Last week, the Higher Education Research Institute released the results of its annual “Freshman Survey,” a questionnaire given to over 150,000 first-year college students in the United States. The survey offers a wide range of data on nearly any conceivable topic from incoming freshmen’s high school experiences (43 percent fell asleep in class occasionally or frequently), to their political beliefs (76 percent believe that “through hard work, everybody can succeed in American society”) to their priorities (82 percent aspire to be “very well-off financially” while 45 percent hope to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life”).
Some of the most interesting survey data had to do with incoming freshmen’s religious identities. In 2014, 27.5 percent of incoming college freshmen selected “none” as their religious preference, the highest rate since the survey began in 1971. Thirty years ago, the percentage of incoming students who answered “none” as their religion was below 10 percent; since then, the proportion has tripled and continues to rise steadily. According to a survey conducted by the News in September, the proportion of Yale’s class of 2018 identifying as having no religion — 34 percent — was greater than the national average.
The secularization of college students in America has seemed a foregone conclusion for some time, yet it represents a momentous shift for our university and society at large that we have not yet come to grips with. I submit that even the best of our secular institutions have not yet been able to replicate what religion used to provide to its followers.
To put this claim in broader perspective: For centuries, religion has been losing influence in America and other Western societies. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that God was dead. Yet the past few decades mark the first time that a large portion of our society stopped even nominally identifying with a religious tradition.
A shift of this magnitude must necessarily have consequences for the way we live our lives and form our communities. Nietzsche himself was prescient enough to realize that the death of God was something to be feared, the beginning of a descent into nihilism and the end of humanity’s aspirations. Whether or not his analysis was correct, we should expect that the decline of religion has left voids in our society — areas of life in which the type of structure and meaning provided by religion are absent.
After all, religion used to represent all things for all people. It was a basis of strong communities and a provider of social fabric, a locus for collective altruistic action, a set of rituals that marked the passage of time, a source of structure in moments of crisis, an opportunity for spiritual experience and a way of bringing together remarkably different people as part of the same metaphysical family. Above all, religion was a way to spur every individual to moral self-improvement and to constantly orient its members’ lives toward some good.
Have these roles of religion been adequately filled by secular institutions? Let’s examine a strong potential candidate for a secular institution that might fill the void left by the decline of religion — Yale. The University supports many strong residential and extracurricular communities, perpetuates several hundred-year-old rituals, provides spiritual experiences in its museums and theaters and contains a diverse student body brought together by the common purpose of education.
Yet, there is one traditional role of religion that few communities at Yale have figured out how to fill: the role of moral compass. Religion presented constant demands to its adherents about how to live better, using regular rituals and communal norms to spur members constantly to moral action. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Yale has developed any comparable institutional frameworks for ensuring that Yale students are more ethical when they graduate than when they arrive. Morality isn’t something we talk much about as a campus — whether in the context of the widespread use of stimulants on campus or our future careers.
This is not simply a criticism of Yale; the problem of how to encourage moral self-improvement after the decline of religion is a problem that our entire society will have to grapple with. There is obviously such a thing as morality without religion, yet secular society lacks the structure, the rituals and the authorities to push members to be their best selves. Violence, lying, cheating and greed remain rampant in our society, and few institutions have stepped up to help people to be better.
Is the solution for our society and our University to return to religion en masse? As much as religious people might hope for this outcome, it is clearly not in the cards any time soon; people cannot be expected to have faith in something they do not believe to be real. Secular society will have to figure out new ways to encourage moral behavior, and Yale is the best place to start.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.