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”).

Scott Greenberg headshot  _ Thao DoSome 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 scott.greenberg@yale.edu.

  • theantiyale

    This is a serious question Mr. Greenberg. Thank you for raising it.
    In my lifetime Battell Chapel has metamorphosized from religious heartbeat of the campus ( Chaplain Lovett) to the political activist center of the campus (Chaplain William Sloane Coffin). During both of these seasons, the chaplain’s moral authority was second only in influence to that of the President of Yale. It was definitely a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) authority.
    As the hypocrisy and impotence of Christianity became evident in matters relating to race and sexual identity, Christianity became a vestigial artifact of a a time gone by.
    Now Battell Chapel is a ‘diversity celebration center’. The chaplain has no moral influence equivalent to Lovett or Coffin. Who is the chaplain? Its celebrations in no way rival the intense devotion our society pays to YouTube, Google and Facebook.
    An entire generation has been raised outside the influence of religion.
    Some of my own high school students in Vermont have told me that they have never been inside a church. They have no idea what goes on there.
    This is not a void. It is evolution.
    Is the appendix a vital organ?

    • anubis

      It is certainly interesting to go back and read that horrible book God and Man at Yale and see things like “The College’s chapel, Dwight Hall…”

      • theantiyale

        NOTE: The Anti-Yale Is Dedicated TO Wm. F. Buckley ” whose writings alerted me that Man is God at Yale” http:// theantiyale.blogspot.com.

    • anubis
      • theantiyale

        My point is that today one has to “ask”. Not so in Lovett or Coffin ‘ s day.

  • anubis

    “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.”

    Wrong! What Nietzsche ACTUALLY wrote is that the death of God is a joyous occasion for people to write their own beautiful new value systems and affirm life on this earth. You can *agree* or *disagree* with him about that, but those who descend into nihilism in Nietzsche’s name miss his point entirely.

    cf. The Gay Science, aphorism 289

    “Aboard Ship! When one considers how a full philosophical justification of his mode of living and thinking operates upon every individual namely, as a warming, blessing, and fructifying sun, specially shining on him; how it makes him independent of praise and blame, self sufficient, rich and generous in the bestowal of happiness and kindness; how it unceasingly transforms the evil to the good, brings all the energies to bloom and maturity, and altogether hinders the growth of the greater and lesser weeds of chagrin and discontent: one at last cries out importunately: Oh, that many such new suns were created! The evil man, also, the unfortunate man, and the exceptional man, shall each have his philosophy, his rights, and his sunshine! It is not sympathy with them that is necessary! we must unlearn this arrogant fancy, notwithstanding that humanity has so long learned it and used it exclusively, we have not to set up any confessor, exorcist, or pardoner for them! It is a new justice, however, that is necessary! And a new solution! And new philosophers! The moral earth also is round! The moral earth also has its antipodes! The antipodes also have their right to exist! There is still another world to discover and more than one! Aboard ship you philosophers!”

    • Matt D.

      Aboard Ship Madness!

  • mvn74

    “There is obviously such a thing as morality without religion”

    On what basis? In a random-chance universe without a transcendent personal creator, where does the “ought” come from? Violence, lying, cheating and greed are perfectly acceptable when it is all just a matter of opinion anyway. How can you tell someone that those behaviors are wrong?

  • Matt D.

    “Secular society lacks the structure, the rituals and the authorities to push members to be their best selves.”

    This is most certainly the case. The reason is pluralistic thought and sweeping relativism. Without an authoritative claim on Truth, there is a weak foundation upon which the society can support or enforce such endeavors. Likewise, without believing in Truth there is little to no reason for an individual to to adhere to such a society’s commands. What is and is not moral? This has an answer. That is not the problem. The problem is there are too many answers and each person gets to conclude, for themselves, which answer to believe and which ones not to believe.
    You ask a few more questions and you see how the answer will split and splinter for whoever is answering it: Where is morality’s basis found? Who decides it? What makes his/her/their understanding correct compared to an alternative view? Why am I obligated to adhere to the view of another? etc.