Study of secularism sees boost on college campuses

August 4, 2011

(RNS) Almost every major college and university offers a degree in
religious studies. But secularism? Nary a one -- until now.

Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts school in
Southern California, will offer a bachelor's degree in secular studies.

The degree is the first of its kind in the United States, according to
the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at
Trinity College.

Though the program is a first, it may not stand alone for long.
Scholars say there is a growing interest in secularism -- the rejection
of religion in public, and sometimes private, life -- both in the U.S.
and around the world.

"We've been studying religious people for years, but there is a huge
chunk of humanity who is not religious," said Phil Zuckerman, a
sociology professor and founder of the Pitzer program. "Who are they? I
would like to study them with the same vigor we study religiosity."

So, it seems, would others:

-- The Humanist Institute, the educational arm of the American
Humanist Association, hopes to establish this year the country's first
master's program in humanism, a philosophy that substitutes human
morality and reasoning for belief in the supernatural.

-- "Secularism and Nonreligion," the first academic journal devoted
to the subject, will debut in January.

-- San Diego State University will host a first-of-its-kind
international conference in September examining the rise of unbelief in
the West.

-- The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion will host a
half-dozen sessions dealing with secularism at its October meeting. Ten
years ago, there were none.

"There are a number of academics out there looking into this with
great interest," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American
Humanist Association. "Part of the reason it is growing is we are
realizing the demographics it represents is huge and growing and
national academia is interested in getting involved."

In 2008, the American Religious Identification Survey found that the
percentage of American adults who say they have no religion had nearly
doubled since 1990 to 34 million people -- 15 percent of U.S. adults.

More critical for colleges and universities, one-third of Americans
under 30 reported they had no religion in 2001, according to another
ARIS poll. And the Secular Student Alliance, a campus-based organization
of nonreligious college and high school students, has grown from 100
groups in 2008 to 219 in 2010.

"There is just no question that there is a hunger in the U.S. by
nonreligious people to express their secularism and know more about it,"
Zuckerman said.

One factor may be the so-called "New Atheists" movement popularized
by the best-selling books of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher
Hitchens. Characterized by a take-no-prisoners attack on religion, the
New Atheists' often strident denunciations of faith have drawn extensive
media coverage.

"They made a big noise and are continuing to make a big noise," said
Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa who will co-edit
the new journal. "It is now okay to say I am interested in this topic
and I want to study it."

The Humanist Institute has long offered a three-year certification
in humanism for college graduates. Now, plans and money are in place
with Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., to establish a master's degree,
perhaps as early as December.

"It would give a certain level of recognition that would attract a
lot more people to the program and raise the stakes on how qualified and
functional the folks who complete it are," Speckhardt said.

At Pitzer, students pursuing the new degree will take 10 core
courses that examine secularism within the framework of art, literature,
politics and science. They will also take religious studies courses.

Class titles include "Anxiety in the Age of Reason," "The Secular Life"
and "God, Darwin and Design in America."

Kiley Lawrence, a 19-year-old, pre-med student from Kansas, plans to
study for the new degree.

"I'm excited to study why people are so quick to relinquish
scientific curiosity in favor of `heaven only knows' and also, why a
standpoint of skepticism has been so stigmatized over the years," she
said.

"I think what I'll get out of it is some greater insight into the
workings of religion in society, a greater appreciation for scientific
investigation, and how the two relate to each other."

But some academics raise concerns about secular studies programs and
degrees.

Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity College's secularism center, which
helps educators incorporate secular studies in their curricula, said he
prefers to see secularism examined within other fields, like biology,
politics and especially religious studies.

They must also avoid any taint of activism, Kosmin said. "The mere
mention of the words `secular studies' is enough for some people to turn
around and say it is advocacy. What they have to do is have a variety of
viewpoints."

Cragun said it will be difficult to interest students in a degree in
secular studies. Where would he tell them they could find work?

Zuckerman is aware of the criticism and said "religion-bashing" is
not on the syllabus. And secular studies would be "a tolerated
stepchild," he said, within another department. "I want to be on equal
footing" with other fields of study, he said.

So what will a twentysomething do with a degree in secular studies?

That may be beside the point, at least for now.

"It might not get them a job at Google nor even at McDonalds,"
Kosmin said. "But secularism is necessary for educating the modern mind.
It is not a new approach to learning, but it is a new way of looking at
the world and I think it might invigorate liberal arts education."