September 17, 2023

CHANCELLOR | The Godless University

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You probably do not remember the opening scene of the movie God’s Not Dead — made by Pinnacle Peak Pictures, a Christian production company. In the scene, a philosophy professor stands before his new class of students and quotes the German thinker Friedrich Nietzche’s famous thesis, “God is dead.” The professor then tries to get each student to agree with the statement so the class does not have to waste time thinking about God. A Christian student then refuses to comply with the professor, and the rest of the movie ensues. I recommend watching the movie — I enjoyed it — but alas, this is not a film review. 

While the opening scene is certainly dramatic, and many would even say unrealistic, it actually depicts a more pernicious reality for the modern Christian and education in general. The reality is that the modern university has accepted the premise that God is dead, but not in some flashy way like writing it on a chalkboard or with much fanfare; they just act according to the premise. Despite this acceptance, if the university system announced that it would proceed in accordance with the framework of God being dead, it would be met with a surreal amount of backlash. While the country may no longer be as Christian as when the Pilgrims first arrived, 7 in 10 Americans still identify as Christians. The university may want to be a city on a hill, free from the dogma of religion, but the rest of the country sees that city more like Mordor than something to emulate. 

To avoid this backlash from the modern sciences and humanities, including philosophy, just avoid the topic of God altogether. I am on my third philosophy course here at Cornell and have taken courses on morality and am currently enrolled in a course on social and political philosophy; I do not believe I have observed the idea of God being discussed in course materials, unless snickers from moral relativists count. God has been phased out of the university, regulated to Sage Chapel and some rooms in Anabel Taylor Hall, kept far from where the real intellectual pursuits occur. If a student finally decides to ask how a certain idea relates back to any religion, the question is usually followed by an awkward period of silence. Since God has been taken out of the university, most in academia do not even spend time contemplating how certain ideas interact with belief in God.

People may not see the new Godless university as a problem. Pondering how any idea interacts with religious beliefs would be as ridiculous as asking how an idea relates to a flying spaghetti monster. Their answer is that both the religious belief and belief in the flying spaghetti monster are irrational. While that is an easy answer to give, it opens up a large can of assumed premises that have no logical grounding. If the world is completely natural, what makes things such as logic and reasoning objective, since those things do not seem natural and seemingly have no existence outside of the human mind? Even if you limit logic and reasoning to a democratic model — things that are logical will make sense to a majority of mankind — that standard religion would be rational, and atheism irrational. 83.7 percent of the world’s population identifies as religious; an overwhelming majority. And not only are a majority of all humans religious, but a majority of all humans identify with an Abrahamic religion — with Christianity being a plurality, at 31.5 percent of the world. But I digress — this particular column is not about apologetics, maybe a later one. 

Not teaching God in the university is a disservice to all students and their education. It is impossible to fully understand philosophy or even science, especially not their history, without being able to understand a religious worldview. A humanities which ignores God ignores the most deeply held beliefs and motivations of mankind. Sciences like physics and astronomy were studied by early intellectuals like Sir Isaac Newton because they thought the universe was created by an intelligent designer and therefore could be studied and understood. Even scientists like Einstein, who was not religious, believed in a form of deism — that there is a God but that God does not interfere in human affairs. 

And for those who may claim that since a majority of people are religious then there is no need to teach religion, that is false. There are many in the university system completely oblivious to religious thought and, even worse, have blatantly false views on things such as Christianity, which is a core component of much of Western thought, which the modern university system is mostly founded on. Last semester on West Campus, I overheard a conversation where a student claimed that the New Testament in the Bible included blood accusations. These hideous accusations are nowhere to be found in the Bible and would certainly be a surprise to the writers of the New Testament, as all of them but one were Jewish themselves. 

This column is not calling for universities to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms or have students recite psalms each morning. But universities have a responsibility not to leave students  with a God-shaped hole in their education and an inability to understand history and most of their fellow citizens. Even if the university thinks that God is dead, it should not become Godless.    

Armand Chancellor is a third year student in the Brooks School of Public Policy. His fortnightly column The Rostrum focuses on the interaction of politics and culture at Cornell. He can be reached at [email protected].   

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