Pitzer Secular Study Program Confounds Critics

Jun 3, 2014

In 2012, 74,193 students attended 260 divinity schools in North America.  That same year, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts college near Los Angeles, offered students a new option:  an undergraduate degree in secular studies.  In an increasingly secular world, Pitzer sociology professor Phil Zuckerman, author of Society Without God and Faith No More:  Why People Reject Religion, wanted a curriculum affording students the opportunity to study secularism’s many different forms and meanings.

Academics reacted skeptically and questioned Zuckerman’s motives.     Boston University sociologist Peter Berger sent him an email, expressing his hope that Pitzer’s program wouldn’t serve as “an excuse to push atheism.”  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs insisted that the program “should avoid triumphalism” and could be considered objective “if some of its students come in as devout atheists or agnostics and leave as religious believers.”

   While Pitzer’s program raised eyebrows, no academic openly questioned the motives of the thirteen faculties that established new divinity schools in 2012.  As he wondered about the academic objectivity of Pitzer’s program, Peter Berger didn’t seem bothered that he had published two books advocating Christian beliefs.  Alan Jacobs offered no parallel critique of Wheaton College, which has fired professors for expressing “un-Christian” beliefs or behaviors (for one example, see www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/education/04wheaton.html)

Professor Zuckerman did not let hypocritical criticism deter him.  He made the obvious point that if any secular studies program became “simply or solely a bastion of anti-religion, such an enterprise would quickly become tiresome for all involved.”  Pitzer press releases emphasized that students would study “various aspects of secularity from a historical, philosophical and sociological perspective,” a statement affirmed by the program’s own course descriptions.   Courses that focus on the increasingly contentious debate between believers and nonbelievers make no attempt to determine “winners’ or “losers.”

Today, two years after its inception, Pitzer College’s secular studies program is thriving.  Students are flocking to the program’s expanding course offerings.   Zuckerman estimates that in any given semester, 75 students—about 8% of Pitzer’s 900 students—enroll in secular studies’ courses.   “Secularism:  Local/Global”—which looks at secular movements and church/state battles worldwide—is perhaps the program’s most popular course.   Two new faculty—including Ciara Ennis, an art curator—are now affiliated with the program.  And last year, William Holt became the first Pitzer graduate with a secular studies major (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/phil-zuckerman/student-graduates-with-de_b_3750556.html)

Pitzer faculty also seem to be accepting the program.  Program adviser Dr. Phil Zuckerman recently introduced himself to a seminar attended by fifteen Pitzer faculty.  Zuckerman reports that “for the first time, no eyebrows were raised, no one snickered or asked me, ‘why don’t you lead us in a prayer?’”

Given these successes, Pitzer’s program, the first in the United States, has a bright future.   When the secular studies program completes its probationary period in two years, it will likely become a normal part of Pitzer’s curriculum.

The program’s success might be attributed, at least in part, to students’ strong interest in the social issues addressed by the program.  They are less interested in debating the existence of god.  According to Zuckerman, students say “there’s no god, we know,” and immerse themselves in “social button” issues raised by the 1st amendment, such as the division between church and state, or discrimination against atheists.

Yet, the program attracts its fair share of believers.  Zuckerman says that the program deepens their philosophical perspective and sharpens their sense of self.  They develop a new, more nuanced concept of what it means to be a secularist.

“It’s a wonderful benefit,” Zuckerman notes.

While Pitzer’s secular studies program offers a wide variety of courses, it lacks a course in late 20th and early 21st scientific developments.   Students can earn program credit for a course entitled “Monkey  Business:  Debates About Evolution,” taught by two Pitzer neuroscientists.   But no course focuses on quantum mechanics, astronomy, scientific cosmology or any of the other “hard” sciences so corrosive to religious beliefs.

On the other hand, while acknowledging he would like such a course in the program, Zuckerman says that, during his interviews, only 25-33% of the population attribute their atheism to their knowledge of the  physical sciences.    Interviewees say they discovered atheism through close friends or that belief in a deity “doesn’t make sense.”  Ironically, a fair number credit religious studies for their atheism.

“There is something about religious studies . . . that is potentially damaging to one’s faith,” Zuckerman says.  He posited that students’ skepticism increases as they learn the historical origins of religious beliefs.

Written By: Mark Kolsen

26 comments on “Pitzer Secular Study Program Confounds Critics

  • 1
    aquilacane says:

    Pitzer press releases emphasized that students would study “various aspects of secularity from a historical, philosophical and sociological perspective,”

    If you start from a dictionary prospective, you could wrap the course up in about two minutes, maybe three if there is a question. Skip roll call and you have it down to a minute.

    Websters take on secularism is as follows.
    :the belief (I would say position or concept, maybe that will add a minute back on) that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society

    You can go through all the other shit but a simple check sheet will help students manage on their own, after the initial class. When pondering the secularity of a subject simply refer to the check sheet. The sheet has one simple question on it: “Is the subject of conversation governmental, educational, or some other public part of society and is religion involved?

