I’m not religious. Never really have been. I went to church when I was younger, but that was because my parents went. I started forming my own thoughts on religion when I was around 11 years old, and it all didn’t make sense to me. Unfortunately, the first incarnation of my irreligiosity was militant atheism. Honestly, I think this is how many people start out with being non-religious. It feels like you’ve been told this lie your whole life and now you want everyone to know it’s a lie. Also, you see Christians trying to convert others, so why shouldn’t you try as well? Of course, when you do this you just come off as a douchebag. Eventually you realize how much of a colossal douche you are and you tone things down. You realize religion is a very personal experience, and you shouldn’t deny other people’s feelings. (Well, most people come to recognize this. Others (cough cough Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins cough cough) never move past the militant phase.)

That’s where I’m at now with religion. I consider myself non-religious (not a big fan of the word atheist or really any label, so I just say non-religious), but I acknowledge the truth of religion in other people’s experiences. It’s actually kind of important I acknowledge those experiences because it’s kind of the main thing I study because I’m a religious studies major.

Now, if you’re anything like the people that know me irl, you’re probably thinking, wtf. Why on Earth would someone who is non-religious choose to earn a religious studies degree? That’s a valid question, but I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I’d argue a sizable minority, if not even a majority, of people enrolled in religious studies programs at secular universities are not religious. I say this from personal experience, so it may not actually be true, but most of my professors and classmates are non-religious. That still doesn’t answer the question, however. Why are non-religious people earning religious studies degrees? I can’t speak for everyone, but I will give my personal reasons for doing so.

Before I was a religious studies major, I was studying journalism. The University of Missouri is known for its journalism program, and I thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Turns out, it isn’t. This article isn’t about why I quit the journalism school, so to give you a quick rundown, it’s because I chose journalism to tell people’s stories in an engaging and thoughtful way. That’s not what I was learning. Instead, I was learning how to adhere to strict guidelines and about how awesome journalism is. I wasn’t a big fan of the curriculum, and I didn’t think it’d help me achieve my goals. My disillusionment with my journalism education also occurred at the same time I took a class called “Religions of the World”. I chose this class because it’d seem like a good class to fulfill my humanities gen ed requirement, but it turned into so much more. I fell in love with the class and the stuff I was learning in it. The professor was engaging and hilarious, and I knew I wanted to take more classes taught by him. So, based on nothing but my experiences in this one class, I dropped journalism and switched my major to religious studies…

Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. It wasn’t just that one class. In fact, before I dropped my journalism degree, I was pursuing a dual-degree in religious studies and journalism. When I was planning my classes for next year, I realized how much of a commitment that was. To complete my degree in four years, I would’ve had to take 16 credit hours a semester, and I was not about that life. I wanted to actually enjoy my time in college. In addition, I had had some experience with the academic study of religion in previous classes, and I found myself really engaging with it, so I knew from previous experience and the “Religions of the World” class that I would enjoy delving more into religion. As someone who wanted to tell people’s stories, I thought a religious education would help me do that. Every civilization has had religion and spirituality as a component; religion is a part of the human story, and my classes helped me understand that. For me, earning a religious studies degree is an exercise in understanding. I want to understand people and their history, and I think one of the best ways to do that is by understanding religion.

That’s all well and good, but there’s one glaring thing left. Sure, I may have good reasons to pursue a religious studies education, but… what about the jobs? Well… yeah. While I’m not a big fan of journalism, I do have one positive thing to say and that’s that the job prospects were good. The program I was part of would’ve allowed me to earn a master’s degree with only an additional year of education, meaning I would have amazing job prospects at some of the top news agencies in the country. And at Mizzou specifically, there were a bunch of connections that led to great internship and networking opportunities. With a religious studies bachelor’s my job prospects are non-existent. Aside from general jobs that just require a degree of some kind, having a religious studies degree doesn’t open any doors. There aren’t specific jobs clamoring for religious studies majors. In fact, the only career paths that do specifically require a religious studies education are ones focused on academia or becoming a member of the clergy, both of which are things I definitely don’t want to do. So, what is an unemployable religious studies major to do? Go to law school of course!

Religious studies teaches several things that are important for a lawyer to learn. It’s a pretty writing heavy subject, and a lot of the papers require making a logical and sound argument. That’s the bread and butter of law school. In addition, religious studies intersects a lot with philosophy, which is another important aspect of the legal field. Lawyers need to know how to think about thinking. A religious studies education also requires an open mind, which, again, is important for lawyers to have. There’s a lot of intersection between the goals of a religious studies education and the goals of a legal education, and it shows in the LSAT scores of theology majors. Along with a bunch of STEM majors, theology and philosophy majors rank near the top of LSAT scorers. While this wasn’t my main consideration for switching to religious studies, it was an important one (and it’s the immediate justification I go to when people ask me why the hell I chose to get a religious studies degree). I’ve always had a dream of becoming a lawyer anyway, so it actually worked out perfectly!

Despite my irreligiosity, I’m a proud student of religious studies. The skills it teaches are invaluable, and they provide a good foundation for my ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. More importantly, religious studies helps me understand the people and the world around me. Religion and spirituality are key parts of the human experience, and it’s important to not ignore their role. I think many atheists fall into that trap. Everyone has their own truth, and for a large percentage of the population, their truth involves a belief in a higher power or something supernatural. We shouldn’t ignore or degrade these people (especially because they represent a majority and I don’t like our chances in a fight).