What To Do About Irreligious Illiteracy

What To Do About Irreligious Illiteracy August 23, 2017


Every academic field laments ignorance of its area of study. And so scholars of religion decry religious illiteracy.

Did anyone ever think to bemoan irreligious illiteracy?

Ph.D.s in religion have studied religion formally for ten years to earn three degrees—a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. In that time they may never be exposed to a lecture or a book on irreligion and may never even be made aware of a trove of irreligious writings dating from 500 BCE on.

Such scholars of religion will read hundreds of books in ten years of formal study and not one of those books will offer an irreligious view. In the experience of most Ph.D.s, in the period of their undergraduate and graduate study, the curriculum they are exposed to will not assign irreligious books. Nor will any of their professors ever recommend any such a book informally. (There may be a few exceptions to this—but only a few.)

As far as the understanding of religion goes, this omission keeps Ph.D.s from a fuller grasp of the phenomenon of religion and a richer understanding of humanity.

Would there be a similar omission in the study of political science? Could a student pace through ten years of formal study and only hear about and read about one party, one side of the political spectrum, and never about the other side, even though the other side produced equally eloquent defenses and critiques?

Such a lacuna is unthinkable for political science. Then why the oversight in the study of religion?

Part of the answer has to do with religion itself. Religion in the academic setting never quite quit its long history of advocacy in the public sphere. And so academic religion (a fairly new phenomenon) embraced its mission as sponsorship of religion and offered ‘religion appreciation’ classes similar to art appreciation classes. In lectures, professors bragged about the religion under review, especially if the religion under review was not the professor’s own religion.  (Unclasp that psychological buckle if you can.)

Whatever the reasons irreligious writings are not in the religious studies curriculum of universities, someone needs to rectify this gap in the education of young students majoring in religious studies and young scholars pursuing advanced degrees in religion. Religious studies departments and theology departments need professional scholars of irreligion on staff. And young scholars need to go into this field.

It’s not as if ancient, Renaissance and early modern-to-nineteenth-century irreligious writings were composed by lesser minds with inferior literary gifts. Their writings are often exquisitely tooled and aphoristically jolting. Many of the authors are high in the pantheon of Western intellectualism, and some are famous. Even the lesser lights, the unknowns, are talented.

Someone needs to do the difficult Ph.D. labor of researching all this literature, and someone needs to expose the stacks and stacks of irreligious articles published in scores of irreligious magazines and journals from the 19th century that probably next to no one has gazed upon since then. These articles are in select libraries—in London; and at Oxford’s Bodleian; and in Pasadena’s Huntington; and in the USA’s Library of Congress, among others. Bringing these writings to a larger readership will require hours and hours of work: perfect labor for a Ph.D. candidate.

University courses about a single religion, as, say, a class on Judaism, need not add irreligious books to the class syllabus. But courses on world religions or Western religion should include a book or a long reading and a couple lectures on irreligion as ‘part of the story’ of religion in the West.

University courses wholly devoted to the history of irreligion should be on offer in every university with a religious studies department or theology department. The subject of irreligion does not have to be taught with any degree of advocacy. The teacher need only adopt Ralph Emerson’s attitude on religious skeptics, which was that skepticism, as Emerson said, is ‘not gratuitous or lawless.’ Skeptics are honest doubters and are some of the best minds the West has produced. Their views should be under consideration as ‘part of the story.’

That’s the prescription for the universities. We have still to lament the general popular ignorance of irreligious writings. This is can be remedied somewhat by bestselling books, and though we had a few bestselling irreligious authors in the early twenty-first century offering their own views, I recommend the publication of collections of primary writings from irreligious authors over the past many centuries. Several worthy collections are available and edited by Joshi, Gaskin, Hitchens, Stein, Gaylor. And I would suggest also new editions of long out-of-print volumes by J. M. Robertson, George W. Foote, Chapman Cohen, among scores of others.

We should also invite film documentaries on the history of irreligion.

Any type of illiteracy is troubling to the literate. And if you’re troubled by religious illiteracy, why not be troubled by irreligious illiteracy?  As students of humanity, shouldn’t we become better aware of homo irreligioso?


Featured image  ‘illiterate’ by genebrooks via Flickr





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