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SDSU Expands Course List To Offer Secular Studies

August 29, 2011 1:12 p.m.

Southern California colleges are ahead of the curve as more universities offer courses in the study of secularism and unbelief.

Related Story: SDSU Expands Course List To Offer Secular Studies


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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Students are returning for a new semester ata San Diego state university today. And those signing up for religious studies will find a new and somewhat surprising addition to the curriculum. SDSU is joining a handful of California colleges that are adding atheist, secular, and humanist courses to their religion curriculum. Some people looking at the growing ranks of nonbelievers would say it's about time. Others may have a problem with combining a study of philosophies that are often antireligious under the banner of religious studies. Joining me to talk about the new course is my guest, professor Roy Whitaker who teaches the history of religion and irreligion and African diasporic religion and philosophy. Professor Whitaker, thank you for joining me.

WHITAKER: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us how the idea for this class came about.

WHITAKER: The idea for the course came through a confluence of events. In 2009, we had a faculty meeting in the religious studies department. And we began to think about ways to diversify the curriculum. And one of the mission statements of our department here in San Diego state university is to cultivate an understanding of religious diversity. And this includes nonreligious perspectives. So I take it upon myself to read as much literature as I possibly could on the topic of atheism, humanism and secularism, and I'm glad to say I read a proposal, I sent it to various committees at SDSU. And they approved the course to be actually a general education class. Will so students can get general education credit for taking this class. So the origin of the class was very much internal in that respect. In terms of external factors, there were a couple things at work. One being the fact that there is a rise of secularity around the globe. If we look at Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Japan, the Czech republic, we see a rising tide of individuals who are atheist, agnostic in these particular countries, including the United States, as a matter of fact. And see it's very important as we seek to develop global citizens in this religious and irreligious world, when you take track of this. Of the other thing that came to mind in terms of the development of this course had much to do with -- it's called neoatheism. Neoatheism is a term coined by Gary wolf in 2006. Neoatheism basically refers to these individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, Sam Harris, these other intellectuals that were basically for lack of a better word fed up with aspects of religiosity. And they went on the attack. And they basically began arguing that religion as such is actually harmful for society. And so -- and they were attacking a lot of the Christian evangelical ideas of being antiscientific, and antievolutionary theory. So the course was really born out of that kind of confluence of events, the need in the department to facilitate a dialogue about irreligious privileges, as well as this sort of cultural movement where there were these individuals, intellectuals which were in effect attacking religiosity proper.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with professor Roy Whitaker, and we're talking about a new class at SDSU which teaches atheist, secular, and humanist thought. And this is the first semester that this has been offered; is that right?

WHITAKER: That's absolutely correct. This is the very first semester the class has been offered here at San Diego state university.

CAVANAUGH: One might wonder if in a regular religion course, list say they're teaching Christianity, whether or not the ideas opposing Christianity might be brought up in terms of discussion and talked about in that form rather than having a separate crass. But what you seem to be saying is that there's so much activity now in the whole idea of secular thought that is now rates its own class.

WHITAKER: Very well said. That's absolutely right. In terms of religious studies, I must be fair. And that is that there has been over the last 50†years some discussion of atheism within's religious studies. There was something -- basically 1960, 1970, the death of God theology. There were people in religious studies questioning the belief of God, particularly after the Holocaust. But for the most part it's been sort of a subdiscipline. Because of the rate of irreligiousness in the world and even in north America, for example, today there are approximately 17% of this nation that are atheist, agnostic, not affiliated with any religious tradition. We're at an all-time high. Of so in effect, the academy is now recognizing that we need to give this its own particular separate space. The point you bring up originally I think is excellent as well. The course as it is designed is not an antireligious course. Just like I actually teach Christianity. And I also teach the world religions. And in these courses that I teach, and most of our curriculum is Islam and other kind of traditional courses, it is not an antiatheism course. We're trying to basically give it its own space. And then we'll critically engage it. But it's not nay an attempt to condemn religion. But it's definitely a way to expose other viewpoints that need to be noted. So yeah, I'm part of that, and we're part of that dialogue now.

CAVANAUGH: Is SDSU one of the first universities to actually offer a course like this?

WHITAKER: It's interesting. In terms of the landscape today, I'm sort of on the heels of another gentleman named Phil Zuckerman out of Pencer college. And they've got a lot of attention recently, and rightly so. He's a sociologist at a Pencer college in the Clairemont colleges in California, and he effectively designed a secular studies major. . And it's basically being provided now. So we're sort of on that type of cusp. I'm like Zuckerman in this respect, and that is that he argues that the study of unbelief is just as valid as the study of belief. And if you think about the world context in which we live in today with the largest religion being Christianity, over two billion people, number two is Islam with 1.2†billion, we have the third largest religion, Hinduism with 900 mill job, but we have the fourth largest group, nonbelievers. Between five hundred and seven hundred and 50 million people. So Phil Zuckerman, myself here at San Diego state yesterday, this is a still called Trinity college that has a group that does this, and they're developing a cohort of scholars to study this area. What you will see is there's little pockets in and around north America, maybe not so much in the Bible belt, but in other maces that are definitely looking at this seriously. And there will be colleges there as well, don't get me wrong. But you'll see this sort of growing secular studies movement in the foreseeable future, I'm sure.

