. As for philosophy, it is not merely such men as Maritain
and Wust and Streeter and Hocking who are in revolt against mechano-morphism.
The thing is clean gone out of fashion, except in American undergraduate
colleges. It will hardly do, in the face of the facts, to explain collegiate
indifference to religion on the ground of intellectual necessity. It is not
modern thought that is to blame.
Nor is it, perhaps, the individual undergraduate who is altogether at fault.
Youth is always conformist, more so than childhood or middle age. The
undergraduate hates to be eccentric, or even to seem so. Half of the problems
of college education are conditioned by this undergraduate prejudice against
originality or independence of thought. The college student therefore reflects,
quite naturally and understandably, the current notion that only those things
are important which advance worldly position. Our generation ignores religion
as far as possible, because to do so enables men and women to avoid
interference with impulses engendered by cupidity. Contemporary civilization is
largely built upon the basic idea that the world may become any man's oyster.
It is the Zeitgeist which impels our students to a profound reverence for
Not that the universities fail to assist in this. More than a little they help
to debase their undergraduate: by an all too eager surrender to the popular
opinion that an educated man is merely one who can do and get things; by an
overemphasis on expansion in numbers and extravagance in building and ballyhoo
generally; by the making of men into bachelors and masters of arts when they
happen to be merely technicians, and doctors of philosophy for most
unphilosophical achievements; by a fawning upon potential benefactors,
regardless of whether or not they are men and women of any discrimination. The
universities, too, have been swimming with the tide.
It is not merely religion from consideration of which undergraduates are
distracted by such unacademic antics. All thought about ultimates suffers
together. Philosophy is disparaged. Even science itself has come to appear to
the student eye not so much a method of arriving at truth as a means to an end,
which end is the larger production of things and the mightier accumulation of
cash. All true scholarship is injured by greed; but religion suffers most.
Science can be exploited, and is therefore to be respected. Religion does not
pay, and therefore may safely be ignored--in fact, had better be ignored. That
is the simple and ugly explanation of a large part of student loss of faith in
God and spiritual culture.
For all this let us blame the mores; but let us also fault the universities for
a passive and profitable surrender to the mores. There is something cancerous
in higher education as we have it in America. Perhaps the tissue has become
diseased from too rapid growth and too rich food. Possibly a diet of depression
will not hurt, although one has a slight misgiving that in the course of the
next few years it will be the cultural rather than the applied side of
scholarship that will suffer most. It may be that some major surgery is a bit
The degradation of university ideals does not, however, fully explain the
religious indifference of undergraduates. Sometimes it is those very students
who are most in revolt against the current immorality, off campus and on (that
ethics which defines the good life in terms of possessions and pleasure), who
are least concerned with spiritual experience. They know what they hate and
despise, but they are not aware that religion is as rebellious as they. It is
not too much to venture a guess that one thing which is wrong is that American
universities fail to inform their students about the nature of the spiritual
enterprise. Many of them have no faculties of theology at all; and where such
faculties do exist they are commonly isolated from undergraduate teaching and
from vital contact with colleagues in other fields of knowledge. It has come to
pass that theology is looked upon as a professional subject. Nothing could be
more unfortunate for balanced thought.
Religion is as basic a discipline as science, and as reputable intellectually.
Yet it is possible for a student in almost any of our leading universities to
read for his primary degree, and his advanced degrees, without gaining even a
suspicion of that fact. Consequently, we have such astonishing attitudes of
mind as that of the young Harvard man to whose Atlantic Monthly article
reference has been made. He seems to be reasonably intelligent, not at all
incapable of understanding religion. The trouble is that he apparently has no
knowledge of what religion is. He has outgrown a crude and semi-magical concept
of God, such as a child may properly hold, with no realization that grown men
mean by religion something both more delicate and more complex. As a lad he was
a Presbyterian. As a man he knows nothing of the profound and penetrating
studies of religion made by the Scottish theologians, or by such American
Presbyterians as Dr. Buttrick and Dr. Coffin and Dr. W. A. Brown, to take only
three outstanding examples. He scorns the devotions conducted at the shrine of
Sainte Anne de Beaupre, which are for persons of childlike mind; but he ignores
the magnificent work of modern Roman Catholic thinkers. The man is
ignorant--and he ought not to be. His university should have brought him into
contact with religious thinkers comparable to those whom he has met within the
fields of science, history, and art.
They mystical side of experience and its contribution to an understanding of
the universe are not commonly regarded by American universities as necessary
fields of undergraduate study. Religion has next to no place in their
curricula, or in their other official activities. This is, or ought to be, a
matter of common knowledge, but an instance in point may be cited.
