o say that college does something to the average student's religion is to
state a truth which will be conceded by anyone who has given the matter a
moment's thought. Nine young men and women out of ten who will receive their
degrees this June would probably admit, if they were called to testify, that
education has acted as a poison to their faith. In many instances the virus
generated by the reasoning processes induces only mild distemper of skepticism,
but in others it works like an acid, eating its way into the bump of credulity
until in the end this estimable organ is completely corroded. Devout parents
and clergymen have frequently observed this phenomenon and deplored it. When
they discuss it, however, as they often do, they betray a common failure to
understand the intellectual chemistry which has produced this wholesale
apostasy of the younger generation.
In these pages I propose to show how higher education reacts upon faith by
describing my own religious crisis just as it occurred while I was in college.
At the time, I had good reason to sift my doubts with unusual care. When I
entered Harvard in the fall of 1924, I was not only a Christian, I was also an
avowed candidate for the ministry. Then for four years I underwent a process of
mental readjustment which shook my little world to its foundations. Through it
all only one thing was clear to me: if I could reconcile religion with
intelligence, I knew that I could go on into my chosen career fortified by the
experience; if I could not, every consideration of honor would compel me to
make other plans. In the end I gave up the ministry.
Because my crisis was so acute, I know what fundamental questions underlie the
intellectual reorientation which has become an inevitable part of the college
curriculum for every thinking student. From my own experience I can demonstrate
why it is that education so often spells the end of orthodoxy.
The environment in which I grew up was that of the typical middle-class
American home just after the turn of the century. Queen Victoria had been dead
five years when I came into the world, but her spirit lived on and was the
tutelary genius of my childhood and youth.
I was born a good Presbyterian, and, fittingly enough, predestination played an
important role in my early life. Both of my parents were gentle, unaffected,
devoted Christians, and my father was an elder in the church. We lived in a
small city of the Middle West, on the fringe of what H.L. Mencken calls 'the
Bible Belt.' Long before I could be aware of it myself, the double accident of
parentage and geography had shaped me for the service of God.
Our neighborhood was made up of families like mine. All social life was centred
in the church and its activities. Our minister, who was an intimate friend of
the family, was an upright old Scotsman, a living monument to all the Christian
virtues. He had served our parish almost as long as anybody could remember, and
his never-failing kindliness and charity made him universally beloved.
My earliest distinct recollection is of family prayers. This was a regular
feature of our daily life. After supper we would retire to the library, where
my father, with wife and children gathered about him, would read a chapter from
the Scriptures. Psalms and Proverbs were his favorite books, and he repeated
them so often that I soon knew them by heart. After the reading came prayers,
during which each little event of the day would be rehearsed and we would give
thanks to God for all the good things we had enjoyed.
It was natural that a child brought up in such a home should early come to
think of the God who ruled over it, whose presence was so imminently felt in
every department of daily life, as one of his most intimate acquaintances. He
was very real, this God of my childhood; as real as my father, and in fact
quite like him. There was nothing sinister about Him, nothing to incite
fear--except, of course, when I disobeyed Him. He was merely the head of the
world as my father was head of our household. The ways of both were often
inscrutable to me, but I never doubted their ultimate wisdom and their concern
for my own good.
By the time I came to the age of reason the system under which I had grown up
had implanted in my mind certain clear ideas about the universe and my place in
it. The world was created by God as a laboratory for testing human beings. In
the Bible He had revealed His commandments, which were distinct, direct, and
admitted of no argument. Obedience to these injunctions was virtue,
disobedience sin. The one meant honor and happiness and life everlasting; the
other was the way of shame and disgrace in this world, and led to eternal
torments in the world to come.
God, however, was more than a moralist. He was also an engineer. The world
which He had fashioned was not an automatic mechanism. It had been set going in
the beginning by its Creator, and he, like a good mechanic, had been tinkering
with it ever since. The forces that moved it were direct manifestations of His
power. 'The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his
handywork.' If He could save men from their sins, He could also protect them
against accidents, diseases, and the shafts of their enemies. Faith and good
works, then, were not only the way of the soul's salvation, they were also the
best kind of insurance against the stings of fortune while one lived.
These religious concepts were laid down in the Scriptures and were supported by
a kind of evidence in everyday life. God was constantly being moved by the
prayers of the just to repeat in our day the miracles He had performed in
ancient times. Everyone who had eyes could see it for himself. Did not our
pastor often intercede for the recovery of the sick, and did they not usually
get well? Did he not pray every Sunday that the President of the United States
would be given wisdom to lead the affairs of the nation, and was not our
prosperity the manifest answer? It was all very simple and all very right, and
surely the way of the transgressor was hard.
