Secular Studies Arrives at Last

Phil Zuckerman

Students can now study secularity. They can even get a degree in it.

Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, has formally approved the formation of a secular studies department – the first such department in the United States, and I think, the world. I’m very proud to be a part of this exciting development.

Broadly conceived, secular studies is an interdisciplinary program focusing on manifestations of the secular in societies and cultures, past and present. Secular studies entails the study of non-religious people, groups, thought, and cultural expressions. Emphasis is placed upon the meanings, forms, relevance, and impact of political/constitutional secularism, philosophical skepticism, and personal and public secularity.

From a philosophical perspective, we are interested in studying the development of naturalistic worldviews and ethical positions devoid of supernatural assumptions. We also find debates over the existence of God most engaging. From a sociological point of view, we seek to know what types of people tend to be secular, what cultures are largely secular, and how secularity intersects with other social phenomena. We’re also interested in studying secular groups and secular social movements. From a psychological point of view, we seek to learn about the minds and personalities of atheists and agnostics, and the ways in which secularity is correlated with other psychological phenomena, as well as upbringing, family dynamics, etc.. And neurological aspects of secularity are especially exciting. Historically, we seek to uncover evidence of secularity in the past and the development of secularism over time. We are also fascinated by the role secularism plays in political life; Turkey and France stand out as two current political theaters where an understanding of secularism is essential. In short, the time has come to take secularity seriously as a significant subject of study in its own right.

Why now?

Several factors have contributed to the birth of secular studies. The biggest, however, is the undeniable growth of secularity in recent years. Based on data from various surveys–including the American Religious Identification Survey, the Faith Matters survey, and Pew Forum surveys–the rise of irreligion is being heralded as one of the most significant changes on America’s religious landscape. The percentage of American “nones” – people who, when asked what their religion is, claim “none” – has grown from 8 percent back in 1990 up to between 15 percent and 17 percent today. Approximately 660,000 Americans now join the ranks of those claiming no religion every year. Somewhere between 12 percent and 21 percent of Americans are atheist or agnostic in orientation–the highest rates of non-belief ever seen in U. S. history. Furthermore, 27 percent of Americans currently “do not practice any religion” and 22 percent say that religion is “not a factor” in their lives. Almost 30 percent of Canadians can now be considered secular, and approximately 1 in 5 Canadians does not believe in God. Europe has experienced widespread secularization in recent decades as well. In France, for example, 33 percent of the citizenry is now atheist, claiming not to believe in God or any sort of “spirit” or “life force,” while in Belgium the percentage is 27 percent. Rates of unbelief are even higher in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, and Slovenia. We also find significant chunks of secularity in various regions around the globe, including Uruguay, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Azerbaijan — to name several disparate examples.

As the number of secular men and women continues to grow worldwide, so too will the number of scholars interested in studying them. The most obvious example of this occurring has been the formation in 2008 of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN), an international and interdisciplinary network, currently with over fifty scholars from around the world as affiliated members. And just a few years earlier, in 2005, we saw the establishment of Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, the first university-linked institute focused on advancing the understanding of the role of secular values and the process of secularization in contemporary society and culture. And now we have an undergraduate program offering a degree in secular studies.

On a personal note: I could just sense the thirst out there. So many students, perhaps galvanized by the New Atheists, wanted to take classes that challenged religious worldviews, explored the social construction of religion, articulated rational ethics, provided a solid grounding in evolution, and the like. When I first decided to offer a course called “Secularism, Skepticism, and Irreligion,” the student response was overwhelming. The snowball has been growing ever since.

For over 100 years, scholars from numerous disciplines have been studying every fathomable aspect, facet, angle, limb, version, development, level, and form of religion. Now some scholars (and more importantly, students!) are starting to look outside the religious box. There’s a lot out there.

Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman grew up in Southern California, but has lived in Oregon, Israel, and Denmark. He is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California. He is the author of several books, including Society Without God (NYU Press, 2008) and Faith No More (Oxford U. Press, 2011).


Students can now study secularity. They can even get a degree in it. Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, has formally approved the formation of a secular studies department – the first such department in the United States, and I think, the world. I’m very proud to be a part of …

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