Would you major in Secularism?

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St. Peter in Chains Cathedral and City Hall stand side-by-side in downtown Cincinnati

A couple of friends tipped me off to this intriguing story in the New York Times over the weekend: “Pitzer College Adds Major in Secularism.”

Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

The major was the brainchild of Pitzer professor Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion who specializes in secularism.

Photo credit: Hannaford via Flickr. Mike prefers this photo of the two buildings and has it hanging prominently in his office.

Personally, I find this idea fascinating — as well as timely. I have to restrain myself from listing too many current events that relate to secularism:

  • The Supreme Court cases involving Westboro Baptist and Christian Legal Society, which deal in very different ways with the role of religion in a secular society
  • The political uprisings in the Middle East, which in Egypt have included calls for a less secular government
  • Europe’s struggles in integrating Muslim immigrants
  • The profoundly religious wedding of the future king of the (largely secular) United Kingdom, which was both a personal sacrament for the two individuals and a political event for their nation

However, I have some concerns with how the major was described in the article. I know that journalists face major obstacles of space (word counts) and time (deadlines) and so can’t always treat either religion or academia with the nuance or depth that their devotees desire. I hope that a more in-depth article or description will appear somewhere. If you know of one, please leave it in the comments.

Here’s the section that troubled me:

Studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief, Mr. Zuckerman said, and the new major will make that very clear.

“It’s not about arguing ‘Is there a God or not?’ ” Mr. Zuckerman said. “There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious. You have some countries where huge percentages of people — Czechs, Scandinavians — now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.

“It has not been studied,” he added.

While there are forms of secularism that discourage or even seek to abolish religious belief, secularism is not the same as religious unbelief. Further, secularism is a complex topic, and framing it as “religion vs. irreligion” is not very helpful, in my view. Consider the following:

  • The two largest secular democracies in the world — India and the United States — have high rates of religious observance and astounding diversity in religious practices.
  • Yes, the Czech Republic has a high percentage of atheists and agnostics, yet it’s surrounded by countries or states with high rates of Catholicism: Poland, Bavaria, Slovakia, Austria. The last two popes have come from this part of Europe.
  • Denmark, Sweden, and Canada indeed have lower rates of religious observance than the US. Denmark, though, has an official state church, and Sweden did as well until 2000. In Canada, the public education system includes explicitly Catholic and Protestant schools and, in at least one town, parents are suing for a publicly-funded nonreligious school option. So are those countries more secular or less secular than the United States?

I’m also curious by what Zuckerman means when he says secularism “has not been studied.” I’d think the problem would be narrowing down the material to be studied, since the major could easily include:

  • First amendment law
  • American and European history
  • Soviet, post-Soviet, and Chinese studies
  • Several hundred years of philosophy
  • Secular humanism
  • The work of Peter Berger, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor

How many semesters could be spent reading Taylor’s A Secular Age? Or comparing the causes and consequences of the French and American revolutions?

Finally, Pitzer is one of the Claremont Colleges, which includes Claremont Graduate University. The question has to be asked: What does Mary Poplin think of this?

Would you major in secularism? What topics would you like to see covered in a major like this? Do you have question or concerns about the major that I didn’t mention?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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6 Comments

  • jws61@lycos.com'
    RedWell commented on May 10, 2011 Reply

    Perhaps it’s not so much the case that “Secularism” isn’t studied as it is that the topic is so pervasive that we just assume it is broadly understood. Not until “religion” became an increasingly visible and distinctive force in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has secularism suddenly seemed like a distinct movement that we should try to understand on its own terms.