But, you say, these were the ideas of a child. True, and the child got them
from his parents, who shared them item by item with the neighbors, who held the
same beliefs in common with one hundred million other people in all the
Middletowns of America.
It would hardly be possible to exaggerate the importance of a wonder-working
God in this Christian scheme of things which I took for granted with the air I
breathed. Innumerable stories from the Bible, moreover, indicate that such a
Deity was also taken for granted by every one of the Scriptural heroes from
Adam down to John of Patmos. Through all the centuries of religious history
this idea has persisted, which would seem to indicate that a God who kicks over
the traces of natural law and upsets the normal sequence of cause and effect
occupies an important place--if not, indeed, the central place--in Christian
I am well aware that in certain churches to-day even the clergy are disposed to
pass lightly over the miracles. This tendency, however, is wholly confined to
the more liberal churches, whose communicants are sophisticated people. Such
parishes are not really representative of Christianity, for the obvious reason
that their members are not representative of the rank and file of humanity.
Sophisticated folk, if they go to church at all, tend to do it as a matter of
form and fashion; they are moved by no strong convictions.
To find the original God of Christianity still resplendent in all His glory,
still hurling His thunderbolts and making no concessions to rationalism, one
should go preferably to a Roman Catholic Church--to the shrine, say, of Saint
Anne de Beaupre or Our Lady of Lourdes. There one comes into the awful presence
of a real God, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, makes the crippled
walk, rewards the just, damns the wicked, and in all the vicissitudes of life
is able to give tangible evidence of His power in answer to prayer. And the
same Deity, less colorful, perhaps, but no less real, will be found among the
Baptists, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Congregationalists, the
Presbyterians, and every other sect of Protestantism.
This was the God of my childhood. And He still reigns in undimmed majesty over
the lives of millions, whose supplications continue to move Him just as
effectively as they did in the days of Abraham. Here, for example, is a
testimonial taken from the Chicago Tribune of August 28 last:--
"The steeple of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, at 2330 North Halsted
Street, was struck by lightning and set afire. One hundred and seventy-five
theological students, residents of a near-by dormitory, rushed into the street
in a downpour of rain to help the firemen fight the blaze. Dr. John Timothy
Stone, president of the Seminary, heard the crash when the steeple was struck.
He rushed out into the storm and called upon the students who were helping to
fight the blaze to pray. Dr. Stone and his students knelt on the rain-soaked
grass and offered a prayer for the safety of the building. The firemen were
unable to get into the steeple, and by the time they had raised a fire tower
and trained a hose on the fire an hour later the rain had put out the blaze."
It is hardly necessary to point out that Dr. Stone's action was entirely
consistent with his beliefs as a good Presbyterian. In his moment of danger he
did what every religious man or woman does instinctively under similar
circumstances: he appealed to the wonder-working God who presides over the
Christian universe. And I dare say the good Doctor has already used the
incident to point the moral in some stirring sermon.
I emphasize the importance of this God of magic because He is the source of
most of the difficulties with which the churches now find themselves beset.
They cannot give Him up and remain Christian; they cannot keep Him and retain
the loyalty of educated people. It is a critical dilemma indeed. I was soon to
face it in my own life, but at the time of which I write I had no suspicion
that it existed.
I arrived at the age of eighteen comfortably adjusted to the Christian universe
in which all things work together for good to them that love God. The example
set by my family, and indeed by the entire community in which we lived,
convinced me of the truth and justice of the divine plan. As I began to think
seriously of what I should do with my life, everything pointed to the ministry
as the ideal solution. Christian living was the way of happiness. And what
better use could any man make of his powers than to devote them to the
propagation of truth, so that others who had been denied it might be led to
share its beneficent effects? The decision hardly called for conscious
So in due course I went before the Presbytery of the church, where, to the
delight of my parents, I was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. The
church to which we belonged published a little quarterly, and the next issue
carried my picture with this word of explanation: 'Philip E. Wentworth, who
came before Presbytery last spring, will start his college work this fall
preparatory to entering the Christian ministry.'
The question was: What college? Without going into the detailed considerations
that influenced my judgment in this matter, suffice it to say that I finally
settled upon Harvard. My father was not a college graduate, but he was bent on
giving me the advantages of formal education which he had lacked, and he was
satisfied to leave the choice to me. But I met unexpected resistance when I
sought the advice of our pastor.
