The Department of Secular Studies May 9, 2011

The Department of Secular Studies

This story’s creating quite the buzz in atheist circles:

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.”

Studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief, [professor Phil] 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.

Sounds like a great idea. If schools offer religion majors, this is an obvious complement.

That said, there are a number of questions that come to mind:

  • What does a major in Secular Studies qualify you to do when you graduate? As one person on Twitter noted: “And Art History majors think it’s hard to get a job!”
  • What are the textbooks going to be? Will any books written by Christians be used?
  • Would Christians (or other theists) be teaching any of the classes? I don’t see why they couldn’t. Atheists teach courses about religion all the time.
  • Would religious students enter into this program (much like several atheists are currently enrolled in Master of Divinity programs)?
  • Regarding the classes that will be taught… I’m still not sure which classes differentiate a Secular Studies major from a Science or Religious Studies major. “Bible as Literature” should be commonplace for anyone studying religion.

To all of you: would you major in this if it were offered at your school?


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  • Cortex

    As someone who has had the frustrating experience of trying to find academic sources on the experience of atheists in the US, I like that a school wants to put together a department to study secularism.

    Still, maybe this could start out as a minor? It’s a valid area of study, sure, but Zuckerman himself says that not much research has been done on the topic. So, what would they be teaching undergrads?

  • Brian

    I taught the bible as literature in a public high school for 30 years. Everyone knew I was an atheist, but I got remarkably little flak, probably because I treated the bible as literature needs to be treated. “God” is just another character, and the plot of “Esther” is pretty much Dudley Do-right.

  • mouse

    I like the idea but it seems like it would be better served as a part of a world religions courses (even though technically not a religion), perhaps as a minor as Cortex suggests? I don’t know it just seems like it’s part of a larger concept to me.

  • StarScream

    What are the textbooks going to be?

    I would guess that Zuckerman’s own book Society Without God would be an obvious choice.

  • It seems more like a course in religion. Secular Studies? There’s a lot involved that isn’t all about Jesus and Mohammed. Are they going to mention Ingersoll or Bradlaw? I read a description of the course, and it looked like a theists dream.

  • Kahomono

    My question: how long until the fundies pressure the trustees into killing it?

  • Tony

    Major in it? No. What’s the job market for a Secular Studies degree?

    It would make for a nice t-shirt though:
    * I went to college for four years and all I got was a free mind.
    * I paid for an education, the thoughts were free.
    * To be or not to be, an atheist.

    The last one needs some work.

  • I don’t know… it seems to me like academia is one area where “religion” is its own particular branch and everything else is, by default, secular, which is as it should be. Offering courses on the history and philosophy of secularism into a religion department (or philosophy, if the religion department balks) is a great idea, but I feel like having it as a separate department is pointless and possibly counterproductive. It sort of erases the idea that nonbelief is the “default” state and that belief is something added.

    I don’t think it should be a major on its own: I’d much rather see it as a possible concentration in a religion or philosophy major.

  • 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.

    Easy. I don’t find arguments for gods compelling and no evidence suggests that there is any such thing as a god.

  • JJR

    It’s no better or worse than a BA in “Cultural Studies”; in fact, sounds like a branch of Cultural Studies. In any case sounds very interdisciplinary.

    I hope their focus is worldwide/international in scope, studying the struggle for secular culture & government around the world, and the problems caused by the intertwining of religion and state.

    I’m a History/German Studies major and work in a library, but I also used to work for a major corporation where I actually got to use my German skills on the job, which was freakin’ cool (and very rare in corporate America, unless you have some high tech skill to pair your language ability with–which I don’t). The pay was lousy, but I loved my job.

  • Luther

    Another major could be in Debunking. Cross disciplinary between engineering, science, and public safety. Every consumer protection agency and consumer rating organization could employ graduates.

  • Canada’s high secular numbers might be why our upcoming census here is trying to hide the true number of us, in my opinion. I wrote two articles ranting about it on my blog. It looks to me like you are only allowed to check the ‘no religion’ option if you were also RAISED without religion as a child.

    Also, that option is further hidden by being separated from the other religious belief answers, underneath where you’re supposed to write in your answer, looking like a boring asterisked reference or something.

    By the way, I think this was one of the blogs that let me know about the religion question’s wording in the first place, so thank you. I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It’s on the part of the census that is now a voluntary ‘household survey’, formerly known as the mandatory ‘long form’.

  • Kari

    If this were offered at my school, I would double major or minor in it. I love my Women and Gender Studies department so much that I wouldn’t want to leave.

