A few weeks ago, two requisite committees at Pitzer College approved the formation of a secular studies program. This was a historic first, as no such program exists anywhere else.
Now, to be perfectly clear, secular studies isn't an official department in the traditional sense. Pitzer College doesn't actually have departments. Rather, we have what are called "field groups." Secular studies is currently a field group that while be on probationary status for four years. During that time, students must apply for a "special major" in secular studies. And at the end of four years, the field group will be reviewed.
What is secular studies? First off, it is not simply about bashing religion or mocking faith. While in our classes we may certainly critique or condemn various aspects of religion at times -- given certain topics or issues under consideration - that is not the heart of the matter. It is not our raison d'etre. Rather, it is about understanding secularity.
Broadly speaking, secular studies is an interdisciplinary program focusing on manifestations of the secular in societies and cultures, past and present. Secular studies entails the study of non-religious people, groups, thought, and cultural expressions. Emphasis is placed upon the meanings, forms, relevance, and impact of political/constitutional secularism, philosophical skepticism, and personal and public secularity.
We are interested in studying the development of naturalistic worldviews and ethical positions devoid of supernatural assumptions. We seek to know what types of people tend to be secular, what cultures are largely secular, and how secularity intersects with other social phenomena. We're interested in studying secular groups and secular social movements. We seek to learn about the minds and personalities of atheists and agnostics, and the ways in which secularity is correlated with upbringing, family dynamics, political leanings, gender, sexuality, etc. The neurological aspects of secularity are especially intriguing. We seek to uncover evidence of secularity in the past and the development of secularism over time, and we are also fascinated by the role secularism plays in political life.
In short, the time has come to take secularity seriously as a significant program of study in its own right.
First off, there has been the undeniable growth of secularity in recent years. Various surveys (American Religious Identification Survey, the Faith Matters survey, and Pew Forum surveys) have all charted the rise of irreligion in America in the last 20 years. The percentage of Americans who are non-religious has grown from 8% back in 1990 up to approximately 17% today. According to various Harris Polls, between 12% and 21% of Americans are atheist or agnostic in orientation -- the highest rates of non-belief ever seen in U.S. history. Almost a third of Canadians can now be considered secular, and approximately 1 in 5 Canadians does not believe in God. Secularity is even stronger in various countries in Europe, including France, Belgium, Scotland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, and Slovenia. We also find large pockets of secularity in Japan, Israel, Uruguay and Kazakhstan -- to mention a few disparate examples.
Another factor behind the creation of secular studies was the recent boom in scholarly attention being paid to secularity in many corners of academia. In 2005, came the establishment of the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, headed by Barry Kosmin -- the first university-linked institute focused on advancing the understanding of the role of secular values and the process of secularization in the world. In 2008, spearheaded by Lois Lee, came the formation of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN), an international and interdisciplinary network, with currently over fifty scholars from around the world as affiliated members. Finally, there has been the move to establish a Journal of Secular Studies, which, according to its founding editor, Ryan Cragun, is soon to be up and running. The formation of a secular studies program is part of this wave.
Will secular studies at Pitzer College succeed? Will other similar programs emerge at other institutions? God only knows. Just kidding.