CAVANAUGH: What do you actually -- how do you go about teaching unbelief, nonbelief? I mean what will students actually, when they sit down in class, what are the kinds of things they're going to be learning?

WHITAKER: Well once again, the course is going to actually start soon, so we'll find out. I dividing the course into three sections, actually. Atheism, humanism, and secularism. I'm using Martin's text on the Cambridge companion to atheism, I'm using another text called critical humanisms that teals with the humanist tradition, then I'm using a book that deals with secularism, and multicultural citizenship. Briefly stated in about 30†seconds, we'll be looking at, in the eighth wimp section, the recommendations of atheism.

A. Where was it coined? It goes back to the Greeks. And we'll talk about the demographics. Where is atheism located today? We will get into a little bit about the arguments, the pro and con of the belief in God. But we'll spend more time looking at the demographics, who's atheist, who's not atheist. And I'll concern, for example, the African American community and unbelief. Because I taught a course in 2007 titled African American religions, and that's really when I began thinking seriously because most, I thinking of the public's understanding of black religion is the church. And that's obviously an historic and important source. But I realized, started studying in 2007, that the African American population, for example, make up 12% of the population in north America. But about three% are unbelievers. So they're going to find out in my class about unbelief relative to African Americans, relative to the gay community, relative to a number of a host of different communities. The humanism section will be in more varieties of humanism. And then in the secularism section in particular, we're going to actually focus on what's called sort of the Muslim question in the field. Because 91110-year anniversary is coming up in a couple weeks, and it presents an opportunity to talk about how to live with difference and otherness. So that gives you a sense about the layout of the class.

CAVANAUGH: It's a good point that you make about the term atheist, and people who call themselves atheists because there was a recent study asking Americans which religious groups they find least trustworthy. And the most untrusted group according to the Americans who took this study are atheists. So there's still a stigma attached to nonbelief.

WHITAKER: Absolutely. Correct. What's interesting about sort of the American religious landscape and this is important to note too even though I am engaged in secular studies, no one that I'm familiar with is saying that religion is passe or going out of style. Not now in religious America. Although about 80% of Americans are Christian, about five% or so are other traditions, we have about roughly 17 or so% who are unbelievers. The story of American history is really the story of in and out groups. And this was a book written in 1955 by Will Herbert. He wrote an essay tall titled protestant, Catholic, Jew. And in the middle of the century he basically reflected sort of the mentality of America, meaning that if you were a protestant, if you were Catholic, and you were Jewish, then you were basically part of the American religious landscape. That leaves out LDS members, Jehovah Witnesses, it depends on where you put them on the Christian tradition. But of course atheist. That is why it's so important to rethink the category of atheism particularly for individuals who may be of that ilk. For example, this is actually important because as a college professor, the fact is, based upon the pew research center, one in four persons, if you're between the age of 18 and 29, 1 in four persons are unbelief or nonbeliever. Or an atheist or agnostic. If you're a college professor, most of our students across the nation tend to know somewhere between 18 to 24†years of age. It's really likely that you're going to have somebody who is in your class who is of this particular persuasion. I think it's important to have a civil conversation regardless of one's particular religious or irreligious bent. And to be really frank with you, I think at the end of the day, you will find a lot of common ground or common perspective that are overlapping many groups even though they may have a different view about theism, God, and the like.

CAVANAUGH: Did you get any opposition to starting this class? Any pushback?

WHITAKER: Well, very good question. And the answer has -- is no. I think I'm at the point now or maybe because there has been a great deal of things going on before I proposed the class that I haven't had any kind of pushback whatsoever. However, it's not always the case. I can cite individuals who were sort of thinking about this concept some 10, 15†years ago. Anthony Pen is one of them. And in his work, and we'll cover him in my class, he was writing his dissertation on the issue of unbelief, and people were suggesting it's not a good idea for to you go down this route. And what happened is that he had a position at various colleges and somebody was interviewing him, and it came out that he was of the atheist humanist background, and they wrote an article, and then people in the community were calling. So they were basically trying to burn the house down. I think we've reached a point not totally, but that we need to -- I really feel is to have a conversation and dialogue. And once again, the course is more or less the history of these particular movements. It's not necessarily a pro and con. It's more of a type of social, historical, scientific approach to analyzing it. But in short, no, I haven't had any kind of pushback. I've been getting a lot of good feedback. And as I think I told you off the air, we had to increase the enrollment. It was supposed to be a seminar, but people are pretty interested in this matter.

CAVANAUGH: So it's -- turns out it's going to be a very popular class this semester. And as we say, the semester just began here at SDSU. So I want to wish you the best of luck. And thank you very much for coming in and speaking with us. I have been speaking with SDSU professor Roy Whitaker. Thank you.

WHITAKER: Thank you.