We all believe that a college education should set us on the path to some sort of truth or authenticity. After all, “Lux et Veritas” is the motto of Yale. Another value we all hold in academia is rational skepticism: you should not accept anything on the word of someone else; a hypothesis that is not borne out by experimentation is false; all theories must be falsifiable. If this is the case, why aren’t more students at Yale atheistic? If we truly accept the liberal arts and its underlying mission, we should embrace atheism.
According to a feature by the News last year (“2019 by the numbers: Keeping faith at Yale,” Sept. 2 2015) only 44 percent of students in my year are atheistic, agnostic or non-religious. Of these students, 23 percent self-identify as non-religious and 21 percent as atheistic/agnostic (the News apparently does not see a difference between the two). Conversely, 56 percent of students identify as religious. Yale as an institution might be secular, but most of its students are at least somewhat attached to religion.
Why do I think a belief in God is incompatible with studying the liberal arts? There is an arbitrary mental division of labor: rational skepticism is applied to our studies, in completing problem sets and debating our peers, but an unjustified deference to authority is adhered to in the realm of religion. I am always baffled by physics majors and renowned professors who will only accept theories presented to them on the basis of rigorous evidence, but who still believe in God on the basis of a hunch. Who at Yale would accept physical treatment for cancer from their priest, or just pray their pain away?
I went to a semi-secular, semi-religious Jewish high school which held compulsory prayers in the morning. By 10th grade I had become solidly atheistic, after reading a lot of the “philosophes” in my history class on the French Revolution. As a result, I asked to be excused from prayers. When my request was denied, I simply stopped participating. This caused some consternation among school administrators. They called me into the office and asked me why I was doing this. My response was that I was doing what I had been taught in class: to question myself and others and to accept evidence as the foundation of all intellectual pursuit. Religion did not fit that bill for me.
To be sure, I can comprehend the counterargument. Perhaps God exists in some deistic sense: everything exists because of a deity who does not intervene. This might be an attractive view for those who identify as non-religious. I have two responses: first, this is an unfalsifiable claim. How can anyone ever prove or disprove this? Second, even if this is true, why should care about God? If God exists on some impenetrable plane that has no impact on my life, I would surely rather accept the rules of my world without reference to a metaphysically sketchy being.
Maybe you are scared of being on the wrong side of the gamble and end up getting punished in perpetuity for your atheism. But put this in perspective: if God gives us no evidence of his existence but grants us our rationality, there is a clear contradiction. After all, we use our rational faculties to develop medicines, end hunger and scarcity and extend lifespans: things we were deprived of in a God-given state of nature. Yet if we use our rationality to disavow God, he sends us to hell. If this is true, as believers must concede when they accept God on their faith alone, we live in a truly screwed-up world. I would rather brave damnation.
I can understand the benefits of liberal religion in America. Yale has a great diversity of religious groups who provide homely comfort and support to many. These groups are vital and I do not mean to detract from their important task. But cultural affiliation should be the maximum extent of religious association. I consider myself culturally Jewish, and enjoy the ceremony of certain celebrations, but no more. The veracity of a religion is independent of the benefits we receive from it.
When we liberate ourselves from the notion of an all-controlling God, we become truly free. Only then can we embrace the mission of a liberal education. God is dead, and light and truth have replaced him.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .