Can You Help This College-Bound Atheist? May 12, 2009

Can You Help This College-Bound Atheist?

Reader Jesika is an atheist who will be starting college next year.

She has a question about courses that some of you may be able to help with:

… My question is that I am about to go to college and I was just wondering if any universities offered courses for atheists. I want my major to be in gay and lesbian studies and I have found schools that specialize in that particular subject, but I haven’t been able to find any courses which focus at all on the idea of atheism (even remotely).

I don’t know of any college courses on Freethought History… but I’m sure any Philosophy class would be good for Jesika. In fact, a school with a good Philosophy department might be just what she needs.

Any suggestions on courses she should look into? Philosophers she should study? (David Hume comes to mind.)

Another question: If you want to learn more about atheism, would it be better to go to a school where atheists are the norm? Or would it be better to go somewhere in the Bible Belt where you’d be in the minority, but you could potentially make more of an impact?

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  • NikolaHalcyone

    I am a religious studies major at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in (duh) Omaha, Nebraska.
    Not only is there a course on Atheism offered (with required reading including “The God Delusion”), but the HEAD OF THE DEPARTMENT is an Atheist (I’m almost positive he’s ‘out’, but I haven’t asked him personally).
    I haven’t taken the class yet, but I hear it’s pretty fantastic.

  • I’d say, don’t study atheism, study what you are interested in and see how religion and irreligion play out within that field. If you’re interested in gay and lesbian studies, then major in that (unless you come across something that looks better).

    As a field of academic study, atheism is likely to come up in areas where religion is of interest. Take a minor in, or electives in, history, anthropology, philosophy, political science, or sociology for areas which touch on the role of religion and its absence in society, but you’re likely to find these as one facet of a larger subject rather than a field of study within itself.

    In terms of philosophers to study, Hume is of course a good one, but you’d want to also at least touch on Kant, Bentham, and Nietzsche. Having a background in political philosophy, I’d steer you towards Rawls and Nozick as well.

    And if I can be forgiven for shamelessly linking to myself, I have some other advice for a young person in your position which may be of interest to you as well.

  • Shelly

    Look for a good English department that teaches various mythology courses – see that the Bible is included and taught as a part of our mythological heritage. My atheism solidified when I learned about Gilgamesh and Noah together in one mythology class.

  • Bob

    What will a person do with a degree in Gay and Lesbian studies? Or any liberal arts degree other than teach with it? I would say reconsider your major into something employers need. Make your college time count with skills useful after college. Dont’ focus on your athiest and social issues as majors in college. Get the degree then get out there and make your changes and fight your battles in the real world where it counts.

  • stephangoodwin

    I would advise you to take some comparative religions courses and some biology courses. People will want to take you to task for not knowing their religion and for not knowing evolution as an atheist, so it is helpful to have both.

    Also, I find it odd that there should be a class on atheism, as it is not a philosophy or creed in any way. Would you expect a lot of courses and generic theism? I would suggest looking for courses in humanist or freethought studies.

  • stephangoodwin


    Not everyone wants a traditional job, and such an undergrad degree could lead to a lot of graduate degrees of use like public health or public relations.

    And heck, what’s wrong with teaching?

  • I was going to say pretty much the same thing as Bob, but I was going to be slightly less polite about it.

  • Abner Cadaver II

    I personally like Epicureanism, which Hume and others have written a good deal on. Marcus Aurelius is interesting particularly for his thoughts on morality without an afterlife. Thomas Paine was probably the most forward-thinking of his contemporaries.

    (And don’t mind Bob and Joel.)

  • College in Bible Belt

    From someone who attends college in the bible belt, I would like to bring up that there really is not that much of an impact to be made. Atheism represents a sizable group of students majoring in basic sciences or philosophy already. Most drop religion naturally a year or two into college due to the natural doubt they always had in their mind and because they don’t have parents forcing church every Sunday.

    However, it is important for atheists to be at these colleges. The tipping point for me to leave religion was when I realized one of my good friends was an atheist–nice to know they aren’t all evil like the general public thinks. In turn, a few of my friends are now atheists and agnostics after hearing that I was an atheist.

  • Erp

    Check out both philosophy (ethics courses in particular) and religious studies (note whether they teach from a variety of viewpoints, e.g., Buddhist as well as Christian). It is possible that what you want can only be done in independent study so you need to figure out whether there are professors willing to guide that independent study.