    Provide three boxes:



    Not Sure

    If the answer is Yes, it shouldn’t be and you must stop it now

    If the answers is No, carry on, everything is fine

    If the answer is Not Sure, look harder for fuck’s sake

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  • I don’t consider secularism to be the view that religion should play no part in public life. Secular government is one in which the government is neutral about religion not hostile to it. Therefore, religious people are as free to express their beliefs as the non-religious. It’s essential to free speech that this should be the case.

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  • I consider secularism to be the view that all religious and non religious people have equal access to the influencing of society. A secular society, however, grants no rights to any ideology on the basis of community tradition or longevity of adherence. A secular society cannot accept any argument for change that co-opts, simply, these notions of tradition. A secular society must work from the only shareable common substrate of evidence and reason, favouring the rights of the primary legal entities, individuals over any notional ideological group with officers who if they are not democratically empowered must be considered as potential exploiters.

    We wildly over privilege any mooted ideological group with undeserved uniformity

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  • The thing is, if this major stands up and becomes an offering at more and more colleges and universities, it is (IMO) a step towards a more widespread acceptance of secularism.

    As far as the curriculum being devoid of content and “over in a few minutes”, the developers of this curriculum should actually take a page from the religious studies folks and insert “the history of secularism”, “the philosophy of secularism”, “the financial impact of secularism”, “secular anthropology”, etc…

    Hell, the divinity schools manage to stretch a non-topic into a four year degree. They are the masters of bullshitting bullshitters. Why not allow ourselves the luxury of doing the same thing?

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  • Well, we’ll see if the mods are at least alive. With nowhere else to post this I’ll put it up here for now.

    They finally killed this place as far as I can see. By willfully ignoring the lessons of the past, by not having visibility of the latest traffic, by reducing the cues to navigate conversations, by removing the successful mood-taker of post-liking, by privileging minimalist appearance over creative conversation, it has demonstrated this site is no longer about us (atheists) trying to negotiate the manifold implications of our single premise, but is merely a simple-minded propaganda machine for its owner.

    This may have all the facility of today’s social media, but only at the expense of being facile.

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  • I take it that this changed format is a work in progress and other features will be added. The previous transition from the ‘old’ website worked out perfectly well. Let’s not be too impatient.

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  • The previous transition from the ‘old’ website worked out perfectly well.


    It failed to support long conversations anymore and was moderated to weed out any opportunity of developing ideas more broadly. The drive towards putting on a good show for the general public won out over depth of debate.

    We eventually pushed the developers to add some more functions needed last time, but we were then offered a channel to publicly debate the site’s needs and offer our views.

    We have none of that this time, nor do we have a roadmap of features planned.

    I’m getting my complaints in early because this all looks very bad to me so far. We need a spokesperson and we need a channel to express an opinion.


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  • I contacted them to see what was happening and got the following reply.

    ” Discussions have been removed. The time and personnel required to moderate them are simply not available to us at this time. Given our current resources, we felt that focusing on high-quality reputable content was a more efficient use of those resources. “

    I will probably stop bothering with this site although would it be nice to find some fora where we can continue, I rarely contributed but di enjoy reading what everyone else was writing.

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  • Never quickly. The site would need to also demonstrate an interest in the messy reality of atheists trying to live their lives, rather than be a glittery showcase for correct thinking.

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  • I’ve looked and not found what I’m looking for. But that just might be me.

    What I want is, science, reason, ethics/morality, secular politics and religion pretty much in that order.

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  • 16
    Katy Cordeth says:


    The reason the moderators didn’t allow images to be posted, as stated by themselves, was that they didn’t want the site to resemble Facebook. Now look at it.

    I know a fair amount of effort must have gone into this redesign, but let’s be honest, it’s a major fail.

    When the previous version of the site was launched, the one preceding that one was still accessible. Why not reinstate that version alongside the new, sucky one.

    Time is pressing, though.

    I don’t do the Facebook thing, but I am on it and can receive messages. If you guys find a new home, a heads up would be appreciated.

    Until then, good luck all and God bless. xxxxx

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  • What is the secret to posting a comment on the ‘secular stars’ and ‘science says’ articles?

    Comment box does not appear unless someone else posted. All the “zeros count” indicated it may not be just me.

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  • Am I the only one suffering withdrawal symptoms? I really miss the familiar usernames and comments. I only came upon this thread by accident after dropping in to see if anything had changed.
    In my efforts to seek an explanation, I came across an article written in 2010. It seemed strangely applicable.

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  • I discovered some interesting articles on Mrozatheist Blog. They were quite well written and left room for comments. I was disappointed by the small number of replies,though by this stage I was anxious to put my thoughts into words and this gave me an opportunity.

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  • I don’t know. But I searched for something I like better (or even as much) as RD.net several times and came up empty.
    I really do miss the plethora of people commenting on the articles.

    Then again, this site is like the scientific method in that although it’s not perfect it’s the best available right now. 🙂

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