  • Major in it? What would be the point? What are you going to do, become an atheologian? Unlike a theologian, there wouldn’t be jobs by the million.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Secular Studies” would presumably include everything e3xcept religion classes. I mean, for just one example. wouldn’t all of the various science departments fall under “secular studies”?

  • mingfrommongo

    It sounds like it should be a specialized tract in the Philosophy or Sociology Depts., but that’s not as easy to market. Hey atheist kids! Come to Pitzer! (bring your money) $55k/year to train people how to not bring god into the fries/no fries debate.

  • One of my friends showed me this story, and I found myself comparing it to degrees in LGBT studies, gender/women studies, and African American studies. I find it weird to come into this discussion, and everyone is comparing it to religious studies.

  • CanadianNihilist

    It looks like a trap to me. They want to find out what makes us tick then use their new found knowledge to convert us.

  • I think it’s great. It’s my intention to put together my own Humanist Studies course through the Interdisciplinary program at my local university. My ultimate goal is to create a humanist community center where people can come together for the stuff normally dominated by churches–weddings, funerals, charity, childcare, workshops on life issues, simple socialization–without any regard for the supernatural.

  • Roxane

    I would have double-majored in this in a heartbeat. Really, everybody needs two majors–one for their money and one for them.

  • Roxane

    I would have double-majored in this in a heartbeat. Really, everybody needs two majors–one for their money and one for their mind.

  • Meyli

    I think its a great idea, but what sort of job could you possible get afterwards? (ha, I think every college student is currently asking that of their respective major!)
    I wouldn’t major in it, but possibly minor, and definitely take at least a couple of those classes.

  • Richard Wade

    I was hoping to see colleges offer a class or two in atheism/humanism/secularism, but I’m surprised to see that a college administration thought there is enough interest for a major.

    Applying it to a profession, I’d imagine one would be a professional who also is an atheist. So for instance, a humanist chaplain in the military would need, I think, a lot of education and training in counseling psychology, and a little in atheism and humanism.

  • Chris S.

    What does a major in Secular Studies qualify you to do when you graduate?

    Ummm…it’s a liberal arts college. Speaking from experience, choice of major doesn’t matter when you’re coming from an institution like that (with a few exceptions)–it’s all about learning a particular way of thinking.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    This sounds great to me, I agree with miller. This sounds like a training ground for the next generation of heavy hitting activists and just higher awareness in general. I’d have to leave it to others how one might apply it to livelihood. I’d like to see courses and perhaps minors offered in most schools on the subject.

  • Nakor

    What does a major in Secular Studies qualify you to do when you graduate? As one person on Twitter noted: “And Art History majors think it’s hard to get a job!”

    This is the problem, isn’t it? With bigotry still rampant, it could cost you jobs as readily as it gains you any. Can you imagine trying to get part-time work while still studying this? “So you’re in school, eh? What’s your major?” “Secular Studies.” “Get out. Now.” 😐

    What are the textbooks going to be? Will any books written by Christians be used?

    Actually, I think there’s a lot of material out there. There’s a few modern atheist books, but there’s also a boatload of historical material available on things like Galileo, Darwin, etc., including material on the fight to get their views pressed forward.

    Certainly I think religious material should be examined too, but from the perspective of the new department (for example, that Bible as Literature course). It would be absolutely warranted to introduce the counterpoints from Christian authors and debaters both in fairness (the entire idea of skepticism is to give ideas fair footing, and discard those that fail) and to prepare students for what to expect if they continue on a secular path through activism or some other method.

    Would Christians (or other theists) be teaching any of the classes? I don’t see why they couldn’t. Atheists teach courses about religion all the time.

    They could from a technical sense, but could they bring themselves to do so, and teach it accurately? There are some that might fit, such as the Bible as Literature again (though that easily could be taught by either, in either a religious or non-religious department) but others might be more difficult.

    Would religious students enter into this program (much like several atheists are currently enrolled in Master of Divinity programs)?

    Absolutely; this would make an excellent minor to pair with a major in a theological field. Know Thy Enemy, as it were. But moreover grow an appreciation for the other side and motivate yourself to move the church toward progressiveness. Find your belief in the middle ground and truly test yourself. Expand your knowledge. What minor could be a better fit for a theologian than this?

    Regarding the classes that will be taught… I’m still not sure which classes differentiate a Secular Studies major from a Science or Religious Studies major. “Bible as Literature” should be commonplace for anyone studying religion.

