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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

September 1932

Universities and Religious Indifference

by Bernard Iddings Bell

One 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 conversation.

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 acquisitiveness.

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 overdue.


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 subject.'

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 universities.

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 College.

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).

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