A college in California is now offering a major in secular studies, which is the politically correct way to say "atheism", I suppose. Good news, I think. If people can get a degree in theology, or "divinity", why not a degree in secular studies! I would love to see the curriculum.
The Wall Street Journal reports, in a not entirely positive article:
One could respond in several ways to the news that California's Pitzer College is starting a department of "secular studies" and creating a major in the field. Religious believers may see another sign of encroaching, well, secularism on American campuses. Conversely, just as the rise of religious studies—as opposed to theology—happened when religious belief was in precipitous decline among academics, perhaps the rise of secular studies indicates that secularism is a fading enterprise.
The sociologist behind the new Pitzer department, Phil Zuckerman, clearly isn't telling a narrative of decline: "There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious," he told the New York Times. "I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious."
Certainly this phenomenon has not been sufficiently studied. Secularization—a long-term decline in religious belief, at least in the form we know it in the West—doesn't have a clear precedent in human history. And if scholars give sociological, political and cultural explanations for the presence of religious belief, should we not expect them to treat belief's absence in the same way?
It might be good for some secularists to think more historically and critically about their own convictions. This can be a challenging experience—as it has been for many young believers who have gone off to college and learned for the first time that beliefs that have seemed obviously true to them are not quite so compelling to others. Some of these believers change their minds, but many emerge from their college years with their beliefs largely intact. Perhaps young secularists will be equally resilient.
Read the rest here.
I found it a bit puzzling that the author seems to think that secular students who analyze their lack of belief in god academically may suffer the same fate as many students who are religious when they enroll in college but lose their faith as they are exposed to different disciplines in college. Hmm....I think the author thinks that "belief" and "lack of belief" are subject to the same challenges.
Jerry also notes that the WSJ doesn't seem to have a positive attitude towards this development. I agree. He says the author is an Anglican who writes frequently for the Templeton site "Big Questions Online". This explains some of the snarky remarks.
Excerpts from Jerry's article:
Why is there no mention of Zuckerman’s serious research embodied in Society Without God, a very nice book. Why the mention, instead, of “Phil Zuckerman’s 65 Greatest Songs for Atheists and Agnostics”? To denigrate the man, of course.
"Any intellectually serious program in secular studies will avoid triumphalism and deal with the complexity of secularism’s history."
If Jacobs were reviewing a major in theology, would he admonish it to “avoid triumphalism”?
"A serious program will also acknowledge that some of the best work on secularism has been done by Christians, foremost among them the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor".
Thank you, Dr. Jacobs, for your helpful advice on how Pitzer should design this major, so that it gives religion the proper credit for atheism. That advice is like having a fox design the chicken coop.
Are they feeling threatened by a degree in secular studies. You betcha!
I take issue with many atheists' efforts to trivialize atheism by comparing it to, say, "not stamp collecting" (NSC). The empirical evidence shows that atheists tend to have distinctly different moral beliefs than theists, especially conservative theists, which suggests that atheism in the real world doesn't refer to some mysterious void, but rather has a rich and sophisticated meaning.
The NSC comparison also fails because I doubt that stamp collectors have different moral beliefs about, say, capital punishment, than non stamp collectors.
Another way to look at it: Atheism resembles veganism. Vegans don't just not do X; they've built a whole system of advocacy about the advantages of not doing X. In fact, they say that doing X poisons everything.
The empirical evidence shows that atheists tend to have distinctly different moral beliefs than theists, especially conservative theists, which suggests that atheism in the real world doesn't refer to some mysterious void, but rather has a rich and sophisticated meaning.
This may well be true in these parts of the world where conservative theists have a strong presence, but I'm fortunate enough to live elsewhere. On the other hand, there's no shortage of atheists around me who have an unhealthy interest in fringe medicine, conspiracy theories and stuff like that.