Teaching the Unbelief Belief

As anyone who has seen students selling their souls in exchange for candy to the Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists Club on Ring Road knows, secularism is on the rise. UC Irvine’s religious studies department, as well as the religious studies departments of other colleges, offers courses on atheism, agnosticism and secular beliefs. Recently, Pitzer College in Southern California has developed an entire major devoted to Secularism, which will debut this fall.

While census statistics show approximately 15 percent — and counting — of Americans identify themselves as non-religious, the U.S. is nowhere near as secular as other parts of the world. According to Dr. Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, 40 percent of people in the Netherlands do not identify with any religion. The country with the highest percentage is the Czech Republic, with some 60 percent identifying as non-religious.

Secularism is definitely an important belief system to study, but as the secular and religious so often bash heads or intermingle, it seems odd to study either exclusively. Sure, only 15 percent of Americans claim that they are non-religious, but many Americans simply link themselves to a particular faith for tradition’s sake and don’t truly believe or practice that religion. These people walk a fine line between the two, living in a materialistic, each-for-themselves society that is at the same time a “Christian Nation.” The U.S. has a rather warped view of religion; faith traditions that are not some form of Christianity are often misunderstood or devalued, and a twisted, malformed version of Christianity has become embedded in our society’s structure (“love your neighbor as yourself” has been replaced with SUVs plastered with “Not of This World” decals barreling down the freeway at 95 mph). At the same time, those adhering to an organized religion often negatively portray many people whose beliefs align with secularism.

Whether one has belief or “unbelief” (a term often used in reference to atheism and agnosticism), it is still a stance on religion and a set of beliefs in itself. Even if one forgoes organized religion, they can’t completely escape the questions and doubts that plague all humanity regarding our existence and the meaning of life. One can claim that a hedonistic lifestyle is the purpose of living or state that it doesn’t matter how humans were originally created – but even those stances make up a form of personal religion.  If one believes pleasure is the ultimate good, wouldn’t that affect how they live, the same way someone who believes in Jesus would allow that belief to shape their behavior? The study of all religious stances might allow people to finally see distinctions within our society, and treat all viewpoints as valid.

As a religious studies major myself, I feel that learning about belief and unbelief side by side allows me to place both categories on an equal playing field. I know I’ve seen my own religion discussed in a horrendously misconstrued light time and time again by those who are secularists, and seen the members of my religion treat atheists and agnostics in the same unfair manner. Both believers and unbelievers tend to label the opposing party as uneducated, unintelligent or naïve in some way. Taking courses that allow both sides to be explored and represented allows students to bridge the gap between belief and unbelief.

In addition, if secularism is defined by the absence of organized religion, how can one separate it from religion in studies? The Secularism major at Pitzer will include courses such as “Bible as Literature,” and “God, Darwin and Design in America,” which sound to me like valuable courses for anyone studying religion as well.  Separating Secularism and religious studies just emphasizes the differences between belief and unbelief in a way that does nothing but drive people apart.

According to the UCI religious studies website, a degree in religious studies “prepares students for living in a multicultural society.” It seems antithetical of this goal, especially with the growing culture of Secularism, to define Secularism as a completely different entity independent than religion. There is already enough division between individuals of different faiths as it is; we don’t need to further separate the religious from the secular as well.

Julia McAlpine is a fourth-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at jmcalpin@uci.edu.