    Yes, there would be quite a bit of overlap, but that’s not bad. A lot of science double-majors have several overlapping courses too. Likely a minor/major would have a selection of must-take courses which are specific to the department (take 9 credits out of these courses, and 6 credits out of this list, and so forth), and the remaining credits to be made up how one likes. This would allow a religious studies major to double-count some courses (like Bible as Literature) while still taking some religious major specific courses, and secular minor/major specific courses, for a good, diverse selection. Such double-counting is not at all uncommon (think of Physics/Math double majors).

  • Michaelyn

    It’s a very interesting major, but I think I’ll stick to physics. If it was offered at my university, I would definitely be interested in taking a few classes in the department or considering a minor in secular studies, but I wouldn’t major in it.

  • Courtney

    I’d take classes in the department but I wouldn’t make it my major.

  • frank

    It’s difficult to judge a major/department from a newspaper article. Ideally I would like to see a list of the faculty of the department and the major requirements to get a real sense of what is going on here. But I will take a stab at some of these questions anyway.

    Would Christians (or other theists) be teaching any of the classes? I don’t see why they couldn’t. Atheists teach courses about religion all the time.

    It raises a more interesting question of would it be desirable to have theists teaching these classes? I wouldn’t trust a course on a particular religion taught by a member of that religion, I’ve taken such courses before and seen how they often result in outright falsehoods being presented as truths in the classroom. And if I wouldn’t trust a course on christianity to be taught by a christian, I don’t know how I can ask a christian to trust a course on atheism taught by an atheist.

    Personally I would be very happy to take a course on atheism from an atheist, I’m just saying it raises bigger questions when done in the context of an institution which is not atheistic.

    Would religious students enter into this program (much like several atheists are currently enrolled in Master of Divinity programs)?

    Lets break that question apart. My guess it that there will be religious students in the program, and that in five or ten years we will be dealing with apologists with degrees in secularism. It will be interesting to see if they actually understand atheism any better because of it.

    However, that would not be like atheists in MDiv programs. This is a liberal arts degree, an MDiv is a professional degree. No one is going to come out of this program and say “I am qualified to be a counselor” or “I am qualified to be a chaplain” or any of the other stupid things that atheist MDivs are saying.

    Richards suggestion that a person might do this as their undergrad, then go to grad school for psychology, then become a military chaplain is interesting. If we are to put chaplains into the military (and I am not endorsing that idea), that would be the way to do it. However, I don’t know why a person with that educational background couldn’t simply become a military psychologist. That seems to me to be the right way for an atheist with training in psychology to serve the psychological needs of soldiers, if that is what he/she chooses to do.

  • Mike

    What does a major in Secular Studies qualify you to do when you graduate?

    I would hope that their office of career planning would have been involved when this was being discussed, and that job placement and career planning has already been thought out.

  • Major, no way. It would be a fun and worthwhile minor though.

  • As someone who attended a liberal arts college, majored in a program called “Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities,” and has a job completely unrelated to my college degree, I approve of this department and program of studies being offered. I would definitely have been interested! (My school offered a single course called “Moments in Atheism” in the past; I was sad it was never offered while I was there.)

    I do think the title “Secular Studies” is potentially misleading since, yes, everything that isn’t religious studies is secular studies. “Secularism Studies” seems to closer to what I think they’re actually trying to do. Studying the history of secularism, different secular cultures, the impact of secularism on society, etc would be very interesting! I do hope it won’t be entirely Western-centric, as secularism in other countries/societies is something we here don’t know as much about.

  • Stevie

    I’m a Media Studies/Sociology double major in school and I think this is a fabulous idea! Especially if you’re pursuing graduate level work in the humanities, the degree doesn’t matter so much as the classes you’ve taken and courses you’ve focused in. Here are a few responses to the questions you’ve raised though:

    What does a major in Secular Studies qualify you to do when you graduate? Again, less about the major, more about the coursework and the fact that you’ve completed your degree that matters to people. I also don’t see Secular Studies being just about religion. It could also encompass philosophy, science, sociology, and a lot of other different subjects into an interdisciplinary major.

    What are the textbooks going to be? Will any books written by Christians be used? Maybe it’s just my college, but none of my classes, save a few 101 classes, have ever used textbooks. We just read non-fiction pieces in the subject area. Perhaps something like Hitchen’s “Portable Atheist” will be used?

    Would Christians (or other theists) be teaching any of the classes? I don’t see why they couldn’t. Atheists teach courses about religion all the time.
    Sure, why not?

    Would religious students enter into this program (much like several atheists are currently enrolled in Master of Divinity programs)?

