Secular Studies

Though it’s old news, I’ve been meaning to share what is perhaps the most interesting development within the nonreligious community yet: the teaching of secularism in universities.

In a brief interview with KPBS Radio in San Diego, California, Professor Roy Whitaker discusses his (now established) course at San Diego State University, “Atheism, Humanism, and Secularism.” He is introduced as a “religious studies professor and expert in the history of religion and irreligion; and African American religious thought” (pretty neat stuff, to me at least).

The professor makes his case as to why atheism and other secular positions have a rightful place in academia, citing the rise of secularism in the United States, as well as the popularity of New Atheist books, conferences, and publications. Non-religious views are more prevalent both demographically and within public discourse, so it is only fitting that students learn more about it.

I’m apt to agree with his argument, though I doubt that surprises anyone. To bolster the point, I’d add that most Americans seem to have a low regard for nonbelievers, mostly as a result of pervasive misconceptions and prejudices, for which education on the subject might be helpful. Just as religious studies provide both knowledge and perspective on other faith traditions, secular studies should serve a complementary function in the same regard. Non-religion is just as prominent in its adherents and its intellectual rigor, and even if it weren’t, it never hurts to broaden one’s horizon.

Lest I be accused of bias given my own lack of belief, I feel the same way about teaching all sorts of religions, as well as fringe political and philosophical positions (communism, fascism, etc). Nothing should be forbidden in the realm of academia.

Encouragingly, Whitaker isn’t alone in this effort. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who has done numerous studies on religion and irreligion alike, has designed an entire secular studies major at Pitzer College, which is also located in California. This could be the start of a new trend, and although it’s too early to say how much it will catch on, I still think it’s a worthy effort.

What exactly will such courses cover? Well for starters, Whitaker rightly stresses that his lessons will not have an “anti-religious bent,” something I strongly concur with. It’d be audacious to try to convert (or de-convert) students while they’re trying to get an education. I’ve taken my share of classes on religion, and I doubt they would be as enjoyable, or effective, if the instructors had an agenda to indoctrinate me (I’m sure most people would relate not just with respect to religion, but any subject). Aside from covering the basic history and positions of atheism, the course will place specific emphasis on atheism within marginalized groups (such as blacks and gays) and devote a section to the study of Islam (no doubt included for its growing importance as well).

I’m curious how or if the subject of “New Atheism,” with its notoriously hardened tone, will be handled. Will students be assigned books by Hitchens, Harris, or Dawkins? Will the arguments of atheists be presented as if they were counterparts to religious doctrines? I would imagine that like religious studies, secular classes will (and should) be approached in a dispassionate and scholarly manner, which could go a long way in giving it respectable consideration. Far too often, atheism is perceived to be the purview of shrill debates and grand-standing public consciousness campaigns, a view not entirely unjustified (albeit a bit exaggerated). It’d be beneficial to convey it in an academic setting and manner.

I’d be curious to see for myself how this new approach plays out, and I may have the chance some day if the rate of growth continues:

Southern California colleges are leading the country in the field of secular studies. Claremont college recently announced their latest bachelor’s program devoted to secular studies, UC Irvine now offers courses on Atheism and Secularism, and San Diego State University is debuting its first course on Atheism, Humanism and Secularism this Fall.

Insert the canard about secular liberals dominating the coastal areas, namely leftist California. I hope this catches on beyond the Southwest Coast. I think most universities, especially in conservative and religiously homogenous areas, could use this perspective. By my experience, most college students are pretty pluralistic and tolerant as it is, but I’m sure there will nonetheless be some touchiness and misunderstanding about the subject. I wonder if the majority of those who sign up will be secular to begin with, or if these courses will manage to draw religious counterparts – ideally, it should do both.

Given the growth in interest and affiliation towards secularism, I’d wager that plenty of religious folks will be curious enough to sign up – after all, you don’t have to share a view to be interested in it. The more we normalize relations between all the different worldviews out there, through dialogue and education, the better for furthering knowledge as a whole. I’d love to support efforts to have courses on secularism taught at other universities. 


2 comments on “Secular Studies

  1. This type of academia has been long in the waiting, though I always sort of assumed that secularism was something interwoven with philosophy classes, but I’m glad it’s gaining it’s own area.

    What I like about your blog post is the non-militant approach. Objectivity is extremely important in these subjects. Understanding is never achieved through aggression.

    Thank you, great blog

    • True, philosophy has always been especially secular, and that’s no doubt been the only venue for it. I guess now the topic will be breaking out on its own.

      And thank you for the compliment. I do my best to be conciliatory yet no less firm in my beliefs. It’s an honor to have you read and enjoy. Best wishes.

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