  • lamb

    Being a biologist I agree with stephangoodwin about the biology courses, maybe even some astrobiology (Carl Sagan is my hero). Studying evolution and the immense size of the universe helped make me realize how truly small but special we really are.

    The philosophy and mythology courses are great ideas – maybe a course on classical civilizations to give you an idea of the backdrop that Christianity came out of. I’ll never forget my classical studies professor rolling his eyes and saying (of the Virgin Mary) “Understand, back then it wasn’t uncommon to blame pregnancy on God.”

  • I’ve just come across this site and it’s great! 🙂 As for the college-bound atheist in need, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of specific courses, but I would definitely suggest taking philosophy courses of any kind.

  • Hank Bones

    I would look into culinary schools. See if any have courses on cooking with human infants or puppies.

    Really though, just take what interests you. My freshman philosophy course was an important step in my deconversion from Lutheran to atheist. That would be a good place to start. I would also suggest a history of religion course. Learning the context that religions originally started in gives you a bit more of their flavor and provides an interesting way to argue against their validity.

  • Christina

    Indiana University-Bloomington has a lot of academic goings-on related to human sexuality, which you can now minor in. The Kinsey Institute is here. We have a growing Gender Studies department. And I think our Religious Studies major (which I majored in) is ranked #1 (according to whom/what I don’t know). I loved the Religious Studies courses at IU – and I hate school. There is a course called “Theism, Atheism, and Existentialism”. There is a large GLBT community here, too.

  • Mathematics and Physics? 🙂

  • Chelsea

    UC Irvine had a few atheist related courses while I was there, in the history department, surprisingly enough. I would not recommend anyone should go there for that reason, though.

  • Christina

    Forgot to add, IU has an individualized major program, so you could self-design a major in GLBT studies.

    I wanted to say something about the encouragement on this board to major in something that will make you employable. On the one hand, I thought, don’t sell out for money! On the other, I regret that I didn’t combine my humanities-related studies with something “practical” – with creativity and motivation, doing both is possible.

  • llewelly

    … I haven’t been able to find any courses which focus at all on the idea of atheism …

    The atheist conspiracy keeps the atheism major safely hidden under the name ‘Evolutionary Biology’ . I understand evolutionary biologists also promote the gay agenda.

  • I agree with Transplanted Lawyer. As a college student who’s just finishing up her degree (I graduate in a month omfg), it is so much better to take classes in subjects that interest you. I’m a political science major, and I’m currently (as in I have it open on my computer right now) writing my thesis on religion, government, and secularism. Really interesting stuff. Religion and lack thereof are things that can come up in pretty much any field. Check out philosophy and religious studies classes, check out some science classes… basically, take things that interest you. As my highly successful political theory professor has frequently said, do what you love, and the money will follow. (Read: screw all those people who tell you to take classes and majors with an eye on what will look good on a job application.)

    I know DePaul University (my school) offers a Women’s and Gender studies major, which would both be right up your alley, it sounds like. And if you do end up going to DePaul, let me know– I’m most likely going to be working there after graduation. Good luck with your college search!

  • Elise

    Funny, I though for sure someone would have mentioned UC Berkeley by now…but since not, I guess here’s my chance to plug my school. I’m a double major in Middle Eastern Studies and Biology with a minor in Theater (and yes, I am sick of people telling me “what will you do with THAT”…just ignore those people, they aren’t very imaginative)

    Our LGBT program is only a minor as I understand it, but there’s a pretty good Women’s and Gender Studies major and of course the design-your-own-major option. There’s a big LGBT community (hmm, proximity to San Francisco…) And, basically, it’s the best school ever. I don’t want to fill up too much space on how awesome it is, so feel free to get in touch with me for detailed info.

    Also, honestly, I think the best place to be an atheist is at a diverse school where people have lots of different religious (and cultural, economic, etc) backgrounds. Based on the (limited) time I’ve spent in the Bible Belt, I think I would die there. Education is about challenging yourself, but I personally benefit from multiple perspectives, and the overwhelming, well, lack of diversity out there would be unbearably frustrating for a critical thinker.

