Pitzer set to add a major in secular studies
Last May, the New York Times and other news outlets proclaimed that “Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism.” While the bold new program made waves across the country, few people outside the 5Cs actually know the real purpose of the program and what specifically students will be studying.
According to Pitzer’s website, the new secular studies program is “an interdisciplinary program focusing on manifestations of the secular in societies and cultures, past and present.” Students will study different forms of secularism, ask why people are secular, debate the virtues and challenges of secularity, and among other things, seek to understand its impact and significance. Secular studies is not about bashing religion or debating the existence of God, Pitzer sociology professor and program creator Phil Zuckerman assured.
Secular studies is a field group, and thus is neither an official major nor a department. Instead, like all newly proposed majors or departments at Pitzer, secular studies is included in a category of academic programs called “field group B.” Although Zuckerman has outlined the requirements for a major in secular studies, students must apply for a “special major” for any academic program listed under “field group B.” After four years, if secular studies is successful, it will become an official major.
Zuckerman thinks that an academic program in secular studies is long overdue at Pitzer. Secularity is a growing trend in many countries and is present in places as diverse as Canada, Sweden and Kazakhstan. Pitzer’s secular studies program will add to a growing number of intellectual programs and organizations studying secularity.
A major in secularism would include four core courses – “Sociology of Secularity,” “Skepticism, Secularism, and Critiques of Religion,” “The Secular Life” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” – as well as five elective courses. Electives draw from courses in sociology, history, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, international and intercultural studies, and the sciences. More classes will be added as this program, and the subsequent major, continue to evolve.
While only one student from Pitzer is currently majoring in the program, several 5C students have expressed interest. Kiley Lawrence SC ‘14 is majoring in Biophysics with a self-designed minor in secular studies through Scripps.
The secular studies major “is broadening religious studies to be more inclusive; to investigate more ideas of God,” explained Lawrence. “Science gives us facts and hypotheses, while the concepts central to secular studies allow for accep- tance of those ideas.”
According to Zuckerman, so far there have been no accusations of “religion-bashing.” It is widely agreed upon that secularity is a topic worth exploring, but there is some disagreement as to whether it merits its own academic field or should be included under an established field like religion, sociology, or history.
“[I believe] that establishing a separate major in secular studies would expose students to too constrained (or circumscribed) a range of views on religion and secularism,” explained Pitzer professor of history and anthropology Daniel Segal.
Barry Kosmin, the director of Trinity College’s secular institute is also against secularism being studied as its own major. Kosmin told The Huffington Post that he would prefer “to see secularism examined within other fields.” Others are concerned that students will not be attracted to the major because it does not offer clear job opportunities.
While these arguments do apply to the real world, they fail to take into account the nature of any major at a liberal arts college, such as Pitzer, which focuses on educating the entire self. A degree in secularism, like all other degrees in the social science, can lead to a diverse array of careers such as teaching, practicing law, community activism, writing or working at a nonprofit. Furthermore, many students chose a major based on what they are passionate about, not about what will give them the best job.
While secular studies is neither an official major nor a department, most people agree that it is exciting and significant that Pitzer is now providing students with the opportunity to study secularism.