He was uneasy when he learned that I was thinking of going to Harvard. Of
course it was a fine university, but the Unitarians had smirched it. He
reminded me that the Unitarian Church was the only Protestant denomination from
which transfers of membership were not freely accepted by the Presbyterians.
Before a Unitarian could be welcomed into our communion he had to be closely
examined, for the title of his sect was a denial of the Trinity. Harvard, the
minister said, had been the Sorbonne of Unitarianism, and I should run a grave
risk of learning false doctrine if I went there.
Instead of flying in the face of Providence, I should do better, he said, to
consider his own college. It was a small institution in Missouri, founded and
supervised by the synod of our church. It had educated many eminent
Presbyterian ministers. I could go there knowing that I should be safe from all
the insidious temptations of rationalism.
He urged me eloquently, but I stood my ground. When I went before Presbytery I
had sworn allegiance to truth and I did not think it would prove to be as frail
a vessel as the good dominie's counsel implied. I suspected that it might turn
out, on closer acquaintance, to be a little too broad to fit into any narrow
creed. I was not primarily interested in dogma anyhow. Sufficient unto the
seminary would be the evils thereof. First, I would widen my general knowledge.
Then, even if it should be necessary to modify some of my doctrines, I felt
certain that the fundamental verities of religion would remain impregnable.
So to Harvard I went. On a September evening in 1924, I called to say good-bye
to the old minister, who, throughout his long friendship with the family, had
been almost a second father to me. In the quiet of his study he knelt beside me
and offered up a fervent petition to God to make me diligent in the pursuit of
truth. Dear faithful soul! Within a year he was dead and was spared the pain of
learning that his parting prayer was being answered--in a sense the irony of
which he could never have understood.
Before I went to college I was thoroughly at home in a universe which revolved
about the central figure of an omnipotent Deity. In Cambridge I was suddenly
plunged into another world. I found myself breathing a wholly different
atmosphere. My teachers spoke a new language; their words were familiar enough,
but the import of them was strange to me. It was essentially a difference in
attitude and point of view.
The change was first brought home to me in the study of history. To my mind the
rise of Christianity out of the ashes of imperial Rome had seemed the material
evidence of a transcendental truth--a revelation of the hand of God at work in
the affairs of men. Not so to my professors. All events in history were
manifestations of cause and effect operating upon the natural level. The
institutions of society evolved according to orderly processes. Religion was
itself subject to these processes. I shall never forget one lecture from the
fierce, bloodthirsty Yahweh, tribal Deity of a few Semitic nomads, through
successive stages until He finally emerged in the New Testament as the gentle,
merciful, forgiving Father of all mankind.
In the course of time the impact of new knowledge, and especially knowledge of
science and the scientific method, wrought great havoc with my original ideas.
All things, it seemed, were subject to the laws of nature. This concept
supplied my mind with a wholly new pattern into which my religious beliefs
refused to fit. In such an orderly universe there seemed to be no place for a
wonder-working God. He would be an outlaw, unthinkable and impossible. The
bottom dropped out of my world, and I wrestled with myself in a futile attempt
to patch it up.
What, then, about morals? Without an omnipotent Deity to reward virtue and
punish evil, was 'the good life' only an illusion? I could not believe it, yet
I could think of no satisfactory answer. Life had lost its meaning. I was
Perhaps, though, I could still rehabilitate God by setting Him up as the First
Cause--the moving power behind natural law. But there was small comfort in this
thought. A God who had created the world and then left it to govern itself by
natural law had hedged Himself about by barriers through which even He could
not break. Prayers could not move Him. Though He might exist, He could not be
of service to man. Obviously such a God would be too remote, too inaccessible,
for the purposes of religion.
I saw, too, that the Modernists were troubled by these same difficulties. In
their haste to strike up a compromise with the intellectuals, they were trying
hard to make a self-respecting Deity out of the nebulous What-Is-It of
Eddington and Millikan. It seemed to me that they had fallen between two
stools. I studied philosophy and read further about this First Cause. Then I
began to marvel at the disingenuousness of the human mind when, unable to
imagine how the world began, but demanding some explanation of the
inexplicable, it can arbitrarily select three letters from the alphabet and
call g-o-d an answer. I preferred to think that we know more about such matters
when we admit we know nothing than when we resort to such palpable
While I was debating these problems so basic to my religious beliefs, the
controversy between Fundamentalists and Modernists was coming to a head, and
the impending Scopes trial in Tennessee was shocking the conscience of
thoughtful men everywhere. These events helped to clarify my thinking. I saw
that the battle had been joined between religion and intelligence. Was faith,
then, simply a defense of ignorance, a substitute for thinking?