  • I was under the impression that courses in college aren’t for certain people. Courses are about things. A class on atheism is no more for atheists than a class on Greek mythology is for Zeus followers.

    You want my advice? Take ’em all. The 14 year plan worked for me, and it can work for you! (Results may vary, some of the contents of this post are entirely tongue in cheek and should be read in that context. If you experience an epiphany lasting more than 4 hours seek medical attention immediately.)

  • Epistaxis

    Look for philosophy of science, or history of science.

    What will a person do with a degree in Gay and Lesbian studies? Or any liberal arts degree other than teach with it? I would say reconsider your major into something employers need. Make your college time count with skills useful after college. Dont’ focus on your athiest and social issues as majors in college. Get the degree then get out there and make your changes and fight your battles in the real world where it counts.

    You couldn’t be more wrong, especially since this sounds like an intellectually curious young woman. A four-year college isn’t a trade school, and you’re not just there to get a magic certificate that qualifies you for certain jobs. You go to college to be educated, not trained. Actually, it’s unfortunate that so many employers expect people to have college degrees even though the experience doesn’t give them useful job skills (nor should it).

    Actually, I’ll give you one thing: “Gay and Lesbian Studies,” like most other things ending in “Studies,” isn’t a real major. It’s a nice idea to bring together professors who work in that area, but they make a mistake by creating an undergrad program around it. Much better to pick a more general program with a good solid backing, like English or History, and specialize by taking all the same classes you would have in G&LS. Just because there’s a major named after what you want to do doesn’t mean you should enroll in it – the name doesn’t count for anything, but the support offered by the department does.

  • Frankly any course where you have to think or reason from first principles (as opposed to just blindly accept arguments from authority) is an atheist course. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Find your bliss. As some others have said, college is a place to be educated, As a college graduate, you will have proven that you could master those challenges, therefore, you can master whatever comes afterwards.

  • Frank

    my advice is don’t pick a school for one course, and I’d be shocked if you could find more than one course on atheism at any school in the country. You can always read about whatever you want on your own, or even do an independent study if you want formal credit and interaction with a professor.

    I would definitely suggest anyone study science rather than philosophy or english or something. Learning to think rationally and scientifically is the most important thing you can get out of a college education, and philosophers are pretty bad at that. Psychology could be a good major, as many schools will offer courses on psychology of sexuality and/or psychology of religion.

  • AnnaZed

    Why not shoot for the moon? Go to Oxford, read Wittgenstein there:

    It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I though of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him. (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984]

  • Tom N

    I’d say any Jesuit University. I went to Fordham U and am pretty sure the Jesuits are actually atheists who are trying to infiltrate Catholicism from the inside. I have wonderful memories of my sophomore “religion” class in which we learned that the New Testament was written to be the most digestible propaganda at the Council of Nicea (think that’s the one). Anyway, if anyone promotes free thought, it’s them. I entered college considering myself Catholic and left as a missionary atheist.

    -Tom N

  • Ditto what Tom N said. I graduated from a Jesuit university, and their very nuanced theology classes are part of the reason I’m an atheist today.

  • Sam

    Admittedly I didnt read all the above comments but here is some advice from a philosophy major: study philosophy.

    Not necessarily as a major, but do take some basics. It will help provide you with the arsenal you will need for atheist arguments. General courses will be fun, but a course on Ethics which includes some ethical theory is a must. The hardest thing for theist to get past is “bible = morality.” having the knowledge on ethical theory will help significantly.

    A classical philosophy course is good for understanding how bronze age people thought (a lot of them were really smart, just no one listened to them).

    A very important course to take is philosophy of science. Understanding empiricism is a very important part of many atheist claims. Whenever you say “there is no evidence for gods” you should understand and be able to explain why that is important.

    One of the best things I did was take some religion courses. A great ‘argument’ against theists is simply explaining to them what their religion is about. If you set forth an understanding of their beliefs, they are more willing to listen to your reasoned arguments for why faith/religion fails.

    Lastly, SCIENCE! Science is awesome and has become the core for neoatheism. Best to know what the heck you are talking about.

    Good luck in college! its the best four years of your life, enjoy!

  • Kc

    In addition to all the great suggestions above, try sociology and psychology classes. It brings into perspective how people behave and why.

    That could be a foundation on why religion is as popular as it is, and why it’s hard for its followers to challenge something that they value so greatly.

