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Every academic field laments ignorance of its area of study. And so teachers of religion decry religious illiteracy. But did anyone ever think to bemoan irreligious illiteracy?

Worldwide, the history of irreligion, non-religion, skepticism, agnosticism, atheism is absent from all curricula—from kindergarten through the Ph.D. It’s likely that most people wend their way through years of formal education and never read about the history of doubt.

We may become aware of ancient figures like Buddha and Mahavira and Lao Tzu, but not their atheism. We may be introduced to ancient Greeks and Romans, but not to thirty or so skeptical thinkers among them. Of those Greeks and Romans we do get to read, like Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Cicero, we aren’t exposed to their critiques of religion. And we certainly don’t learn that their writings were suppressed for a thousand years with the ascendancy of Christianity in the fifth century.

Similar omissions occur for later periods in history. Our education does not expose us to the irreligious writings of Meslier, Gibbon, Hobbes, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, D’Holbach, Franklin, Jefferson, Allen, Madison, Shelly, Bentham, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Evans, Wollstonecraft, Rose, Stanton, Mill, Freud, Marx, Besant, Ingersoll, Bradlaugh, Twain—and hundreds more. We are assigned Thomas Hardy, but not his poem “God’s Funeral.” We are told to read a few Mark Twain titles, but not his “Thoughts of God” or “The Mysterious Stranger.” (All these authors are available to read in the edited collections I mention below.)

Even a person with a Ph.D. in religion—who studies religion formally for at least ten years after high school to earn a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.—probably never gets exposed to a lecture or a book on irreligion and may not be made aware of a trove of irreligious writings dating from 500 BCE on. I myself read hundreds of books about religion during my college and graduate school years, and on no occasion was I offered a bibliography on irreligion by any professor. I only stumbled upon the vast literature of unbelief somewhat accidentally. (A funny story for another time.)

Most people wend their way through years of formal education and never read about the history of doubt.

As far as the understanding of religion goes, the omission of irreligion keeps us from a fuller grasp of the phenomenon of religion. And our ignorance of irreligion prevents us from gaining a richer understanding of humanity.

Would there be a similar exclusion of information while learning political science? Could a student pace through ten years of formal study after high school and only ever hear about and read about one side of the political spectrum and never about the other side, even though the other side produced equally eloquent defenses and critiques? Such a gap in education is unthinkable for political science.

It’s not as if irreligious writings through the centuries were composed by lesser minds with inferior literary gifts. Irreligious writings were often exquisitely tooled and aphoristically jolting. Many of the authors are high in the pantheon of Western intellectuals, and some are famous. Even the lesser lights, the unknowns, are talented writers.

Then why the absence of irreligion from various courses of study?

Partly, it’s the exclusion of religion itself from curricula that’s to blame. Public schools in the USA approach the study of religion cautiously because of the separation of church and state. But there are aspects of religion that must appear in public school curricula. The Reformation, for instance, is in all history books.

A reason irreligion is left out of university curricula is that religion in the university setting has always had the whiff of advocacy on behalf of religion, as if no one wants to ‘put religion down.’ The modern academic study of and teaching of religion (less than 100 years old) embraced its task almost as sponsorship of religion and offered, what can only be described as, religion appreciation classes similar to art appreciation classes. In lectures, professors almost bragged about the religion under review, even if the religion under review was not one the professor actually believed. (Unclasp that psychological buckle, if you can.)

Whatever the reasons irreligious writings are not in our curricula, someone needs to rectify this gap in formal education. Exposure to the literature of unbelief is especially necessary for young students majoring in religious studies and young scholars pursuing advanced degrees in the study of religion. Religious studies departments, and even theology departments, need professional scholars of irreligion on staff. And young scholars need to go into this field.

Someone needs to do the difficult labor of researching the immense literature of irreligion—hundreds of irreligious books of course, but also stacks and stacks of irreligious articles published in dozens of 19th-century and early 20th-century irreligious magazines and journals. Probably next to no one has gazed upon these articles since they were written. These articles are collected at libraries—in London, in Oxford, in Pasadena, and the US Library of Congress, among others. Bringing these writings to a larger readership will require hours and hours of work, perfect labor for a young Ph.D. candidate.

University courses about a single religion, as, say, a class on Judaism, need not add irreligious books to the class syllabus. But courses on world religions or Western religion should include a book or a long reading and a couple of lectures on irreligion as part of the story of religion in the West—a West that has become increasingly secular decade by decade.

University courses wholly devoted to the history of irreligion should be on offer in every university with a religious studies department or a theology department. The subject of irreligion does not have to be taught with any kind of advocacy for unbelief. Just read primary sources and discuss them.

I recommend book collections of primary writings collected by these eight editors: Gaskin (my favorite), Stein, Haught, Knight, Blanshard, Gaylor (all 19th-century women skeptics), Joshi, Hitchens. I would also suggest affordable new editions be published of out-of-print volumes in the history of freethought by J. M. Robertson (stellar), George W. Foote, George Jacob Holyoake (invented the word ‘secularism’), Chapman Cohen, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, among others.

We should also invite filmic documentaries of the history of irreligion.

Any type of illiteracy is troubling to the literate. If you are bothered by religious illiteracy, why not be bothered by irreligious illiteracy? If you’re worried that youngsters have never read St. Paul, why not also be concerned that they’ve never read Lucretius? 

Nineteenth-century religious scholars dubbed our species homo religiosus, humanity the religious, because they thought humanity had always been religious and always would be. That’s an inaccurate view of humans. A large minority is not religious. It’s not a trivial number, maybe a billion worldwide, with tens of millions in the West. And though it’s right to become better aware of humanity’s religious impulses, we should certainly learn about the alternate view too. As students of humanity, to get a fuller picture, shouldn’t we also become better aware of homo irreligiosus, humanity the irreligious?

J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...

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