In the summer of 1925, I followed the proceedings at Dayton with intense
interest, and one aspect of the dispute over evolution struck me particularly.
Learned scientists and liberal clergy-men were brought to testify for the
defense. Their evidence was not admitted at the trial, as I recall it, but all
of them gave out statements to the press, and they were unanimous in saying
that there was no real conflict between religion and science. This struck me as
a downright evasion of the issue. The quarrel was not between religion and
science in the abstract. The pious legislators of Tennessee had taken it upon
themselves to protect one specific and clearly stated postulate of Christianity
against the equally concrete and definite theory of evolution. What was the
The controversy raged, as everyone knows, over the first chapter of Genesis.
Now why should religious folk set such store by that text? In explaining how
the world was created in six days, the story of Genesis clearly established God
in the central conning tower of the universe and conferred upon Him the
omnipotent powers. He needed to control the mechanism. Thus it affirmed the
first great postulate of Christianity: An all-powerful God rules over the world
of His creation. But that is not all. From this premise is derived a corollary
of the first importance to religion: Man is dependent for his safety in this
world and his salvation in the next upon the God who made him.
Here, then, is the religious significance of the Biblical story of creation.
The lawmakers of Tennessee maintained, therefore, that the story was
fundamental to Christianity, and in this it would appear that they were better
theologians (however tenuous their claim to greatness in the law) than the
liberal clergymen who tried to refute them. For the Christian religion rests in
large part upon the foundation of those assumptions laid down in the first
chapter of Genesis. The moral code is directly derived from
the special relationship there established between God and man.
Now what happens to this nicely rationalized system of religious beliefs when
scientific notions are superimposed upon them? The God of Christianity becomes
enclosed in a circle of natural law from which He cannot escape. He is deprived
of His freedom to interfere with the normal sequence of cause and effect. He is
no longer able to play the role of Cosmic Policeman, meting out vengeance and
punishment to evildoers and offering protection and rewards to the just. The
elaborate sanctions which religion has built up to enforce its code vanish into
Thus, in the field of action, a conflict of primary importance is set up
between Christianity and scientific ideas. Mystic rites, sacrifice,
supplication, and prayer are typical modes of religious behavior, and they are
conditioned by religious beliefs. People who have oriented themselves to a
scientific universe go about their affairs in other ways. Dr. John Timothy
Stone and the firemen approached their common problem differently.
Having reached these conclusions, I realized that if I was to continue to
believe in the good life I should have to look beyond the teachings of
orthodoxy for my reasons. The supernatural had become meaningless. No longer
able to lean upon the gods, I must learn to stand alone.
It so happened that I stayed in the East each summer vacation and had not been
home since I first entered Harvard as a freshman. Meanwhile, I had written
innumerable letters to my parents, acquainting them with all the successive
changes which my ideas had undergone. They were sorely troubled. At first they
contented themselves with giving me well-intentioned advice to pray and read my
Bible constantly. If I did this, my doubts would surely pass, for God was
testing me and would not desert me if I proved steadfast. When at last, toward
the end of my sophomore year, I wrote them that prayer had lost its meaning,
they concluded that they would have to take heroic measures to save me from
myself. I received a long letter from my father.
He was now convinced, he said, that my going to Harvard had been a ghastly
mistake. Two years of it threatened to destroy the faith which had been
instilled into me from birth. If I continued in my present course, he could
never forgive himself for failing to heed the advice of our old pastor, who had
foreseen exactly what had happened to me. 'For what shall it profit a man, if
he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' He was convinced,
therefore, that it would be best for me to plan on not returning to Cambridge
in the fall. If I preferred, he would be willing to let me do nothing at all
the next year; I could stay at home and get my bearings anew. After that I
could make a fresh start and go on with my studies at the Presbyterian college
in Missouri, which he had now concluded was the proper place for me. Of course
I was no longer a child to be governed wholly by others; I should have to make
my own decisions and take the consequences. But in this important matter he
urged me to consider well and be guided by his maturer judgment.
Needless to say, this letter was very disturbing to me. I could understand and
sympathize with my father's feelings. But, much as I regretted to displease
him, I could not ruthlessly suppress my own convictions. I wrote him to this
effect and begged him to allow me to complete the studies which I had begun. I
had seen enough of a progressive university and its methods of stimulating
students to think for themselves to know that I should never be able to bear
the hothouse environment of a denominational college. After the interchange of
several letters my father finally capitulated, although he said it went sorely
against his conscience.
