This weekend the New York Times published a short story about a small college in California that will soon offer a new undergraduate major in “secularism.” What, you might be asking yourself, does that sort of program look like? Indeed a good question, but a more foundational question has yet to be answered: what is “secularism?” A seemingly simple question until one begins to probe the depths of the ambiguity that has plagued this moniker and descriptor in recent decades.

It is, I might suggest, similar to “love” or other equally ambiguous words that are tossed about in popular parlance without much serious reflection. In other words, “secularism,” like “love,” is something you just know, something that you understand without explaining. Right?

See the problem is that secularism has often been explained in privative terms, as the absence of religion or theocratic contexts in their manifold conception. What is somewhat puzzling to me is that one could conceivably develop a program of study that is academically sustainable in light of the ambiguous quality of the major’s object. The developers of the program explain that this is not an atheist program (courses about which would already be offered in a religious studies or philosophy department) nor is it “antireligion” according to Phil Zuckerman, the major’s creator. So what is it?

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.

But, what is “the study of nonbelief?” What about this program is not already taught in other departments (religious studies, philosophy and other existent humanities programs)?

This is where I have a problem with the idea of a “secularism” major. Not that the study of “nonbelief” or atheism or social systems absent of religion are invalid forms of intellectual exploration, but that the proposed courses mentioned in the article (“God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”) are likely currently offered in many departments at many liberal arts colleges. My initial reservation is one of utility and redundancy.

Then there is another concern, this is perhaps a bit more idiosyncratic on my part and stems from a theological perspective. I simply do not concede that “the secular,” that is a sphere independent from Divine Presence exists. In a sense you might call me an asecularist. I do believe in a liberal republic form of government, like the United States, that forms its laws without explicit reference to religion so that it might respect the dignity and rights of all people (this would fall under history or political science studies). However, I do not believe that there exists an independent sphere of reality devoid of God’s presence (which is another popular conceptualization of “the secular,” at least in some theological and philosophical circles — think of Radical Orthodoxy, for example).

I am truly a Rahnerian in this regard: I believe that all of creation, the entire cosmos is graced. In this respect I am also entirely Franciscan: Bonaventure explains that all parts of creation are at least vestiges of God, reflections of the Trinity and the Divine Love that brought all of creation into existence. Likewise, I am wholly Scotist, affirming the inherent dignity, uniqueness and incommunicability of all creation.

The Rahnerian side of me says that there are people who choose not to respond in categorical — or perhaps even in transcendental — ways to God’s invitation of relationship, thereby overlooking or dismissing this gift of God’s grace in creation. Such people might wish to advocate the absence of the divine and assert the secularity of the world, but I stand by the conviction that — acknowledged or not — there is no such thing as “the secular” apart from the conceptual construct that governs political or social interaction. Can’t one, and don’t many, already study that in some way, shape or form?

So when it comes to this “secularism major,” what is it that we are taking about again?

Photo: Pitzer College

1 Comment

  1. Weird. I’d really expect something like that to be studied within a Religious Studies department since, you know, you can’t talk about secularism without presupposing something called religion. I looked on Pitzer’s website, and while they have a Religious Studies major, there’s no RS department. In fact, they have no departments of their own at all; instead, they’ve got field groups and intercollegiate department between all the Claremont colleges.

    So, I wonder if what’s being inaugurated is a new *major*.

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