A religious and secular studies major

“They can send me to college, but they can’t make me think,” bragged a bumper sticker I recently spotted in my hometown. I can tell you from personal experience that this is sometimes true. It’s even more unfortunate that many college students want to take courses where they can get good grades without being critically challenged.

In mathematics, my field of professorial expertise, lots of students hope to get by through rote memorization. This is not how mathematics works, and any teacher who allows students to memorize their way through a course does his or her students a disservice. Good students learn that mathematics is not cut and dry, and needs to be continually questioned—not only about its internal logic, but also the reasons it leads us where it does. Does the conclusion seem reasonable? Did we expect it? Do the steps seem natural or artificial? Can we state intuitively what we have proved? Can we generalize the result? If mathematics is taught right, students should have more questions going out of a course than going into it. The more we know, the more we know what we don’t know.

And so it is (or should be) with most academic disciplines. I’ve heard it said half-jokingly that the difference between philosophy and religion is that philosophy is questions without answers and religion is answers without questions. I’d like to think that a secular studies program could combine the best of these two stereotypes.

I see a secular studies program as complementing rather than countering a religious studies program. It would be nice if the current religious studies major at universities evolved into a “religious and secular studies” major. Many Americans, not to mention numerous politicians, display their ignorance of what freedom of conscience actually means when they say, “We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” I believe that just as you can’t have “of” without allowing “from,” any credible religious studies program that incorporates a variety of worldviews should also include a secular worldview.

The religious studies program at the College of Charleston, my institution, affords students “the opportunity to explore diverse cultures and religions, while providing them with important tools to understand and interpret these worldviews critically.” (http://religiousstudies.cofc.edu/about/index.php)

Good, as far as it goes. Some students even come away confused when they learn about religions diametrically opposed to their own. Beginning to question previously unquestioned assumptions is a sign of wisdom, even (or especially) if students begin to question their faith in what they have been previously taught is the one “true” religion. What are students to think when they realize that most Asians are Buddhists, people from India are mainly Hindus, Saudi Arabians are Muslims, and here in the United States we have mainly Christians? One reasonable explanation is that religious belief may be based more on geography than on theology. With all the conflicting faith beliefs in the world, students can easily see that they can’t all be right. But can they all be wrong? This is the naturalistic worldview promoted by atheists, humanists, and other secularists, with arguments supported by evidence and critical thinking.

It’s not enough to teach students about all world religions and ignore the perspective of millions of people who live happily and find meaning in their life without appeals to supernatural forces. There is a rich and important history of atheism that has been around as long as theism, though this history is rarely acknowledged. And yes, I agree that atheism should be examined as critically as all religions in an academic setting.

The bottom line is that if students leave college with the same beliefs and perspectives they had when they entered, then they have mostly wasted four years and many dollars.