When I came to Auburn in 1984, I was invited to a luncheon by the Auburn University School of Nursing. At the time I came to AU as Chair of the Department of Religion. In a conversation with some of the nursing faculty, a professor asked me the question, “Have you found a Church yet?”
Coming from the New York metropolitan area, I felt taken back with this question. As a diehard Yankee, I did not realize how important religion was in the Heart of Dixie. I responded to the question by saying that “I’m an atheist.” One person dropped her spoon and several had a look of horror on their faces. I knew I made a faux pas. In my experience up north, however, posing such a question was tantamount to asking someone if they had false teeth or wore underwear! Over time, I figured out what they meant by such a question is this: namely, if you don’t have a church, why not consider joining the church I attend.
Atheists deny the existence of God, whereas agnostics are unsure whether God exists or not. Agnostics would say “O God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” Today, there are millions of people who have no religious affiliation. They are called “nones,” that is, they have no religious affiliation. In this matter, I remember my grandfather who did not believe in organized religion. He thought that the clergy were there to shake folks down for money.
There are millions of Americans who have no religious affiliation. About 78 percent of these “nones” have been brought up in a particular denomination as a child, but as adults identify themselves as lacking a particular religious tradition. Some of my students make a distinction between spirituality and religion. They say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” meaning that “I have no connection to an institutional church, synagogue or mosque,” yet they consider themselves spiritual in some way or fashion.
According to a 32-question survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust on August 21, 2019, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than nones. In this survey, Jews had the highest score, answering 18.7 of the 32 questions asked about religion; atheists had a score of 17.9 percent;, agnostics 17.0 percent; evangelicals, 15.5 percent; Roman Catholics 14.0 percent; and nones 11.4 percent correct. Surprisingly, atheists and agnostics know more about religion and the U.S. Constitution than most other religious groups. See Dalia Fahmy, “Among religious ‘nones,’ atheists and agnostics know the most about religion,” Pew Charitable Trust, August 21, 2019.
I would point out that there are thousands of professors who belong to the American Academy of Religion (AAR). They teach religious studies, yet roughly several hundred identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or nones. The AAR is the largest and most prestigious organization dealing with religion in the world.
Many of these scholars do first-rate research, are excellent teachers, and have high ethical standards. Some of these professors find little evidence that a supreme being exists. Others cannot understand how there can be so much suffering in the world if there’s a God who is all-powerful and omniscient. How can there be a God who allows good honest people to die of Covid-19? Still others see a disconnect between science and religion.
I have taught religious studies in high schools in NYC and Pittsburgh, in a major seminary in upstate New York, at a liberal arts college in Albany, New York for a decade and at AU for 30 years.
Many students have struggled with their faith. A few years ago, I received a letter from a former student who is now a corporate attorney. She felt bad that when she attended AU: other students seemed to be perfectly at ease with their Christian beliefs, but she struggled with believing in God. She then quoted back to me verbatim the words I spoke to her 25 years ago that she found comforting. I told her to follow her conscience as she saw fit, and that she would eventually see the light. She wound up becoming a convert to Catholicism.
One never knows how one’s words can be both powerful and life-changing. I have always endeavored to take time out to listen to my students. Perhaps that’s what called me to be a teacher. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.