Christians at Cornell and across the world this month observe the season of Lent — a religious tradition that calls upon adherents to re-embrace their faith through commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the Judean Desert following His baptism. Lent is a solemn season, and an important time for Christians to examine their own religiosity and the state of the church more broadly.
This Lent, at least at a glance, the church appears troubled and on the defensive. The unfortunate truth is that Christian churches, like most religious institutions in the United States, have been a diminishing feature of public life for some time. The Pew Research Center notes that 20 percent of Americans are “religiously unaffiliated,” a number that has increased by five percent over the last five years. Further, over half of the American public attends religious services “seldom or never” and holds neutral or “mostly negative” views about organized religion. Among younger generations, the challenges confronting organized religion are even more profound: a third of Americans under 30 today do not identify with a religion at all, according to Pew.
Several forces have driven this trend. It starts, of course, with churches themselves, which have sometimes failed to fulfill obligations to their respective congregations. A slew of prominent sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the ongoing dilution of many mainline church teachings and the politicization of scripture most recently in the United Methodist Church have not undermined faith among the American public, but they have undermined confidence in the religious institutions where faith is most publicly celebrated and practiced.
Cornell has not been immune to these realities. Our campus Catholic Church, for instance, is currently processing upsetting sexual abuse allegations against its former director and chaplain. Additionally, while Cornell’s academic program does feature a religious studies department and a dedicated building for its religious and spiritual organizations, classes on this subject are not an Arts and Sciences requirement at the University, and so many students graduate without even a rudimentary exposure to religious education.
The health of religious institutions is important, both to our University and country. Humans inherently are religious creatures, and genetic predisposition, elements of human psychology and social grouping all seem to support this thesis. Pew, though it found substantial concerns about trends in American organized religion, also found that 90 percent of Americans believe in “God or a higher power.” This number — 90 percent — represents a fact too seldom expressed: Perhaps the single most unifying force among America’s 325 million residents is their faith in the divine. Atheists and progressives sometimes contend that religion and faith are divisive forces, but these numbers demonstrate the exact opposite is true: Faith in a higher power is the single greatest unifying force in the U.S. today.
The question, then, is what happens to a faith-based nation when confidence and participation in its religious institutions diminish.
A Sun columnist, writing on this concept two weeks ago, rightly noted: “Without a remedy for the spiritual deficit created by alienation, our stultifying apathy can never be truly eradicated.” At a university like Cornell, dazzled by aimless rationality and seemingly obsessed with materialism, there is almost no serious consideration of what the “best life” really looks like. In downtown Ithaca, car bumper stickers politicize faith with oversimplified and misguided messages like “kindness is my religion” and “Jesus was a communist.” Yet few grapple with the larger and more important questions. If not from God, where does our morality originate? Where is its guiding doctrine? Who ultimately defined it?
These questions cut right to the core of the human condition and predicament. The same left-leaning Sun columnist, a self-described “radical,” also wrote quite astutely that the nonreligious “moral imperative” which “[justifies] progressive political action” has no core. 21st-century atheistic progressivism, especially in its hostility to religion, has no foundation, thus allowing its aims to be manipulated or reinterpreted for the purpose of political power or convenience.
But Cornellians and Americans alike, even in this context, are predictably no less religious, simply less observant. They broadly have replaced spirituality with simple longing — and the result has had a demonstrably negative effect on political culture. Humans cannot simply be rid of their religious impulses. These instincts have instead been simply fulfilled by man-made and commonly dubious dogmas, such as progressivism’s divisive identity politics, its corrupted interpretation of traditional justice and its embrace of scientifically unsound and extremist environmental scare tactics. Each falsely presents itself in ways a religion historically has — offering guiding principles, establishing mandated teachings and even creating its own policy gods, whose edicts are delivered with the full authority of the commandments God presented Moses on Mount Sinai. It would all be silly if it weren’t so dangerous.
To be sure, agnostics and atheists are as welcome as any other community in this country, and their perspectives on moral philosophy are often coherent and even constructive. Nor is political essentialism limited to those without religious affiliation. But in an increasingly irreligious world, the character of politics is suffering and at serious risk of escalating tension. As the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton once wrote, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.
Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.