In 1925, at Harvard, the Student Council appointed a committee to look into and
report upon certain aspects of education at that university from the
undergraduate point of view. This was done, and the findings of the student
committee were published in the Harvard Advocate for April 1926. Among other
things, the report recommended that a new kind of required course be made
available which would include the study, not merely of philosophy, but also of
religion. It stated: 'It becomes urgently necessary that the college teach the
business of life in all its aspects'; and again: 'The committee recommends the
innovation of including the philosophy of Christianity in the work of the
course. This suggestion is not made in a missionary or crusading spirit, but is
dictated as a remedy for the prevailing ignorance concerning so important a
The committee of students made many excellent suggestions, and almost all of
them have subsequently been adopted by Harvard College, including the one
mentioned. It is only fair to observe, however, that the college authorities
acted upon this specific recommendation in such a manner as to defeat, in large
measure, what appears to have been the primary object of the Student Council in
sponsoring it. The new course has, indeed, been added to the curriculum, but it
is only a half course, and, instead of being required for a degree, it is
optional and actually limited to two hundred students. Under these conditions
it is obvious that the very students who most need the instruction which the
new course offers will be the last to avail themselves of it.
This half-hearted acceptance by the college authorities of the suggestion which
the student committee appears to have considered most important stands in
strange contrast to their complete adoption of other suggestions of far less
moment which were advanced in the same report. The Student Council committee
went on to ask, for example, that the overgrown college be divided into smaller
units, and this has subsequently been effected on a grand scale, at the cost of
more than twelve million dollars. Such is the confusion of values in American
It is unjust, perhaps, to single out Harvard. It is safe to say that most of
our universities have been even less alert to their responsibilities in this
direction, with the exception of parts of Columbia and the University of
Chicago, where Dean Shailer Mathews has persuaded the authorities at least
partially to face this fundamental problem. It is a too common custom in
American universities to expend millions on brick and mortar while, in matters
vitally important in their bearing upon education, faculty action lags behind
common need and student demand.
Under such circumstances, it is hardly reasonable to expect that students
should know much of anything about religion. This neglect of a great segment of
knowledge is partly due to the example set by our state-supported institutions,
which are compelled by law to eliminate form official consideration any serious
study of the spiritual life; but it is also caused by a feeling on the part of
those who direct our educational policies that religion is a non-intellectual
and relatively unimportant activity of the human race. Such a position, in the
light of human history, is more than a little absurd. The search for God has
always been one of man's chief concerns. The race has known that there were
some things which it could find out only by scientific observation, others
discoverable only by creative activity, and still others--and these the deepest
and most subtle--to be mastered only by that seeking of ultimate Reality in
personal terms which is religion. To ignore any of these basic human
disciplines is dangerous, but to ignore religion is apt to be the most harmful
of all. The cultivation of science without religion will always become pregnant
with the sort of cynicism which once brought Greek thinking to a despairing
close, from which the reintroduction of religion alone revived it. It is this
very sort of cynicism which increasingly characterizes the intellectual life of
the twentieth century. For the health of human thought, religious experience
needs consideration by our universities.
The words 'religious experience' seem better to use here than the word
'religion,' because that word 'religion' is apt to be divorced from experience
and given a derivative meaning. Religion is not itself a philosophy of
religion, a formulation of religion, an organization of religion. Dogma, while
immensely important, is actually a generalization of religious experience.
Ecclesiastical organization is significant only because it is an attempt to
preserve opportunities for religious experience. Religion is a way of living in
terms of contact with Reality, personally conceived. If we do not give to men a
knowledge of the technique involved in religious experience, we deprive them of
part of their birthright.
There are many people to whom such statements as these will have no meaning
whatever. Their minds are closed; they are fantastic and fanatic in their
intellectual lopsidedness. There is no use discussing with such persons the
place of religion in an educational programme. But there are many, increasingly
more, who will realize the truth of what has been said. Among them will be
found not merely church people but many who have no connection with any church;
not merely ecclesiastical enthusiasts, but also poets, philosophers,
non-behavioristic psychologists, and a good many of the most eminent
scientists; people who see life without bias, who realize that religion is not
magic, not merely morality, but rather a seeking for what the mind cannot
otherwise grasp. Perhaps we may hope for a day when such persons may determine
the policies of our American institutions of higher learning.
Bernard Iddings Bell is
Professor of Religion at Columbia University and Warden of St. Stephen's
Copyright © 1932 by Bernard Iddings Bell. All rights reserved.
"Universities and Religious Indifference"
The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1932, issue.
Volume 150, No. 3 (pages 316-320).