Irreligious Illiteracy

Every academic field laments popular ignorance of its area of study. Scholars of religion decry religious illiteracy, but did anyone ever think to bemoan its opposite, irreligious illiteracy?

I studied religion formally for ten years from a B.A. to an M.A. to a Ph.D. and was never exposed to a lecture or a book on irreligion, never made aware of a trove of irreligious writings dating from 500 BCE on. I read hundreds of books in ten years of formal study and not one of those books offered an irreligious view. In my experience, during the era of my undergraduate and graduate education, curricula in the study of religion did not include irreligious books. Nor did a professor ever recommend any such a book to me.

As far as the comprehension of religion goes, this omission kept me from a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of religion.

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 side of the political spectrum and never about the other side, even though the other side produced equally eloquent defenses and critiques? No, such a lacuna is unthinkable for political science.

Then why such an 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 outside the university, and so academic religion embraced its mission as sponsorship of religion, offering 'religion appreciation' classes similar to art appreciation classes. In lectures, professors bragged on the religion under review, especially if the religion under review was not the professor's religion! (Unclasp that psychological buckle!)

Whatever the reasons irreligious writings are not in the religious studies curricula of universities, someone needs to rectify this gap in the education of young students majoring in religious studies and young scholars pursuing advanced degrees. Religious studies departments (and theology departments) need professional scholars of irreligion. 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. I have read scores of irreligious authors by now. 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 in a hundred years. These articles are in select libraries--in London, at Oxford's Bodleian, in Pasadena's Huntington, and in the Library of Congress, among others. Bringing these writings to a larger readership will require 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 short 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 or theology department. The subject of irreligion does not have to be taught with any degree of advocacy. The teacher need only adopt the attitude of Emerson on religious skeptics, which was that the skepticisms, as Emerson said, 'are not gratuitous or lawless.' Skeptics are honest doubters who are among 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 ideas. I suppose 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. And I would suggest also new editions of long out-of-print volumes. We might also expect filmic documentaries on the history of irreligion.

Any type of illiteracy is troubling to the literate. If you're troubled by religious illiteracy, why not be troubled by irreligious illiteracy? We should become better acquainted with, better aware of, Homo Irreligioso.