  • medussa

    I minored in sciences (biology and human anatomy), which gave me a good basic understanding of how evolution is a viable and probable and elegant explanation for the origin of life on earth. But the real excitement came when I studied astronomy and statistics, and saw how both made any type of godlike creature very unlikely.
    However, I decided to follow my other interests and majored in Women’s Studies. While it’s not directly marketable (as per Bob’s suggestion), all my employers have valued my critical thinking skills, and my research and writing skills were significantly enhanced as well.

    And has been already stated, atheism applies to any subject. In this case, you could focus on the amount of damage done to women historically due to religion, or in modern day for that matter. You could focus on the women who stood strong against religious superstition, or those who influenced and advanced religion.

    Trurly, you need to follow your heart and your interests. Learn as much as you can, and you will then find a way to market the skills you’ve learned.
    Have fun!

  • I would take classes in philosophy, religion, history and political science to get a better sense of atheism. Since atheism isn’t a belief system, but merely a lack of belief in god(s), it seems to me that any study of the subject must be contextual. For example, here in the U.S. topics of particular concern to atheists (and many others) include separation of church and state, science education (evolution), gay rights and other issues related to public policy. History and philosophy of religion classes can give us insights into how religion evolved, why people believe and what roles it has played in society.

    Philosophy also helps one develop critical thinking skills as one explores issues of ethics, aesthetics, communication, etc. from a variety of viewpoints. Moral philosophy in particular allows one to explore how to make ethical determinations based on the merits rather than the word of a deity. And logic helps one learn how to spot logical fallacies and understand which arguments are sound and which are not.

    Such classes will help develop the communications and critical reasoning skills needed to excel in any number of fields–not just teaching. (I majored in Philosophy at Colby College in Maine and am now a Web Designer and marketer. Colby was pretty secular and most of the philosophy faculty were Quakers.)

    I’d study the course catalogs at the schools that interest to see which have strong programs in these areas, even if they don’t have a class in “atheism” itself. Pick a school that has an active atheist/agnostic/secular humanist/freethinkers group, then most of all, choose a school that suits your personality. Best wishes.

  • Bacopa

    Look for a school that offers a Logic III class focusing on either computation and metatheory or modal logic and you will have found a school with a good population of atheists.

    Remember: ennumeration theorem, base case, and for every n if n has P n+1 has P is the way to go.

  • Has anyone mentioned Anthropology? I got more out of that course than any other I took.

  • Jen

    I second a good anthro class, and offer that Philosophy classes are awesome, and that you should take a class in Ethics. I took Ethics with an awesome lady who, as a good Ethics teacher should, never shared her own personal views. The class was fantastic because it approached the question of what we should do and looked at facts rather than religious tradition.

  • Mark

    If you ask me, I would say that studying atheism or gay and lesbian studies in college is way too limited. College is a place to study the whole world and not just one tiny part of it. If you are interested in the behavior of people then study sociology, psychology, biology, anthropology, philosophy, world history and world religions. If your real agenda is to advance the political cause of atheists and/or homosexuals then you will need this same broad background to be effective.

  • Astrophysics. It’s usually on the first page of a prospectus so it’s easy to find and looking out at the universe stops you contemplating the petty little religions that we humans are so fond of making up. Plus you get to play with telescopes and that’s always fun.

  • Erik

    *Comparative religion – even if the course doesn’t have atheism on the syllabus, you can be the person drawing correlations between the beliefs to show they all come from the same early myths and none of them make sense.
    *Metaphysics – Arguing the nature of being and the universe. Will certainly study materialism and those who believe the mind is firmly rooted in the brain, not a soul.
    *Logic – learn how to form strong arguments and the argument fallacies others make so you can point out where fundy arguments are unsound.
    *A few sciences with lab requirements. Give yourself a firm rooting in the scientific method so you really understand how evidence is collected and slowly coalesces into scientific fact, e.g. how the massive amount of evidence for evolution shows it is correct, and the error in knowledge of scientific terminology when people say evolution is “just a theory.” Biology and psychology are good departments to look at for the non-scientifically-abled folk, physics and chem for some really hard science with math.

  • Jason R

    Social Psychology, or Social Services might be good majors. With minor in Ancient and medieval history so you can learn how religions evolve through history. Its really quite amazing to see how religions evolve and die due to social and political changes.

