A portrait of Joseph McKenna in front of a tall field of yellow flowers

By Lilibeth Garcia

The Program in Religious Studies offers students the opportunity to examine world religions and how different people have developed their values, intellectual systems, rituals and traditions in response to the fundamental questions of human existence. Although its home is in the humanities, its interdisciplinary instructors also hail from the Schools of Social Sciences, Social Ecology, Medicine and the Arts.

One of its longtime lecturers is Joseph McKenna, whose interest in religion began as an undergrad and culminated with his earning a Ph.D. in the subject. Since beginning his teaching career at UCI in 1999, he has introduced thousands of students to the academic study of religion and especially modern Western skepticism – a topic seldom taught in religious studies and one he didn’t come across until he became a professor himself. McKenna also teaches students how to have a dialogue about religious topics within and outside the academic setting – a fruitful exercise in a multicultural society. His courses have made such an impact that he was awarded the Non-Senate Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for 2021 from the School of Humanities.

Read below to learn more about his background, the structure of his classes, relevant reads and why students should engage in religious studies.

What are your research interests? Are you currently working on any projects?  

After having read hundreds of books on religion in roughly 10 years through a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctorate, I never had any professor present me with a bibliography on religious skepticism. I only stumbled on this very large collection of irreligious literature by accident when I was told to teach on it during my first academic job as a young professor! This body of literature is fascinating and very well-written, and it spans from 2,600 years ago to the present. I've been catching up on this reading ever since I became aware of it some 25 years ago. I have a sizable home library on these themes. And that’s what I like to read and research.

I won a teaching award in the School of Humanities a year or so ago, and it came with a $1,500 gift. I spent all that money on a tall stack of skeptical books from the 17th and 18th centuries. This will entail about two years of close reading. After I'm done, I hope to donate these books to UCI's Langson Library.

Why did you become interested in religious studies?

I was an English major in college who became a double major after taking a couple interesting religion classes. I began my graduate studies in English but switched to religion for graduate degrees. Religion seemed weighty to me. I was aware that religion has permeated the atmosphere of human existence, which is why a minority of dissenting irreligious people are of interest. If any part of religion is “correct,” that would be exceedingly interesting. And if any part of religion is “incorrect,” or indeed if the whole of religion is “incorrect,” that too would be exceedingly interesting.

What courses are you teaching this winter?

In winter, I’m teaching the “History of Atheism,” a course on skepticism and irreligion in the West. About 30 students take the class. I've offered the course numerous times over the years. In this class we read nothing but primary sources from antiquity to the present and discuss those works at length. Believers and unbelievers take the class. As I mentioned, these are readings that no one gets exposed to in all their years of formal education – from kindergarten through the Ph.D. And even if any of us were exposed to one of these writers in our school days (some of them are famous in the Western canon), we were likely never assigned that author’s skeptical writings.

We might have read Thomas Hardy but not his lengthy poem “God’s Funeral.” We read Mark Twain but not his mercilessly funny essay “Thoughts on God” or his darkly faithless last novel, The Mysterious Stranger. And it is odds against arithmetic that any of us were ever exposed to the sizable skeptical writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Annie Besant. In this course’s reading list of primary sources, there are a few dozen ancient Greeks and Romans, then a couple Renaissance thinkers, then we jump to Gibbon, Hobbes, Voltaire, Paine, Shelley, and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and several less-famous authors.

Which course do you enjoy teaching the most and why? 

A course I developed in 2007 and have offered every year in spring is called “Religious Dialogue” – with about 200 students each time. The approach is different. The pedagogy is different. I take ten provocative topics that apply to all religions, and I offer one topic per week. I set up the weekly problematic in a Tuesday lecture, and I devise three discussion questions that emerge for each topic each week. By Wednesday, all students will have written short opinion pieces on the topics, and they meet in small discussion sections to talk about the issues. On Thursdays, we have a full-class discussion in the lecture hall with student volunteers coming on stage to offer their views and receive questions from the audience. Scores of students talk in three separate stage groups each week.

Every week there are significant differences among the students and in no week does the class agree on these provocative topics. And that’s the point. I want to expose the permanent tensions that exist in our multi-religious society and help students disagree with each other with civility and aplomb. It’s very interesting for students to hear each other on these topics.

Three other classes are also fun to teach. One is a survey of world religions on Judaism, Christianity and Islam with about 200 students. Another class, a smaller one with about 30 students, is on the History of the Devil, by which I mean the origin, evolution and real-world effects of the devil mythos in Western religions. In the last weeks of the term, I include segments on the devil in art (1500 years of iconography visibly changing from horrific to heroic to hilarious), the devil in film (every decade of filmmaking has devil films, including the first decade in the late 19th century) and the devil in music. Students have liked that class too. Another small class I like with about 30 students is the one already mentioned, “History of Atheism.”

Do you find it challenging to teach a topic some consider controversial? If so, how do you manage it? 

It is challenging to teach about religion. I've managed this by developing a balance between respect for a given religion or religious idea and the need for academic, critical approaches to religion. A class in religion at a public university is not a chapel hour. There is a place for the devotional study of religion, but a public university is not the place. The Ph.D. at a public university is not really called to be a caretaker of the religions under review. That’s not the professional ethics of the Ph.D.

Students need to get exposed to how scholars from numerous fields of study think about religion, which is one reason why UCI has a Program in Religious Studies and not a department, per se. Dozens of professors in numerous departments in numerous fields think about religion –sociology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary psychology, economics, cognitive science, history, art, philosophy, literature and more. Students have likely never had the opportunity to think critically about religion before college, and there are ample opportunities at UCI.

Why should students want to learn about religion from a scholarly perspective? 

Having some exposure to scholarly perspectives on religion is simply part of being educated. Why should university students graduate college with a 5th grade understanding of religion (which is what a majority of people have)? Another thing: Is a student at all interested in what most people think? – because in religion, whatever you think, you are in a minority and far out-numbered by what everyone else thinks. You’re Christian? Most people are not. You’re Hindu? Most are not. You’re Muslim? Most aren’t. You’re atheist? Most are not. And on and on. And a final point: all of us should be curious to learn what scholars think about the subjects they've spent decades to understand.

What kind of feedback do you get from students who take your courses? 

The feedback from students is positive. Students enjoy these courses. The subject matter itself creates a path for the instructor. The subject propels interest. Students who are non-majors in religion are not required to take religion classes. Students sign up because they’re interested. They enter the room interested on day one. I’m sure every professor in every field gets a few students at the end of a term who’ll say, ‘This was the best class I took at UCI.’  Religion classes are no different in that way.

If you could recommend any book in your field, what would it be?

Two books: Varieties of Unbelief, edited by J.C.A. Gaskin and The Dynamics of Religion by J. M. Robertson.

Religious Studies