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The Secular Life at Harvard

By Juan V. Esteller, Crimson Staff Writer

It’s no secret that Harvard has become an increasingly secular institution throughout its history.

Consider Harvard’s original mission statement: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.” Suffice it to say that Harvard has changed greatly since 1636. It is no longer a school whose primary purpose is to instill the principles of a particular religion in its students.

Harvard, however, has become more than dissociated from Christianity; it has become exceptionally areligious. Were Harvard entirely neutral with respect to religion, its students’ religious views would roughly align with those of society as a whole, meaning that only about 7 percent of any given Harvard class would be atheist or agnostic.

The results of The Crimson’s recent survey of the Class of 2019, though, demonstrate the contrary: 37.9 percent of respondents categorize themselves as agnostics or atheists. Harvard’s Classes of 2017 and 2018 are likewise disproportionately areligious, but the proportion of nonbelievers to Christians is only growing more skewed; more respondents from the Class of 2019 identified as agnostic or atheist than Christian, for the first time in the history of The Crimson’s surveys. These disparities cannot be coincidental, and they raise a crucial question: What exactly does it mean that so many Harvard undergraduates tend not to believe in any religion?

It must first be acknowledged that Harvard students, religious or not, live very worthwhile lives—they have had the drive and tenacity to gain entry to a prestigious and rigorous institution like Harvard. A sense of purpose necessarily pervades such lives; any person mired in nihilism would not strain herself to come to Harvard.

Furthermore, it must be granted that Harvard students are thoughtful. Harvard’s holistic admissions attest to this fact. It is part of the University’s mission to recruit a student body that can not only ace SAT’s and earn immaculate grades, but also reason independently and reflect on the world.

From the acceptance of both of these axioms (both of which are reasonable given the nature of Harvard’s liberal mission) it becomes apparent that Harvard students have not thoughtlessly become indifferent toward religion. Rather, many have reflected on its importance and concluded that it is not a prerequisite to the good and meaningful lives they are leading. This recent and drastic change is not negligible.

Many people fallaciously maintain that a meaningful existence presupposes belief in a higher entity. For example, Harvard College Faith and Action, a Christian student group, contended against Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics that a faithless life is without fail a purposeless one in a public debate at the beginning of the fall semester. It is understandable that HCFA showed such aversion to the idea their worldview is not accepted as absolute truth by all people who strive to find meaning in the world; they do not want to concede the dispensability of their most deeply held beliefs. Indeed, the debate was more an exercise in self-reassurance for HCFA than in the refutation of HCHAA’s views.

Such questions as the merits of a secular life, however, are best decided by empirical evidence rather than abstract debates of theory like the one between HCFA and HCHAA. And Harvard’s Class of 2019 is a piece of irrefutable evidence. Its agnostics and atheists have found a more than satisfactory sense of purpose and direction, despite what they believe may be the ultimate nature of the universe.

These changes at Harvard have ramifications for society at large. Harvard’s students go on in their lives to become presidents and leaders. They are trend-setters. If they find a secular life perfectly fulfilling, then perceptions of disbelief may begin to change. Stigmata undeniably surround it—for example, only 58 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist president. Though this number may seem surprisingly large, it is unconscionable that 42 percent of Americans would deny a candidate office over a matter like religion. Would this 42 percent suppose that the 37 percent of Harvard freshmen who do not believe in any higher entity are any less moral because of their beliefs? Any less apt to lead?

Recent changes in the student body at Harvard legitimate the meaningfulness and value of a secular life, and this change may impact society as a whole. This is not to say that religion should become or is obsolete; it is only to submit that persons who reject it deserve no contempt and a better image in society—an ideal that will become more and more attainable as a higher proportion of the population is faithless, as is the case at Harvard.

We live in a country built on the premise, among others, of religious freedom; may America continue to learn and evolve as Harvard has over its long and complex history.

Juan V. Esteller ’19 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Straus Hall.

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