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.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.