So You Want To Study Secularism?

Via Harvard University Press Blog:

According to a report in yesterday’s New York Times that is making its way around the internet this morning, this fall Pitzer College will become the first institution to create a department of secular studies and offer a major in secularism. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, proposed the department as a way of concentrating study on modern society’s shift away from religion as its primary organizational structure. The Times quotes Zuckerman as saying that “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.”

At HUP over the last handful of years we’ve developed an essential little list of books on this very topic. Consider this our pitch for course adoption.

Our list on secular studies is anchored by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, published in 2007. The book begins with a simply phrased question that captures the spirit of inquiry behind Pitzer’s new endeavor: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” More simply asked than answered, of course.

Taylor notes three senses in which modern Western society could be said to have become secular. One applies to public spaces or social spheres, where behavior and interactions were once guided by religious principles but have now been ostensibly emptied of God. As Taylor notes, this sense of secularization is not incompatible with a continued individual belief in God and embrace of religion. So, a second sense he then identifies is that of a falling off of religious practice and belief.

A Secular Age mostly concerns itself with a third sense, which for Taylor consists of “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” To Taylor this entails a fundamental shift in what it means to believe, which occurs when belief itself becomes merely an option. From the Introduction:

So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true.

The book can fairly be said to have galvanized scholarly inquiry into secularism, and any new work on the subject must reckon with Taylor. One we published ourselves is a collection called Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, which we’d informally considered something of a user’s manual for A Secular Age. Edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, and with contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Taylor himself, and nearly a dozen others, it’s another volume that should make it into the hands of Pitzer’s majors.

We also recently published Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Smith argues that public discourse has been drained of force and authenticity because religion was formally forced out but is then usually “smuggled” right back in. If we’re to remain a society that engages in profitable open discussion, Smith says, we’ll have to figure out a way to free discourse from the constraints imposed by secularism.

Forthcoming this fall we have two new books that will surely find a place within any serious curriculum on secularism. One is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. The book was meant to be a new history of the Reformation, but instead became a much larger examination of its unintended consequences. All of the pluralism that we see in society today, much of which is evoked by the word “secular,” traces back five hundred years to the late Middle Ages, says Gregory. More on this one in the coming months.

Also this fall we’ll publish Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. Like Gregory’s, this book might seem more suited to a traditional religion department than one devoted to studying secularism, but surely that line will prove itself to be one not easily drawn. As Zuckerman told the Times, part of the impetus for creating Pitzer’s new department was the now-huge number of people who consider themselves atheists. Though atheism and secularism aren’t exactly the same thing, clearly the growing embrace of the one leads us to a society more characterized by the other.

The surge in Atheism owes much to the writing of the so-called “New Atheists,” among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Where the New Atheists cast religion as a war-mongering belief system that should be disproven and then discarded, Bellah synthesizes biological, historical, and sociological research to offer an understanding of what religion actually is and how it developed and changed over time. What’s unique about the book is its focus on human evolution and the development of capacities like storytelling, dance, and mythmaking, which evolved nearly simultaneously around the world into systems we’d now recognize as religion. So, at this world historical moment when so much of Western society seems in a rush to leave religion behind, Bellah, one of our greatest sociologists of religion, has taken the time to reexamine where it came from. So much of what he finds will challenge the very foundations of today’s Atheism that, like A Secular Age, Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution will be critical for understanding the West’s relationship with religion today.

So, secularism studies… surely there’s a syllabus to be made in here somewhere, no?


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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