    Regarding the classes that will be taught… I’m still not sure which classes differentiate a Secular Studies major from a Science or Religious Studies major. “Bible as Literature” should be commonplace for anyone studying religion. Foundations of Secularism. The Development of Secular Thought. Modern Issues in Humanism and Secularism. Reason and Doubt. Ethics classes. Seminar on secular states and implementation. There are tons of classes I could think of!

  • Lion IRC

    Studying non-stamp collecting.

    Sounds like a great way to spend a;

    -few minutes

    -day

    -week

    -month

    -semester

  • Carlie

    It seems to me this is a perfect description of what gen ed requirements ought to include.

  • @Defiantnonbeliever

    This sounds like a training ground for the next generation of heavy hitting activists and just higher awareness in general.

    Maybe, but maybe not. I’m thinking of my many queer friends who try taking LGBT studies. Some complain that they’re just about history from 80s or earlier, and they don’t seem very relevant to current activism. I think it’s a mistake to think that taking college classes will make you a better activist.

  • “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.

    Sounds great! I’m much more interested in sociology and atheist demographics than I am in debating the existence of deities. I loved Zuckerman’s Society Without God and am looking forward to his upcoming Faith No More. He seems like an excellent person to be involved in this project.

  • Scott Tuner

    This is great. When I was Catholic I received a BA in Theology and an MA in Biblical Studies. If I could do it over now this is a senior thesis I would pursue: The History and Development of the Christian Lectionary. The Lectionary is the st of biblical readings selected for Sundays, and generally the only biblical material that Catholics read or know. It would be fascinating to study what’s in it, why and what was left out. And for folks into Classic languages, the paper could include the Latin lectionaries.

  • Christoscus

    It’s not clear that the school is offering a major, it sounds like they’re just establishing a department to centralize a field of study/inquiry.

    Given the political role religion has played in the past 30 years, I could easily see a poli sci major concentrating in secular studies, and then going off to work at a liberal policy organization.

  • Phillip Cohen

    My son attends a “Secular Jewish” school. We look at the social historical role Jews played in different aspects of world culture, labor and social action. (Primarily)Jewish religious holidays are looked at from a secular perspective. Torah, if studied, is examined from an historical and literary perspective. We find the program very fulfilling and insightful.
    I would think there is an equal amount of wealth in examing the secular influences or aspects of Christian or Islamic thought/practice. Perhaps, as a recent PBS program looked at the late Bhutto of Pakistan and investigated her push for a secular democracy even though she was an observant woman a Department of Secularism can develop policy proposals for this type of advance in the world politic. How can we as a (secular)constitutional nation with an overwhelming Christian conscious not concern itself with it’s secular roots and the policies that derived from our philosophies of our founding fathers and law?

  • Finally! A degree in Atheism. I couldn’t have thought of anything better. What’s wrong with being a professional Atheist? Many Atheist think that they know what Atheism is; but, a degree in Atheism could solidify these Atheist in their unbeliefs or disbeliefs.

    A degree in Atheism in my opinion would stop Atheist from succumbing to weak Christian arguments. A lot of people claim to be Atheist; yet, when further questioned they simply turn out to be Alienated Theist (i.e. those who believe in God but reject his moral, political, social, and economic authority).

    I’m often confronted with people who claim to have been Ex-Atheist and they’re going to tell me about all the faults of Atheism. What Phil Zuckerman is doing for Atheist by teaching a program in Atheism is exactly what I’ve been looking for ever since I embraced being an Atheist.

    What kind of jobs could I get by pursuing a degree in Atheism?

    Well, for me in particular I am pursuing a career as a Recording Artist (i.e. Atheist Rapper); so, a degree in Atheism would definitely solidify my education in Atheism and help me translate this into the wider world for an audience who might not understand what Atheism is:

    “Atheology is the study and commentary on the non-existence and attributes of a God/Goddess, and of how that God/Goddess doesn’t relate to the world…especially to human existence and secular thought; more generally, it is the study of secularity, practice, experience, and/or of Materialism. It is sometimes contrasted with secular studies. Atheology is understood as the study of Secularism from an internal perspective (i.e. a perspective of commitment to that secularity), and secular studies as the study of Secularism from an external (i.e. religious) perspective. Atheologians use various forms of analysis and argument (i.e. philosophical, ethnographic, historical, material e.t.c.) to help understand, explain, test, critique, defend or promote any of the myriad secular topics.” [Ward, Dr. Terrence. “Atheos Records Article”. Atheos Records Press, 2010]