I am an atheist. You may have noticed this from some previous posts. I know I keep it pretty subtle, but you kids are quick. You probably picked up on it. However despite being an atheist, I majored in religion in college. This confuses some people. Some people in the atheist movement seem to think that we need to get rid of religious education altogether. This confuses me.
I don’t think that anyone should have to defend what they find interesting to study, but I do think that it’s important for everyone to recognize what it is that we can learn from religious studies and what skills they give us. Religious studies are hugely important to our understanding of the world and our place in it. While an atheist may not need a deep understanding of theology to feel that they understand their world and their self, there are BILLIONS of other human beings on this planet who do believe in a god, and that if I can’t make some attempt to understand this important aspect of their life, then I am not only being self-centered, I’m also shooting myself in the foot in terms of my ability to make relationships and find opportunities with these people.
Religion is often heavily integrated into culture. If you want to be able to seamlessly interact with people from a variety of backgrounds, then having a basic understanding of a variety religions is integral. This will allow you not to step on toes inadvertently, to understand where someone might be coming from, and to even “speak their language” as it were. In addition, religion is a huge motivator for a lot of people. I may not agree with extreme evangelicals who preach gender complementarity, however I have done a LOT of reading about their positions, and I can at least understand where they’re coming from and why they espouse the beliefs they do and act in the ways that they do. By understanding where they’re coming from, it’s a lot easier for me to engage them.
If we are to be educated citizens of the world, it’s important for us to have some basic familiarity with the major backgrounds that people can come from, and with the different assumptions that those people will have that are different from our own. Sociology and anthropology are important for just these reasons, as are the humanities, which give us a glimpse into lives different from our own. But this includes religious beliefs, because these inform politics, culture, personal actions, human rights, and just about every other facet of human life that you can imagine. If an atheist feels that they don’t need to know about religion because they don’t believe in it, they clearly are not looking at the real world and the role that religion plays in the real world. You don’t have to agree with something to recognize how important it is in the lives of others and how much more effective you will be at navigating the world if you have a basic understanding of it.
Because of my background in religion, I am more easily able to converse with religious individuals about their beliefs. I like to think I’m less judgmental than I would be otherwise. I’ve thought deeply about the motivations that people have for holding the beliefs they do and what benefits religion brings. I can be a more compassionate individual because of my background in religious studies, as well as understand what’s happening around me more thoroughly. Who wouldn’t want this?
Written by Olivia James