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May 9th, 2011
12:37 PM ET

College becomes nation's first to offer major in secularism

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) – I don't know whether to be surprised that it happened or surprised that it took so long: a California college has become the first in the nation to offer a major in secularism.

The New York Times reported this weekend on the move by Pitzer College, a liberal arts institution in Southern California that's one of seven Claremont Colleges.

Some back story from The Times:

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.

Indeed, signs abound that an aggressively secular demographic is growing in the United States and Europe, even as religion continues to occupy an important place in America and as Christianity and Islam see tremendous growth in the global south.

Last month saw the publication of a so-called secular Bible by an influential British atheist.  A recent academic paper predicted that religion will all but die out in nine Western-style democracies. And the number of overtly secular campus-based student groups appears to be exploding.

In addition to publishing books about atheism, the Pitzer College prof who proposed the new secular studies department has compiled a list of the 65 greatest songs for atheists and agnostics (though the atheism or agnosticism of some titles on the list, like The Beatles' "Think for Yourself,” are debatable).

A few additional details on Pitzer's new department from the Times:

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.”

... 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.”

Have you seen other signs that colleges are becoming more interested in the study of secularization and atheism?

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Atheism • California • Education

soundoff (302 Responses)
  1. Thomas Pena

    We are losing ground to the fanatics Phil. People take pride in claiming to be "one bookers". There is nothing embarrassing about being illiterate to them. But as always, the minority will carry the lot. You would think that the advances in science, especially in the field of biology would check the non-subscribers to reconcider evolution. But doubtfully so. There are still too many minds that belong in Medieval in our country. I am glad to see though, that there seems to be a glimmer of light in the horizon. I hope more colleges have the guts to follow.

    February 10, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • James Swift

      Both of you are off your rocker. A person can't study religion in any modern university, unless he or she wishes to engage in secular religious studies. Seminaries are another matter of course. People have followed the teachings of the Bible, had fatih in God, and believed in a salvation experience for quite sometime, for the most part with very positive results. Both of you have very narrow points of view. If you think all believers are fanatics you need to take a second look at the reality of the situation. A lot of good work is going on in our faith communities. I think both of you should take care that you don't become the very things you fear.

      May 25, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  2. Philip Jarrett

    My surprise in hearing that a degree in secularism is being offered...the only one in the United States, it seems...is when did our educational system stop being secular? Maybe I'm an old fart, but in my day every degree received from every university was secular. Have we really lost so much ground to these fanatics that we have to have a specialized degree in the subject?

    May 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.