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Students at Pitzer College Can Now Major in “Secularism”

Students at Pitzer College Can Now Major in “Secularism”

As a college senior about to graduate with a degree in Religion, I was surprised and puzzled to see that Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college near Los Angeles, has decided to offer a major in “secularism.”  The program was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion who claims that studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief.  Zuckerman says that the rise in secularism has been understudied.

“There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious,” explained Zuckerman.  The program would offer classes like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

Zuckerman is the author of a book called Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, based on his research in the secular Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Scandinavia.  He says that initially, he encountered resistance to creating the major, and that he had to convince colleagues that “this is not an antireligion degree, any more than a religion department exists to bash nonbelievers.”

I have to say, though, I’m not convinced.  When I decided to major in Religion, it was not because I was invested in learning about a faith tradition that had particular significance to me.  Rather, I wanted to learn how belief and lived religion shaped human experience — something that I had not found to be adequately covered in other departments.

All of the classes that Zuckerman described, however, could be found, if not in a Religion department, then in Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, Politics or English.  I was in a “Bible as Literature” class for most of a semester, and have studied secularism in the United States in my religion classes.  And furthermore, studying secularism does not necessarily entail studying nonbelief. 

Many “secular” countries (like Denmark, where I attended public school for a year, and had to excuse myself from a weekly confirmation class that was required of all seventh-graders) have a strong culturally religious foundation.  People who believe in or espouse “secularism” can still be religious.  It’s one thing to call for more classes on atheism, agnosticism, or nonbelief.  I would be more open to a minor in “secularism,” which would encourage interdisciplinary work, but creating this major seems to be giving authority to a field for which there is no need.


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4:40PM PDT on May 12, 2011

So, your beliefs should be studied through a major but his through a minor... Hmmm.

And studying secularism through the eyes of the religious makes sense to you too. How about allowing secularists define themselves, just as religious folk wish to define and describe themselves?

9:22AM PDT on May 12, 2011

Thank you, Amelia, for pointing out the misinterpretation of secularism in this context. All of us who don't wish for religious institutions and beliefs to determine the running of civil society are secularists. But it doesn't mean we don't attend a church, synagogue, mosque, temple - or just live spiritually.

Based on the topics that Prof. Zuckerman put forward, the polarity of strong opinions and cliches already present in society concerning this "issue" could very well be inflamed and strengthened. But it also depends on how much media attention is generated.

2:07AM PDT on May 11, 2011

I hope it spreads to other universities.

6:49PM PDT on May 10, 2011

It is about time! I am a 'born again' atheist. I have a strong belief in a cosmology that has no deity. My belief evolved over decades of study, thought and dialogue.
I believe in an infinite universe. A universe that has no beginning, no end. Therefore, no creator.
I realize that most humans have difficulty with a concept that vast. That is why so many are ready to accept a universe that is a mere 8000 years old. Small, narrow minds.
Some people think it is easy being an atheist. Sleep in sunday mornings. No rules to follow, Etc.
However, we have no one to blame but ourselves when things go wrong. We have no one to call on for help but ourselves. Most of all we can't hide from ourselves. We always know the right thing to do. We always know when we don't do the right thing.

4:47PM PDT on May 10, 2011

I personally like the idea... maybe we'll eventually figure out why some of the world's religions breed people who are the least tolerant of those unlike themselves.

4:29PM PDT on May 10, 2011

There are some secularists who push their beliefs with the fervor of the most devout theists, while there are others who are secular because religion just doesn't play any part in their experience. I would imagine that the "why's" are as complex as the individuals who hold the beliefs. On the other hand, what harm can it do?

3:18PM PDT on May 10, 2011

Thank you for the article.

2:29PM PDT on May 10, 2011's important to keep an open mind...very important

9:53AM PDT on May 10, 2011

Great idea. Religions change with every astrological age, about every 2160 years. We are in a period of profound change right now as we head toward the Age of Aquarius. Science is replacing religious belief as the religion of the future. Go to to find out more on this change. People are looking for something different, and the old religions are not filling that need. This major can be a profound new way to understand where we are going with our changing belief systems.

9:36AM PDT on May 10, 2011

I'd think most of the classes listed would fall under Sociology. However, I do see the need for a temporary counterpoint to the history-twisting and cherry-picking of facts by "educators" like David Barton. This doctrine is known as "Christian Reconstructionism."

My last bit of support for religion crumbled about 20 years ago, when I observed that religious art had become hopelessly banal.

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