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Pitzer College’s “Secularism” Major

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Dave Muscato here. I’m sure many of you have read the New York Times article about Pitzer College adding the nation’s first “Secularism” major to their offerings. I’m a fan of sociologist Phil Zuckerman, the same guy who wrote Societies Without God: What the Least Religious Societies Can Tell Us About Contentment, which I will probably review at some point on this blog. However, I am not a fan of the idea of a “secularism” major, and the purpose of this entry is to tell you why.

Let’s start by looking at the difference between a major in theology and a major in religious studies, and compare this to a major in secularism.

According to theologian Patrick Granfield:

Theology is the questing, probing, and searching of the Word of God; it is a rational effort, guided by faith, that attempts to penetrate the message of God.

This is from his textbook, Theologians at Work. Most theology programs in this country are, unsurprisingly, focused on Christian theology, but that’s not a necessary condition for a theology program. Many theology majors go into the field in order to become ministers. Basically, as a theology student, you can expect to study what the religion in question teaches and what influential thinkers within that religion have written about it, and occasionally what writers outside that religion have written about it, as well as “an array of other disciplines, including history, philosophy, literature, international studies, anthropology, cosmology, ethics, science, and languages” (

Religious studies majors, on the other hand, are not so focused on what one religion teaches (especially with regard to things like philosophy & cosmology), nor on using faith as a guide.  At the University of Missouri, where I go to school, the Religious Studies department:

  • focuses on forms of religious life and religious expression,
  • raises basic issues about human experience, and
  • challenges the student’s ability to understand and interpret texts and practices.

according to their website. To major in Religious Studies at Mizzou, you must take classes on indigenous religions, Asian religions, Western religions, history, religious narratives, etc.  You study many religions around the world, not just one in particular. You (generally) take no classes in ministry nor missiology (aka “practical theology”; i.e. using practical tools from psychology, rhetoric, etc to build rapport and cross cultural barriers, with the ultimate purpose of persuading people to convert). I don’t think Mizzou even offers classes in practical theology – you generally have to go to a Bible college for that sort of thing, although interestingly, Boston University also offers classes in it, I hear.

Now, contrast this to a major in secularism. According to the NY Times article mentioned above,

Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

The reason I’m against the idea of a “secularism” major, in a sentence, is that it pits the study of secular subjects – in other words, reality – against the conjectural, as though they are on equal footing. We already have majors in subjects of things that really exist: Real history, real philosophy, real religious studies, real science, real sociology/anthropology. If you want to study those things, study them. If you want to study a select coadunatio of these things, many schools, Mizzou included, offer a “build-your-own” major. I do understand the advantages of having a ready-made course calendar and the added prestige of having a degree with an actual name (instead of “General Studies” or something similar), but consider the cost here: In the eyes of the general public, a degree in “secularism” implies that there is an alternative where none exists. There already is a secular study of history. It’s called history. There already is a secular study of science. It’s called science.

My problem is not so much with the program itself; these are classes that sound interesting and that I wish were available at my school. The problem is having a separate major with this name and its implications. The word “secular” has Latin roots in saecularis, which is the genitive of saeculum (age/span of time). It literally means “of an age” and like the Greek aion (lifetime, age) was used in ecclesiastical writing to refer to the impermanent, the transient – that is, this world, as opposed to the eternal one “beyond.”

The problem is that there is no eternal world “beyond.” This world is all that there is. If you’ve never seen it, please take 9 minutes now to watch Tim Minchin’s “Storm” on YouTube (trust me, it’s worth it). Here is a link to a version with the lyrics titlesd since Mr. Minchin has something of an accent:

The relevant part starts at 7:29, but resist the temptation to start there; really, it’s worth it! Minchin says it much better than I can.

If you want to study what’s real, go to college. That’s why it’s there. Secularism is all around us. It fills the books at Ellis Library and the PowerPoint presentations of countless university professors. It’s present in the air and in the elements that make up our universe. The human ‘soul’ is beautiful precisely because it is real, in the sense that it is an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains, otherwise known as consciousness. We’ve been studying secularism since the days of Ibn al-Haytham, Aristotle, Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, Hippocrates, Newton, Copernicus, and Euclid, just to name a few. This is all that there is and all that we need, and with or without the Pitzer degree.

As is the case with all my beliefs, I enjoy being proven wrong. If you disagree with me about a “secularism” major being counterproductive for the goal of conquering ignorance and the promotion of rational thought, please leave a comment below and tell me why.

Until next time,



About MU SASHA Administrator

University of Missouri SASHA (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) University of Missouri-Columbia

3 comments on “Pitzer College’s “Secularism” Major

  1. Tony Lakey
    May 10, 2011

    You make a great point, I am skeptical of the necessity or usefulness of such a degree, although I would absolutely love to take some of those courses, and agree entirely that I would want them to be offered here.

  2. Jerry Winn
    May 12, 2011

    My only real concern with this is that it’s essentially a general studies major, i.e., basically useless. There’s not really a career here, and I have reservations about pushing college degrees that devalue the meaning of having a college degree. While it’s great to have a more educated populace, I can’t imagine that an entire degree program is a good educational investment for many individuals. Even someone important to “the cause” is probably better served by, as you say, a degree in something like science.

    However, I don’t necessarily think that it takes anything important away from the advancement of atheism, and may even make it more accessible by its more direct exposure. Overall, I think it’s a lateral move that deserves more criticism for being a waste of resources.

  3. Pingback: I saw Tim Minchin last night :) « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato, Web Links & Videos and tagged , , .
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