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In Defense of Religious Studies: A Response to PZ Myers

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers recently wrote an article in which he suggested that we remove all religious studies classes from education, because it’s “useless, distracting, and narrow”. Now as a religious studies major and someone thinking of going on in a religious studies program, I got a little pissy about this. Now why, you may ask, would a staunch atheist such as myself be so interested in studying religion?

I have a number of reasons for studying religion, but I also have some arguments against PZ’s response to the typical arguments: “I know what the usual argument would be: but every culture has a religion of some sort, it’s a human universal, people find it important and we ought to acknowledge it. So? Every human culture has parasites and diseases, so why don’t we have a mandatory weekly course in parasitology? It would be far more entertaining, interesting, and useful. What wouldn’t be quite so useful, though, is a course taught from the perspective of the malaria parasite, praising its role in shaping human civilizations for thousands of years, which is pretty much equivalent to what kids get in a “religious studies” class right now.”

First of all his argument is against religious studies classes as they are now, rather than what an ideal religious studies class could be and is in many contexts. Secondly, most public schools don’t have time for religious studies classes (just like they don’t have time for parasitology) and it’s generally something that only gets included in higher learning when people can differentiate their learning based on preference. But I’m still going to make an argument for mandatory religious studies classes, and I’m going to make the case that they’re more important than parasitology.

Religion is important not because it’s a human universal or because people find it important. It is important to study because it has direct, large impacts on the life of every human being on the planet. It impacts those of us who are atheist, raised atheist and will die atheist. It infiltrates our culture, out literature, our art, our history, our politics, and our philosophy. And if you want to be able to understand the human beings around you, their decision making process, or ANY of the topics that i mentioned previously, it is important to have a basic understanding of the theology and doctrine of a.the dominant religion of your culture and b.the major world religions. These are hugely important to being able to function as a human being who interacts largely with other human beings who are religious.

One of the most important elements of education is learning to understand the people around us and our place in society. We study history to learn how we got where we are, we study literature to understand the emotions and themes that we all share, we study different languages to be able to communicate with other people. Now there are a lot of people around us who are motivated by religion. Who act because of religious convictions. It does our children a disservice to never give them the tools to understand these people and their motivations.

In addition, I also think it’s extremely important to expose our children to the ideas of religion in an objective manner from early on so that they can begin to form their own opinions about religion. This would help them gain some perspective and struggle through the points of development that can be really difficult at times, like trying to understand their place and purpose in the world.

While we as atheists may agree that this theology or these beliefs are false or point to something that doesn’t actually exist, it’s still important that we understand their impact. We now have evidence that there is no biological marker of race, no physical, real, thing called race. However that does not negate the fact that it has a place in our culture, and that we need to develop a critical consciousness of it. I believe religion runs parallel to that in that it may not be “real” in a very physical sense, but it has real impacts.

Now I 100% agree with PZ that this should not be taught from the perspective of a particular religion, but it does exist, has large impacts, interacts with many other subjects we are expected to learn, and has important real-world applications. Much of this may be true of parasitology as well, but the difference is that we get basic parasitology in our basic biology and science classes. Rarely is religion as a historical and cultural artifact examine in history or literature.

And because philosophy, another major point of crossover with religion, is not included in most schools, the ability to examine ethical dilemmas and philosophical questions is rarely taught in schools at all. A discussion-based religious studies class would provide the opportunity for kids to begin to develop a sense of ethics, meaning, and philosophy, but would do so in such a way that they are allowed to explore and discuss these ideas for themselves. In addition, it would give them a place to learn about integrating disciplines to study a single phenomenon, because religious studies incorporates philosophy, theology, history, politics, and literature.
I had mandatory religious studies classes throughout my childhood because I went to a religious school. Many of them were BS because they were theological indoctrination, but those that weren’t were some of the most interesting and provocative classes I had ever taken because they required students to distance themselves from their religious perspective and discuss religion as an artifact. If we learn how to do this, we may learn how to improve religious and political discourse across the country.

Note: in the feature image, I am the octopus and PZ is the squid.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com


  1. February 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm —

    I love this.
    Featured image ftw.

  2. February 15, 2013 at 11:06 am —

    +1 for openness. That’s how atheists should be like, their roots lying with studying the religions! 😀

  3. February 23, 2013 at 11:37 am —

    I took a religious studies class in college and enjoyed it. While it focused more on studying the basics on major world religions rather than analyzing them, it helped me to learn to understand why religious cultures do certain things instead of just attack them because I don’t understand. This doesn’t mean I agree with religions. I disagree with many things done in the name of religion, but I also understand that there are different people within a single religion and not all of them agree with each other. It is that understanding which keeps me from making blanket statements out of anger.

  4. February 22, 2014 at 6:08 pm —

    Atheism is at its core a critique of religion, to claim atheists or P.Z. Myers in particular want to close down discussion on religion is the same as claiming fish are demanding to live in the open air.

    P.Z. Myers, asked a question “How about we stop pretending religion is an important academic subject at all?” This is not in anyway stipulating ‘Let’s just pretend that religion doesn’t exist at all.’ it is quite the opposite.

    If you read the post It is an open question which in fact is the reverse of what you are claiming P. Z. Myers is simply questioning the “forced religious indoctrination in …. schools”, In this case in Greek schools.

    P. Z. Myers determination religion is “literally useless, distracting, and narrow.” relates to religion being taught as a dogma of ‘truth’ and P. Z. Myers observes rightly “if religion is taught comparatively and objectively, it’s a good tool for breaking dogma.”

    P.Z. Myers is advocating religious studies as a ‘good’ just so long as such studies are carried out in a anthropological/philosophical framework which reflects on all religious codex – “world religions”.

    P.Z. Myers justifiably views singular religious studies on a specific religion in this case ‘Greek Orthodox’ “in schools” at the very least as a backdoor way of imposing religious dogma on young minds, possibly without any attempt on the part of the teachers to stipulate counter ethical constructs, versions of histories, etc applying to the same. Why just one religion in schools we are not talking about higher levels of learning here?

    Far from closing down the discussion if anyone reads his post will see P. Z. Myers is opening it up.

    “Many of them were BS because they were theological indoctrination” this is the very basis for P. Z. Myers argument even though you may believe you were able to ‘step’ back others are not so fortunate nor are the resultant possible victims of such indoctrination, particularly women, of the ‘one’ religious construct.

    You have completely misrepresented P. Z. Myers view even though you yourself accept his main premise for the argument.

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