I often get asked why I would be interested in teaching biblical studies if I’m an atheist; sometimes the question is a bit hostile, along the lines of “What would *you* know? You don’t even believe in it”! Or “Why should anyone listen to you if you’re just trying to disprove the Bible?” At other times the questions seem fairly genuine. Recently, for example, I’ve gotten these two:
Why do you bother continuing to teach any aspects of Biblical studies since you have decided that you are an atheist-agnostic? In short, what is the point?
Can you explain something to me? Why should I send my son to study in your department when you don’t believe the book which your program is built on?
At first I thought these were hostile, but I corresponded with both of the people and I don’t think they were. Let me answer them separately.
The first one is easier, though I get it a lot. It seems a puzzle to so many people that anyone could be interested in teaching something they don’t believe in. On one level that makes sense to me to: the Bible is a book of faith, and so if you don’t have the faith, why should you be interested in it? On the other hand, the question completely overlooks what a university is. It is a place of learning, where professors who are experts teach about all sorts of things they don’t “believe” in.
University education is not about instilling beliefs. We’re not a brainwashing society or a religious cult. We’re an institution of higher learning. Students have four years to devote themselves to learning at a high level. Many of simply them don’t appreciate it because they are way too young to realize how amazing the opportunity is (and since it’s their first time outside of the house and parental rule, other amazing opportunities seem, well, more alluring). Later, when they hit their thirties, if they have any intellectual curiosity at all, they often begin to realize what they missed.
My view, to simplify it a bit, is that a university education is meant not to mold minds to think one way or the other but to convey masses of knowledge and, yet more important, teach students how to think. There is obviously a lot more involved, but that’s at the heart of it. University professors all have a narrow specialty within a wider field. Or subfields within subfields. My wider field is Religious Studies; within that: Christianity; within that: ancient Christianity; within that New Testament/earliest Christianity; within that … within that, the specific things I actually do, from manuscript studies to historical Jesus to Christian apocrypha and so on. Professors teach their fields or the subfields within subfields within subfields because they are important.
In the humanities especially, thinking something is important does not mean “believing” in it or “practicing” it. Plenty of people teach Marxist theory without being Communists, or 20th century German history without being Nazis, or criminology without being mass murderers.
In Religious Studies, just in my department, we have experts on Sumerian (the language), Ancient Greek philosophy, archaeology of ancient Israel, rabbinic Judaism, early modern Christianity in Spain, Medieval Islam, modern Japanese Buddhism, 19th century American religion, Christianity in the Caribbean, modern Jewish philosophical thought, Religion and American law, and lots more.
To be a world class expert on Buddhism in Nepal (we have one) you don’t have to be a Buddhist; to be an expert on 14th century Islam you don’t have to be a Muslim; to be an expert on ancient Hebrew you don’t have to be a Jew. And if you’re an expert on the New Testament you don’t have to be a Christian.
We don’t try to convince people to adopt a religion. We teach about religion the way our colleagues teaching about ancient languages, or philosophy, or literature, or history, or sociology, or anthropology. In fact we have experts in all these particular fields in our department, but they focus on these areas with respect to *religion* in particular.
And so why bother to teach about the Bible? The same reason other scholars in the university teach Homer, or Shakespeare, or Toni Morrison. It is great and historically massively significant literature. There are over two billion people in the world today who believe in the Bible on some level, and wo try, on some level, to follow it. Can someone seriously ask if this is an important something to know about, whether you’re one of the two billion or not? The Bible has transformed our entire society and culture, and is by far the most important book in the history of our civilization. And so there’s a question about whether it’s a significant and interesting topic of intellectual inquiry? Really??
As to the second question. Why should this guy send his son to take my class? I wrote him to explain and it turns out we had a very nice exchange.
My first response to him was that he shouldn’t send his son to *any* classes! His son a young adult with his own intellectual interests. And it’s his education. Let him choose. (If anyone doubts the wisdom of this, then rewatch Dead Poets’ Society. I saw it again last week for the heck of it, and it’s *fantastic*, still).
The fellow replied, “It’s his education, but I’m paying the bill!” Fair enough. So I replied, “Look I will never ever be speaking to your son, but if I did, I would tell him that he should follow his passions rather than follow the money.” And then I explained why education was really about pursuing intellectual curiosity and passion. This fellow seemed to get it. But it’s a reality that almost all parents simply want what’s best for their kids, and he didn’t see why taking a class about the Bible from an atheist would make any sense.
As you might realize, his question itself didn’t actually make sense. He seemed to think that a “Religious Studies” department is “built on” the Bible. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bible is a slice of my slice of the department. My slice of the department is Ancient Mediterranean Religions, and the New Testament is just a slice of that.)
But beyond that, it’s interesting that people who critique “non-believers” who teach the Bible don’t critique others, in religious studies, on the same grounds. This person would definitely NOT want his son to take a course on Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or whatever by someone who was passionately devoted to that religion and was trying to convert his son into it. Then why the New Testament? Wanting only believers to teach it has nothing to do with education, but only with personal religious belief. But universities are not about religious belief, they are about education.
And as it turns out the New Testament taught by an atheist is in some ways the *perfect* university course in the humanities, especially here in the South. If one of the ultimate goals (*THE* ultimate goal) of higher education is to get a student to think, what works better than having them in a course where they hear things that are not just pieces of new information, but information that runs completely counter to what they’ve always heard and thought, so that it brings them up short and *forces* them to think about it and figure out how to deal with it? The point is not to compel them to change their mind but to get them to work it out, intelligently. And if people can learn how to work one thing out, they can learn to work other things out and bingo: on the path to a thoughtful existence, a lifetime of reasoning, reflecting, communicating – a far better life than the thoughtless existence of a couch potato.