Keeping the faith: Divinity School administrators reflect on America’s movement towards secularism
Religiosity is declining in the United States. Here is what the Divinity School thinks about it.
Yale Daily News
As more and more Americans abandon religion in favor of secularism, the Yale Divinity School is rethinking the ways in which students can use their degrees.
American analytics company Gallup Inc. began tracking church membership in the United States in 1937. In Gallup’s inaugural year, 73 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. The statistic steadily hovered around 70 percent over the next six decades — before dropping below 50 percent for the first time ever in 2020. The Survey Center on American Life credits this decrease to Generation Z, what it calls the “least religious generation yet.”
To adjust to this climate, the Yale Divinity School has implemented several different offices that allow students more diversity in their future endeavors. The school has created an office that prepares students for non-profit and justice leadership. In addition, they are trying to expand their chaplaincy program. In recent years, the school has added new concentrations within its Masters of Arts program in the hope of appealing to a broader constituency, according to Dean of the Divinity School Gregory Sterling.
“We’ve realized that a lot of people who want to serve will not necessarily go to serve churches, but will still want to serve the not-for-profit world, whether it’s a homeless center, whether it’s some type of a charitable organization,” Sterling said. “There’s a huge range of these opportunities.”
Currently, the Divinity School’s population can be roughly divided into three categories, according to Sterling. One third of students typically establish a career in Christian church ministry, serving as pastors of churches, hospitals, universities and other places of worship. Another third of students remain in academia and pursue another degree. The final third of students — which Sterling said is steadily increasing — use their Divinity School degree for social justice work and establish themselves in the nonprofit sector.
Bill Goettler, associate dean for ministerial and social leadership, helps students figure out what they will do with their Masters of Divinity degree. Goettler said he has noticed an increasing set of students hoping to establish a career in the non-profit sector.
“We are getting more students who are looking for ways to cause justice to happen, to address the places of hurt and injustice in society,” Goettler said. “We’re approaching that leadership in society with a broader brush. And expecting that our graduates are going to do that work in the places that they go, and where they live.”
Goettler said that many students are driven to pursue social justice work by the “core things” that led them to pursue a divinity degree in the first place: community, ethical clarity, justice and kindness.
Despite the general trend towards secularism in the United States, interest in the Yale Divinity School has fluctuated significantly in recent years, in particular due to various cultural movements. For example, the school reported a 13 percent increase in applications in 2009 — with administrators suggesting the 2008 financial recession led people to turn towards spiritual solace.
“There are people who are seeking second careers, people who have lost their jobs, and people who were contemplating graduate degrees and then decide to pursue something meaningful like the Divinity School,” former Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge told the News in 2009.
Sterling believes this same logic can be applied to the present day. He pointed to current events — such as the war in Ukraine, the prolonged isolation of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement — as issues that might propel people to seek faith in a higher order.
“All of that is creating a sense that people are ill at ease,” Sterling said. “But they’re going to then look to what we traditionally call God. What I’m going to call God. A power that is bigger than nuclear weapons, a power that is bigger than an economy, which has runaway inflation, a power that is bigger than … racism. I don’t think that’s gone. I think that’s still very alive.”
Sterling said that secularism should not be understood as the direct opposite of the sacred or the religious. The issue, he added, is too nuanced to be reduced to a dichotomy.
At the Divinity School, people are expressing their religious affiliations in new ways, Sterling said. The second-largest group of divinity students — after Christians — are called “seekers,” and they are spiritual but not religious. Seekers, Sterling explained, have rejected the institutional forms of religion, rather than religion itself.
“There’s a serious, and in many cases, well placed mistrust of institutions, of all institutions, including churches, and churches have in some cases brought this on themselves, ourselves,” Sterling said. “There’s just been too many gaffes, too many problems, where institutions put institutions in front of people. And that’s created a lot of mistrust, but it’s also spilling over to people who don’t trust the government. They don’t trust corporations. They don’t trust universities, unfortunately. So it’s part of a larger situation.”
Goettler said that students at the Divinity School are looking to lead lives with meaning and tackle bigger questions, rather than simply acquiring a set of skills. Through their studies — whether religious or secular — divinity students are discovering what is “good and just” for society and how to build a welcoming community for all.
Sophie Beal DIV ’22 said she believes that the line between secularism and religion is more nuanced than one would expect.
“The lines between ‘secular’ and ‘religious/faith-based’ work are often blurrier than most people assume. And, of course, there are also many students who come to YDS without any particular religious affiliation who take what they’ve learned here and allow it to inform all different fields of work — from nonprofits and community organizing to law, healthcare.”
The Divinity School was established in 1822.