That third year at Harvard was much less distressing to my peace of mind than
the first two had been. The uncertainties which new knowledge had bred no
longer paralyzed me. Other certainties began to take form as I set about
building up a tenable philosophy of my own. By the end of my junior year these
ideas had begun to shake down and adjust themselves to the new pattern which my
mind had accepted.
It was now out of the question for me to entertain any hope that I might be
able to reconcile my new philosophy of life with those religious assumptions
which I had formerly taken for granted. I could not become a Christian
minister. Instead, I found myself strongly attracted toward an academic career.
But I was still enrolled as a candidate for holy orders, and it was incumbent
upon me to notify Presbytery of my withdrawal.
Back home our old pastor was dead, and a younger man who had formerly assisted
him had taken his place. So to him I wrote, in April 1927, outlining the change
in my beliefs just as I have explained it here, and asking him to lay the
matter before Presbytery. Within a few days I received his answer. His letter
was cordial and tolerant, but it demonstrated so conclusively the impotence of
the Church to deal with, or even to understand, the problem of my generation
that I shall quote it in full.
MY DEAR PHILIP,
Your father had frequently talked with me about your difficulties. I was
therefore not unprepared for your letter, although the Philip who speaks in
these pages is an altogether different Philip from the one who left us less
than three years ago.
I need not tell you how sorry I am that you have had to go through this crisis.
Most of us, some time or other in our college lives, have had to face the very
problems that are yours. If a man thinks at all, such questions are bound to
torment him sooner or later. Knowing you as I do, I am sure that you have been
honest in facing them. Still, it is the way a man answers that really matters;
his doubts may always either make him or break him.
I shall not attempt to debate the points which you have raised. You ought to
know already how faith can move such mountains of doubt as the unguided reason
may build up. There is only one thought that I should like to place before you.
As you have been looking at the fact of Christianity from the point of view of
a personal God, have you been absolutely fair in seeking the proof on both
sides? By that I mean, have you been reading your Bible, praying, and trying to
believe, or have you just taken the external view that it cannot be so, and
tried to prove that by your thought and reading? Not one of us could keep his
faith in any vital matter if he listened only to those who argue against it.
Religion isn't a question of logic or reason, although there is logic in it and
a man has to have a reason for the faith that is within him.
However, I am not going to harass you with a sermon. I want you to know that
whatever you do and wherever you go I still count you one of my true friends.
Whether it means anything to you or not, I am going to pray for Gods' blessing
upon you, that He may lead you out into the fullest life. You are still
numbered here as one of ours, and always will be. If at any time I can serve
you in any way, you have only to let me know. And be assured of this--that with
my hand goes my heart.
Yours faithfully, etc.
There is something very touching in the manifest sincerity of such an appeal.
But what good is it to urge a man to pray when the whole system of religious
conceptions has lost its validity for him?
In 1928, I took my degree from Harvard. Four years have now elapsed since then,
and my ideas have undergone no important modification. Subsequent studies have
confirmed me in the point of view which I have indicated here, and I remain
irretrievably lost to religion. This is a source of permanent chagrin to my
family. The years have tended to cover over the wound, to the extent that we
never discuss the difference in our opinions; but underneath the tacit
acceptance of our disagreement I know that my parents nurse a secret hurt too
deep for time to heal. In their prayers and meditations I am sure that while
they live they will not cease to plead with their God for my redemption.
Thus it will appear from my little history that we members of the skeptical
younger generation are a problem. It is an inevitable consequence of America's
generous passion for education. Thousands of young men and women go to college
each year from homes more or less like mine, to return changed beyond
recognition in all their ideas. And a few thoughtful appraisers of our social
trends, men like James Truslow Adams and Walter Lippmann, who are not believers
themselves, seem to agree with clergymen and the more devout parents in
thinking that the transformation is not always a change for the better.
In this they are probably right. College not only may, but often does, deprive
a student of his religious convictions without giving him anything to take
their place. Christianity, after all, is a composite of two elements: one
purports to explain the nature of the world and man's relationship to the God
who rules over it; the other prescribes a course of conduct the sanctions of
which are derived from this relationship. The really serious dangers of
skepticism become apparent when a student rejects the supernatural part of his
religion and concludes that there are no valid reasons left for decent conduct.
Robbed of standards, he is likely to adopt the easy ethics of business, which
permit a man to do almost anything so long as it leads to success in
money-making. This commercial point of view is rapidly becoming the real
philosophy of the nation, as Mr. Adams brilliantly demonstrates in The Epic of
If a life of pure acquisitiveness becomes the ideal of college students they
can find reasons to justify themselves in some of the new theories of
psychology. These doctrines tend to glorify the illimitable expansion of the
ego as 'self-expression,' and create in uncritical minds the notion that it is
foolish, even harmful to health, to try to suppress one's desires--a favorite
dogma of Freud and the psychoanalysts. In this connection it seems to me very
strange that, despite our cult of science, we have not yet grasped the full
import of the new knowledge that has come to us from the laboratory. The
usefulness of the physical sciences is measured by the power they have given
mankind to control the forces of nature. Control is the essence of scientific
purpose. But the new psychology, calling itself a science, has supplemented the
decay of religion to rob us of control over human nature--that is, over our
One solution of this dilemma may lie in the creation of a philosophy which,
without calling upon the supernatural, will reassert the effectiveness of the
human will as an instrument for governing the desires and impulses. Then it
will be possible to restore to good ordor the essentially human values of life
which lift us above the level of mere animal instinct. The system of ethics
which would be enforced by such a philosophy would not be strikingly different
in many particulars from the moral code of Christianity, but the reasons for
obeying it would be found wholly in the satisfactions of the good life itself,
not in the promise of reward or punishment after death.
But only a congenital optimist could bring himself to believe that a mere
system of ethics, however satisfying to the intellect, could ever take the
place of religion among the masses. Most men and women are incapable of
sustained self-control. Greed, pride, lust, are too much for them. They can be
held to the path of duty only by some power outside themselves--some higher
authority which is able to generate repressive fears stronger than their native
passions. Over vast multitudes the Church has for centuries enforced an
external discipline of precisely this kind.
When religion begins to lose its hold upon the minds of men, as it is now doing
with us, a peculiar thing happens. The Church is driven by its own weakness to
shift its social responsibilities to other shoulders. Now there is only one
other institution strong enough to take on new burdens in such an emergency,
and it is an institution which, like the Church, has always been engaged in
forcing a measure of parental control upon men who either would not or could
not control themselves. This is the State. As religion becomes inoperative,
governments are overworked.
In America at the present moment there is ample evidence that this peculiar
dislocation of function has already reached an acute stage. The ineffectiveness
of Christianity as a social force is revealed, on the one hand, in an outbreak
of crime the seriousness of which is common knowledge; and the government has
not yet been able to devise satisfactory measures for dealing with it. The
Church, on the other hand, aware of its weakness, aware that it can no longer
command obedience to its teaching by the time-honored method of invoking the
wrath of God, is led to lean more and more heavily upon the State, borrowing
secular support for purely religious injunctions. The sad plight of
Christianity in Tennessee, which has had to call upon the law for official
protection against evolution, is a symbol of spiritual decadence. National
prohibition is another sign of the same thing writ large. Thus for some years
the churches have been abdicating in their own field and putting their faith in
It is no accident, then, that the groups which are demanding ever more
stringent laws to regulate our private lives are identical, almost to a man,
with the religious groups in the population. It makes no difference whether
they are Protestants clamoring for stricter enforcement of prohibition or
Catholics agitating for stricter legislation regarding the dissemination of
birth-control information. In both instances increasing pressure is being
brought to bear upon government to take over the practical functions of
religion--and for the obvious reason that religion, in its decay, is no longer
able to do its work in the world.
Though I am an apostate, I must admit, therefore, that it gives me no
satisfaction to realize what a large company of young men and women now share
the label with me. But I see no help for it. The Church has lost its power to
move us. Its conceptions seem as unreal to my generation as the gods of ancient
The breakdown of Christianity is particularly unfortunate in America, where our
educators are so busy building new dormitories and thinking up new systems of
instruction that they do not see how urgently the situation calls upon them to
redefine the purposes for which their pedagogical machinery exists. In so far
as the colleges destroy religious faith without substituting a vital philosophy
to take its place, they are turning loose upon the world young barbarians who
have been freed from the discipline of the Church before they have learned how
to discipline themselves. Perhaps this was what one of my least orthodox
Harvard professors had in mind when he once said: 'There are only a few men in
the world who have earned the right not to be Christians.'
Copyright © 1932 by Philip E. Wentworth.
"What College Did to My Religion"
The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1932, issue.
Vol. 149, No. 6 (p.679-688).