In light of the rising tide of the religious “nones,” one college has decided to be the first to offer a major in secularism. Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will offer the major through a new department of secular studies.
Professors from a number of departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses such as “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”
Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion and self-described “agnostic-atheist,” proposed the new venture. His interest was sparked by the rising tide of secularism both in the United States and around the world. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, released in 2009, the percentage of American adults who say they have no religion has doubled in 20 years, to 15 percent, constituting the third largest religious group in the nation (eclipsed only by Catholics and Baptists).
“There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious,” contends Zuckerman. “You have some countries where huge percentages of people – Czechs, Scandinavians – now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.”
“It has not been studied,” he added.
He’s right. It hasn’t. And it needs to be. And not simply by those who embrace secularism, but by those who embrace the Christian faith. We are far more prone to denounce than to discern, to condemn than to comprehend. Those who follow Christ must understand the tenets, causes and movements of secularism if we are to engage secularism in the marketplace of ideas.
We are, after all, on their turf. No longer do we speak to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2), but to those on Mars Hill (Acts 17).
So do not condemn Pitzer College or Mr. Zuckerman. Instead, enroll in the program. Perhaps not formally, but certainly engage the discipline of study it suggests. Many books offer an important and incisive look into the world of secularism, and the good ones should be read.
Which brings up a question: which texts would you suggest?
I put forward a modest attempt to describe the flow of history and culture to this point that has created much of secularism’s rise in my book Serious Times, so I’m biased that this might be one to consider.
Others would include Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and why it Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. James Turner wrote an overlooked but important book titled Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Zuckerman himself wrote an intriguing book titled Society without God. I still find Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason an insightful and helpful writing. The works of David Martin, Peter Gay, Steve Bruce and Peter Berger (and Berger’s Christian translator, Os Guinness) also bear close attention.
What titles would you make required reading for Christians on the topic of secularism? I look forward to viewing your suggestions in the response section to this blog on churchandculture.org.
Because this is one area where we all need to go to school.
James Emery White
“Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism,” Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, May 7, 2011. Read online.
“A Land of Swedes,” James Emery White, ChurchandCulture.org, posted March 29, 2009. Read online.
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
For a précis on the ARIS study, along with links to the full survey click here.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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