Pitzer Adds New Secularism Major

Beginning this year, Pitzer will offer an interdisciplinary program in Secular Studies, which will focus on the study of non-religious people and their ideas, history, movements, politics, and culture.

Secular Studies counts in the “Field Group B” category of academic programs, a status that designates it as an experimental program on a four-year-probation. “Field Group A” programs, which include all major departments, are permanent. The Secular Studies program, led by Pitzer Sociology Professor Phil Zuckerman, is considered a “special major”, which requires classes in sociology, religion, philosophy, science, and history.

According to Zuckerman, Secular Studies defines secularism as “a movement to make a society more non-religious,” and focuses on studying secular ideas, philosophy, culture, and people.

“The goal here is not to promote but to study, just as Religious Studies isn’t necessarily trying to win converts to religion,” Zuckerman said. Instead, the aim of the Secular Studies program, he added, is to study and understand secularism and secular ideas, which he said are growing in popularity around the world.

Though Secular Studies is not a new discipline, as Zuckerman explained, Pitzer is the first to turn it into a course of study at the 5Cs. Previously there was “no real academic home” for Secular Studies; however, there is a “confluence of different scholars all over the country starting to study secularity, secularism, secularization,” he said.

As a sociologist, Zuckerman said he was studying non-religious people and cultures when he discovered that a colleague was studying the intellectual history behind non-religious ideas and secularism as a movement. Working together, both scholars realized that Secular Studies could constitute its own discipline.

Several years ago, Zuckerman taught a class on secularism and skepticism at Pitzer. The class generated student interest in the field, he said, which led him to consider Secular Studies as a viable program. After meeting with several colleagues, he drafted a proposal to establish Secular Studies as a Field Group B program.

Zuckerman said he has not seen much opposition to the founding of the program. He has, however, received disapproval from one of his own colleagues, Pitzer Anthropology and Historical Studies Professor Dan Segal.

On his blog, Shake Well Before Using, Segal said that his “concern is that establishing a separate major in Secular Studies would expose studies to too constrained (or circumscribed) a range of views on religion and secularism.” While Segal was not opposed to teaching classes in the area of Secular Studies, he indicated that he was opposed to those classes being established as a major.

Zuckerman pointed to other highly specific disciplines, such as Jewish Studies at Claremont McKenna, as examples of other legitimate disciplines within the scope of religious studies. Despite an overlap between Religious Studies and Secular Studies, Zuckerman said he views the two as complementary.

“Religiosity and secularity only make sense in a continuum,” he said.

Associate Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies department at Pomona, Oona Eisenstadt, said she was confused by the program, saying that she felt it belongs within the scope of Religious Studies.

“We’re mystified by it,” Eisenstadt said. “We don’t understand what their motive is to put on this program, because it seems to us that there is not just an enormous overlap, but [it’s] as if everything taught under the auspices of this program could be or is already taught in Religious Studies.”

One of Eisenstadt’s main concerns was that the name “Secular Studies” would imply that the department of Religious Studies does not teach religion from a critical or detached standpoint, while Secular Studies does. “We already teach the philosophical critique of religion [and] dissenting movements within religion,” she said. “We want to give students the tools to be critical of religious ideas.”

According to Eisenstadt, students haven’t expressed interest in the Secular Studies department specifically, but many students expressed interest in “secular matters,” for which they can find classes in the Religious Studies department. Eisenstadt said she doubts that Secular Studies will ever come to Pomona.

Zuckerman, however, reported receiving a fair amount of support from professors who expressed interest in starting similar programs. Although Zuckerman said that it is unlikely that students will declare Secular Studies as a major this year, he anticipated more majors soon, adding that he hopes to obtain several grants to expand the program and the curriculum. One such grant would help fund a conference to bring together experts on secularity, secularism, and Secular Studies. Zuckerman said he would be willing to cut the program if no students express serious interest in the major within the next few years.

“I created this assuming there was student interest, [but] if there’s no student interest, if students don’t enroll in the class and sign up for the special major, I’ll be the first person to pull the cord,” he said.

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