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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.
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?
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?
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.