    I would say this is a positive development. Like its sibling modernization theory, secularism as the West’s default mode of thinking has real policy and personal effects. To date, though, anti-intellectuals–and those smugly rebutting them–have dominated the discussion of secularism. Of course, astute Christians and other religious believers have always recognized secularism as a type of belief system, but their critique seems to have left little impact on the broader intellectual landscape.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on May 11, 2011 Reply

      Thanks, RedWell. That’s an excellent point about secularism becoming an object of study. The most recent Mars Hill Audio included an interview with Adam Briggle about his new book on bioethics, specifically the President’s Council on Bioethics led by Leon Kass from 2001-05. Briggle’s main point was that, instead of assuming that everyone everywhere shares a secularized Judeo-Christian set of ethical values (as so often happens in American politics), Kass’s Council made its ethical starting positions explicit – basically saying “Here are three ethical principles that everyone on the council can agree are important, even though our particular traditions may have additional principles, and your tradition might have a completely different set of starting points.” I think that’s a much healthier way of “doing secularism” rather than – as you put it – letting it just be the default mode of thinking.

  • sdadams25@gmail.com'
    Stephen commented on May 10, 2011 Reply

    This is a very thoughtful post and I agree that it is very timely to consider a deeper study of secularism. I also agree that there are two very different definitions of secularism: unbelief (atheism) and separation of church and state. Mr. Hickerson raises the excellent point of the value of studying separation of church and state (secular government), and also the counterpoint that it has been extensively studied in other fields. However, it seems like Professor Zuckerman wants to study the former (unbelief) rather than secular government, and there seem like myriad reasons to encourage.

    However, this, too, raises a duplication question: wouldn’t this be better dealt with in religious studies? Why separate the study of religious belief from religious nonbelief? Secularization has traditionally been a major focus of religious studies departments, why change it now? Can one have a secular person without religion as a reference point? And how will the participants in that program study secular society without background knowledge of the religious tradition they are rejecting?

    There is another idea, however. Perhaps the goal is not so much to study secularism (whatever its definition), but to document and cultivate it, and protect its cultural contributions, much like an ethnic studies program (disclosure: I did not participate in ethnic studies in my school, so those with greater expertise please feel free to correct me if I misgeneralize). As I understand it, the point of an ethnic studies program is not to study a particular ethnicity with greater focus and attention for the sake of understanding why it exists and how it works (as a religious studies program does), but to create a vehicle for the greater appreciation, preservation, and understanding of that ethnicity’s cultural contribution. I support this goal with respect to groups that may otherwise have difficulty getting their voice heard, but I will require more reflection and consideration before I extend that privilege from an ethnic/cultural group to a (quasi) religious grouping.

    Therefore, though I support further study of secularism (of both kinds), the decision to isolate secular studies into a separate program puzzles me.

    • jws61@lycos.com'
      RedWell commented on May 11, 2011 Reply

      Revealing parallel with ethnic studies, though I would say that from the perspective of a “secularist,” secularism feels like a minority position. Today there are far more people making deicisions based on religious and spiritual convictions than secularism predicts should be the case. Keep in mind, something like 80% believe in some form of God. Indeed, from a secular perspective, religion should be largely private by now, not forcing its way into public discourse.

  • jmulholl@uchicago.edu'
    John Mulholland commented on May 12, 2011 Reply

    Would you major in secularism?

    Great question, and great suggestion.

    If I were starting grad school today, the opportunity to be among the first scholars to major in secularism would be immensely inviting. Just think of the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new discipline, to be writing papers that identify the scope and details of the field.

    No one questions the beliefs of someone majoring in religion and preparing to teach religion in universities. What an opportunity for a Christian – to become an expert in secularism, to help define the field, to help Christians engage in the conversation we currently do no do very well.

    In short – Would you major in secularism? – Yes !!

    • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on May 12, 2011 Reply

      Similar to when Michael Murray, as Philosophy Department Chair, chaired the atheism lecture series at Franklin and Marshall College (F&M). He did his best to invite the most thoughtful atheists he could find to create a healthy campus dialogue. BTW, Michael’s no longer chair of F&M’s Philosophy Department, he’s now the John Templeton Foundation’s Executive Vice President, Programs & Vice President, Philosophy and Theology, http://www.templeton.org/who-we-are/our-team/staff/michael-j-murray-phd. If you’re not familiar with their enlarged vision (of which Michael is playing a significant role), I’d encourage you to browse their site.

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