    The Social Services and social psychology ‘might’ put you into a position professionally to help Gays and Lesbians. But I can’t say for sure since I’m a computer professional.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    California State University, Sacramento has a course on atheism. It’s taught by Matt McCormick. It is more philosophical than historical.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    NikolaHalcyone: I am a religious studies major at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in (duh) Omaha, Nebraska. Not only is there a course on Atheism offered (with required reading including “The God Delusion”)…

    I’m looking over the UNO religious studies cousre offerings and I don’t see a course with “atheism” in the title. There are two course, 4300 and 8306 entitled “Existentialism and Religious Thought.” Is that what you’re talking about?

    Is the course you mentioned philosophical, historical, or cultural? If it’s philosophical, there are better titles they could chose than TGD.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    From someone who attends college in the bible belt, I would like to bring up that there really is not that much of an impact to be made. Atheism represents a sizable group of students majoring in basic sciences or philosophy already. Most drop religion naturally a year or two into college due to the natural doubt they always had in their mind and because they don’t have parents forcing church every Sunday.

    I disagree with this. I majored in science, and indeed stopped believing and dropped out of religion after a year or so. (Which has nothing to do with anyone forcing me to attend services.) It is fairly easy for a scientifically-minded person to reject “organized religion,” but that’s not the same as getting a taste of the deep philosophical issues, and coming to know the history of the subject. So, many years later, when I had the opportunity to attend a university course on atheism, I jumped at the opportunity, and I am glad to have had it.

    For example, how many discussions about morality have you encountered where participants were not aware of the divine command dilemma presented in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue around 2400 years ago? It cuts the ground out from under theistic ethics, but the common man on the street is entirely unaware of this.

    Young people have incredible opportunities today in access to information, thanks to Teh Intertubes, so it is possible to find your way to such information without formal study.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Or, as another example, how many of you have heard of the Carvaka (various spellings, including Charvaka) school of thought in India? There is an atheist tradition going back 3000 years. And how many of you have heard of Charles Bradlaugh? Baron D’Holbach? The history of atheism remains largely untold. You are fortunate to live in an age where you can learn about these things through the Internet, but it would be nice to have more courses available.

  • I once took a biology course that examined “weird things” like Bigfoot and the loc ness monster. (It is improbable that they exist because their environments can not supply those creatures with enuff territory or food-one of the many reasons.) We used the Shermer book (As I recall) “How/why people believe weird things.” We also went over prana/chi, astrology and UFO’s. If one learns the critical thinking skills, as well as the scientific method, used in a class like that then they can apply the same method to debunk religion or CAM.

    Coolio, out, Kriss

  • Jesika,

    You’re in a really exciting but sometimes scary part of your life. You have some important decisions to make, so take your time and be honest with yourself about what you want, but on the other hand, look at all the support you have, just in the form of four dozen people at current count giving advice. And here’s mine:

    1) Focus your studies on another subject, not just atheism. You seem focused on making a difference, which is great, so if you want to make a career out of activism, I would recommend law, education, or political science. We need more atheist lawyers and politicians!

    2) Go to the best school you can get into for that career. This means both in terms of the program itself as well as the networking opportunities. Yes, you’re young and not sure exactly what you want to do, but if you decide to change later, you can always transfer, and schools are allowed to be good at more than one thing.

    3) Don’t let the location of the school influence you overmuch. If the school happens to be in the Bible Belt or Red America, GREAT! Get to work out in the community! If not, you can be a part of the ever-growing atheist network.

    Good luck Jesika, and don’t forget to have fun and report back to us. -Mike

  • Brooke

    I would caution against going down too narrow a course. You will want to get as many “sides” of information you can – college is for broading your horizons! A friend of mine took an introductory LGBT issues course at UW-Madison (genarally a great school with lots of diversity) and was chastised for NOT being gay! How does that work to further equality?! You’ll find narrow-minded people in every subject.

    Take a range of courses, think critically about everything you’re taught, and most of all – enjoy yourself!

  • Codswallop


    By now, you may have discerned that atheism is not one single thing. Study anything based on evidence and reason, in other words, a reality-based curriculum. Atheism is about what is; religion is about what is not.

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