1By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: May 7, 2011
Colleges and universities have long offered majors in religion or theology.
But with more and more people now saying they have no religion, one college
has decided to be the first to offer a major in secularism.
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.”
The department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion,
who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on
questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued
by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He
studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries,
and has written several books about atheism.
Studying nonbelief is as valid as studying belief, Mr. 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.
The percentage of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled
in 20 years, to 15 percent, according to the American Religious
Identification Survey, released in 2008. The survey was conducted by
researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, which houses the Institute for
the Study of Secularism, Society and Culture but does not have a distinct
major in secular studies.
Barry A. Kosmin, the director of the institute, said Pitzer College would be
the first to have such a major. The institute hosted a conference for
academics in California a few years ago on how to develop courses on
secularism, which Mr. Zuckerman attended.
Initially, Mr. Zuckerman said he found some skepticism on campus about a
secular studies major.
“I had to convince them that this is not an antireligion degree, any more
than a religion department exists to bash nonbelievers,” he said.
Pitzer, founded in 1963, is known as a liberal college that emphasizes
community service and environmentalism, and its students receive an
inordinate number of Fulbright fellowships for study abroad. It is one of
the seven Claremont Colleges, neighboring campuses where students may take
courses at institutions other than their own.
On April 28, Pitzer faculty members on the College Council voted unanimously
to approve the secular studies major, subject to review in four years.
Laura Skandera Trombley, the president of Pitzer, said in an interview, “It
’s a serious area of scholarly endeavor, and Pitzer College has a tradition
of doing really exciting, cutting-edge intellectual work, so this really
fits into the ethos of the college.”
Mr. Zuckerman said he immediately heard from three students interested in
the major. One of them was Kiley Lawrence, a freshman from Mission Hills,
Kan., and a pre-med student at Scripps College, one of the seven Claremont
Ms. Lawrence attended an Episcopal school through eighth grade and was well
versed in the Bible, but she said she became a skeptic early on. Now she
plans to declare a double major in biophysics and secular studies, because,
she said, “each enhances the other.”
Ms. Lawrence, 19, said, “I feel as though I’m being included in something
really exciting and innovative, and perhaps even historic.”