Secular Studies at Pitzer

Pitzer College has a new program in Secular Studies.  The courses listed in the catalogue to date are:  Sociology of Religion;  Secularism, Skepticism and Critiques of Religion;  Seeking Human Nature: The History and Science of Innateness;  Explorations in Deep Time;  Anxiety in the Age of Reason;  Introduction to Knowledge, Mind and Existence;  Monkey Business: Controversies in Human Evolution;  and History of Science.

I applaud these courses, all of which strike me as rich.  I wonder, however, whether, insofar as these classes deal with secular movements in thought or politics, they might not more naturally be taught under the auspices of my department, the Department of Religious Studies.  Secularism is, by definition, a counter-movement to religion, and thus would seem to fall under our umbrella.  And when I think of potential majors in such a program, it seems to me that the broader study of RS could give them some important historical context.  After all, a student majoring in Secular Studies should have a solid understanding of what the secularists define themselves against.

Of course there might be good reason for an independent Secular Studies program, namely if the Department of Religious Studies at the institution in question were theological, teaching religion instead of studying it.  But I can’t think of an RS department, outside of those in Christian colleges, where that’s true, and it certainly isn’t true of our department.  Meanwhile I worry that the existence of a program in Secular Studies will make students think that it is.  Even the most reasonable student might be led to conclude, from the existence of the two programs, that we are pushing religion and they are not.

I expressed this concern in an article in the student paper.  In the same piece, one of the founders of the Secular Studies program is quoted saying that “ Religious Studies isn’t necessarily trying to win converts to religion.”  These words caused an absolute furor in one of my classes.  “Not necessarily!  How dare they?”  This was the unanimous sentiment of the class, who explained to me that they are already misunderstood by friends and parents who expect them to go on to graduate work in seminaries, with an eye to the ministry.

I’m not sure if any action would be worthwhile at this point.  But it did occur to me to lobby Secular Studies to cross-list all our courses, in return for which we would cross-list all of theirs.  That way students could take the program, and call it Religious Studies or Secular Studies as they pleased.

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