Monday, May 09, 2011

Secular Studies Major
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.
Ho-hum. More of the usual New Atheist boosterism, harping yet again on the same old theme: in a world dominated by bigoted Christians brave atheists are at last asserting themselves and being recognized.

I suppose somewhere there is the world they imagine, where religious believers are in a comfortable majority, where atheists have been closeted and are only now able to "come out" because of the efforts of brave secularists. Where these places are I do not know. I've lived in every corner of the US, the most religious nation of the Global North, and I've never been to a place where anyone cared about anyone's religious beliefs or even noticed their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

Identifying individuals as "atheists" seems peculiar--like characterizing people as "sighted," "hearing" or "literate." In Academia, where I've spent most of my life, religious belief is pecular: we talk about "theists," not "atheists." And if people discover you're a theist (as I am) they're amazed and look at you funny. So it's hardly surprising that a college is offering a major in secularism: it's our culture.

Still, I wonder how long atheists can make out they the are a brave, counter-cultural minority. In the last 20 years the percentage of "Nones" in the US--individuals who say that they "have no religion" has more than doubled, from 7% to 15%. And amongst young Americans, aged 18 to 30, 40% are Nones. Atheism is a status symbol: it marks you as young, educated, urban and smart. About the only thing more uncool than being religious is being fat.

Still it's hard to see how secularism can provide enough material for a major. There are a great many religions and a great deal to say about them even if you don't believe any of them are true. And virtually all religious scholars, who study them, are atheists. But how much can you say about secularism--the absence of religious belief and practice. Do you copy everything that religious studies scholars study and add "not"?

A major in secularism seems suspiciously like making illiteracy the a subject of a college major. There's a lot of literature in English and other languages--more than enough for a major in literature. But there does not seem enough to say about illiteracy to make illiteracy studies a major. There is something to be said about illiteracy, which may be of interest to sociologists and other social scientists, but not enough for a major. And the same seems to be true of secularism.

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