CHAPEL HILL -- The University of North Carolina is set to hire William Franklin Graham III as the founding director of what is believed to be the nation's first department of irreligious studies. Amidst campus-wide budget reductions and strategic program cuts, Dean Bernard Manakin of UNC's College of Arts and Sciences announced this bold new initiative: establishment of a Department of Irreligion.
Manakin says academia should view irreligious studies as a complement rather than a replacement for religious studies. "Departments of religion have long been an essential component of the academic array," said Manakin. "While a sociology or psychology of religion course here and there provides the opportunity to examine religious prejudice or religious superstitions, where better than a religion-department course on the Bible itself to dismantle its mythology?" asked Manakin.
“But, without a department of irreligion, we have had no place to formally study agnosticism, atheism or even unphilosophical unbelief, which was, we realized, a gaping hole in the curriculum,” said Manakin, a professor in the Department of Dramatic Art. "It was a deficiency in our intellectual array that could not continue to go unremedied -- even in these tough budgetary times," added Manakin.
Faith-based activists have been asking for decades for the Department of Religion to hire someone who believes something to teach there but to no avail.
"Of course, we could not hire someone who believes the Bible to teach the Bible. That would simply be wrong. We need people who can be objective about the document; obviously believers cannot do that," said Manakin.
One of the recent additions to UNC's board of trustees, Gilbert Aussenzeit, had encouraged the university to place Dr. Bart Ehrman, the current chair of the Department of Religion, as head of the new Department of Irreligion. "As one of America's leading unbelievers, I thought that Ehrman would be the perfect fit, but, boy, was I quickly disabused of that notion," said Aussenzeit, a businessman from Fuquay-Varina.
"As Chancellor [Holden] Thorp explained it to me, it's OK to have a physics professor who believes in Newton's laws of motion, or a chemistry prof who accepts the periodic table, but it doesn't work that way in the humanities. There's no way you can have a religion professor who is religious," said Aussenzeit.
With the new Department of Irreligion, there will finally be a formal place on campus for a devout Christian, according to Manakin. "What better place for a committed Christian within the academic venture than teaching courses on atheism and agnosticism? These are subjects upon which they are uniquely qualified to expound," said Manakin.
The university is planning a founding ceremony for the department early this fall when Graham will be formally installed to his post.
Graham, the son of noted evangelist Billy Graham, currently serves as the president and chief executive officer of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the international Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse.
Graham attended LeTourneau College (now LeTourneau University) from which he was expelled, received an associate's degree from Montreat-Anderson College (now Montreat College) and also earned a bachelor’s in business from Appalachian State University.
In related news, Bart Ehrman announced today that he was putting on hiatus his national book tour for his latest release, Forged: Writing in the name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, as he realizes now he is not certain who wrote his books.
"After looking at early manuscripts and comparing them to the published editions, I am not sure now who really wrote 'my' books," said Ehrman.
Gary D. Gaddy believes he heard Bart Ehrman speak in church once, but he can't be certain.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday April 1, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy