Sunday, May 08, 2011

Know thyself

So Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, is unveiling a new major in "Secular Studies." I'm not sure what to think. First thought: aren't all the other majors - not perhaps excepting religious studies - already majors in secularism? Second thought: omigod, they're studying secularism as a religion! Third thought: wow, a student at Pitzer could conceivably double major in Religious Studies and Secular Studies!

But to be serious for a minute... I don't have more than a New York Times story on it, so should suspend judgment until I can see the program's rationale - and the curriculum. The founder, Danish-trained sociologist Phil Zuckerman, at least appears from the article's quotations to be a little coy.

"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. It has not been studied."

That last bit isn't quite true - in recent years some of the smartest people around have been exploring "secularism" and "secularity," not to mention the failures of secularization theory - but I imagine his point was a broader one. This research has yet to be taken seriously by the rest of the academy. Religious Studies exists to some degree (or on some accounts) as compensation for other disciplines' ignorance and neglect of something they should by rights be taking seriously; perhaps the argument for an academic study of secularism is analogous.

In any case, this does seem to be a turning point of some kind. In its way, perhaps, it's confirmation that we are entering a post-secular intellectual world - one where secularism isn't the unchallenged and untheorized norm of thought, action and explanation, but seen as one form which thought, action and explanation could take, among others.

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