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.

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