Colleges and universities have long offered majors in religion or theology. But with more and more people now saying they have no religion, one college has decided to be the first to offer a 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 department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries, and has written several books about atheism.
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. No – it has not been studied in the United States.
Initially, Mr. Zuckerman said he found some skepticism on campus about a secular studies major.
“I had to convince them that this is not an antireligion degree, any more than a religion department exists to bash nonbelievers,” he said… Dude has obviously never been to a Baptist bible college.
Laura Skandera Trombley, the president of Pitzer, said in an interview, “It’s a serious area of scholarly endeavor, and Pitzer College has a tradition of doing really exciting, cutting-edge intellectual work, so this really fits into the ethos of the college.”
It’s hard to keep a straight face through all this back-patting and tiptoeing around the bible-thumpers who will raise Hell and brimstone over this pimple on the butt of American ignorance – regardless of politesse.
We had some American participation in the great wave of rational thought that started in the 18th Century and became the Age of Reason that overtook most of the western world. While back in the good old USA we specialized in killing each other, Native Americans, Canadians and Mexicans. Rational science-based education has a foothold only in a certain number of college and graduate-level institutions that are simply too embarrassed about turning someone out into the real world with a standard spooky American education.
Yes, I sound gruff and unforgiving. You know, I had this sorted by the time I was 13 years old. The atheism part. It took several more years of reading on science and society – from Szilard to Sartre – before I developed a deeper understanding of philosophical systems that define an understanding of material reality. Gradually over that time I inevitably acquired contempt for the ideology that passes for culture in order to keep folks in line. Working on the factory floor for a living doesn’t mean you can’t read and learn.
Through my years in the civil rights movement, battles for peace, struggles for social change and dignity often I admit I could bring halfway reason to those afraid of change, even afraid to consider change. But, it’s been over a half-century – and right now I’d rather just step back and tell people outright you needn’t be afraid to confront the crap that should have ended decades and centuries ago. It’s bloody well overdue.