The beginning of a semester is often a time for reflection, a chance to think about the purposes and priorities of a college education. Why is it that we spend four years at this University, and for what future is our education intended to prepare us? Fortunately, the Report on Yale College Education offers an answer: “Liberal arts education aims to train a broadly-based, highly-disciplined intelligence without specifying in advance what that intelligence will be used for.”
Yet this mission, while noble, has not always been the foundational creed of this institution. The Yale of the 18th century was a definitively religious institution founded primarily for the education of churchmen and statesmen. In fact, Yale drew much of its early support from Harvard graduates who sought a more pious alternative to the increasing religious laxity of their alma mater.
The Yale Laws of 1745, for example, address the regulations for a “Religious and Virtuous Life” before discussing academic requirements. The Laws direct all scholars to diligently read “the holy Scriptures the Fountain of Light and Truth; and constantly attend upon all the Duties of Religion both in Public and Secret.” Thus, while Yale has always devoted itself to the pursuit of Light and Truth, the definition of Truth has changed over the years. In the beginning “Truth” referred to a divine Truth — one revealed only in the “Holy Scriptures.” Today, Yale students pursue a different kind of Truth — one that is determined through experimentation and analysis rather than faith.
The “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 best illustrates the conflict between these two understandings of Truth. In the trial a Tennessee biology teacher was charged with violating a statute that prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. The trial featured the awkward and contradictory testimony of William Jennings Bryan, a Biblical literalist and former presidential candidate who served as both prosecutor and witness. Though the jury returned a guilty verdict, the trial was a severe blow to anti-evolution legislation throughout the country. Today’s schools and colleges bear the mark of this trial — indeed, today the study of Creationism in a public school would be ludicrous.
In many ways the removal of religion from public schools has been both necessary and desirable. Americans live in an unprecedented society where all faiths are welcome and no creed enjoys a favored status. Yet is something lost when millions of American children receive only a secular education? Does society need religion, or is it possible to thrive exclusively on the modern, analytical Truth that is taught at Yale today? Religion is deeply personal, and it is difficult to make broad generalizations. Yet I do believe that our world, our country and our University would be a better place if more people were actively religious.
Consider the story on the front page of yesterday’s The New York Times Metro section (“Woman Struck by 3 Hit and Runs, Police Say,” 1/21). According to the story, New York City Police believe that three different cars struck Natalie Guzman, the 18-year-old victim of a fatal hit-and-run this past Sunday. It is shocking and terrifying to believe that not one, not two, but three individuals struck Ms. Guzman with their vehicles and left her to die in the street. Our society condemns these drivers as criminal and attempts to punish the offenders. Yet faced with the choice of stopping or fleeing the scene, many drivers will inevitably choose to save their own skins. It is in situations like these where religion makes the greatest difference. While a nonreligious person need only evade the human authorities, a religious person is accountable to a higher moral authority and is far more likely to do the right thing.
I do not wish to encourage overnight religious epiphanies. As I said, religion is intensely spiritual and personal and any religious belief should be heartfelt. I simply offer a contrast to the “religion is the opiate of the masses” ideology that often accompanies modernity and secular education. It is no coincidence that every recorded human society has possessed some form of religion. Religion is an essential part of the human condition, and humanity is far better off with it than without it.