Monday, April 9, 2012

Secular studies?

I've been spending some time on CFI's forums these days. It's a secular website and organization. CFI stands for Center for Inquiry.

I joined because I felt I wanted to belong to a community of other like minded individuals. That is one thing the churches have going for them, they have a community that is organized, that they can belong to.
There is a post I've been following a bit lately that started with a poll.
Should the secular movement push for colleges to offer degrees in Secularism?
The first member to post said "The study of Secularism would be where political science, public policy, and religious studies meet. I’ll update this thread with my ideas shortly, feel free to discuss"
A bit down the forum I weighed in with some responses. The boxes are quotes from other members, I've left out their names, and after that is my reply. Also everything below in italics is not my words, but other members replies. Also note, this is just a few snippets, I haven't copied every single post in the thread, only the comments I replied to as a way of a bit of context for my responses. 
Someone going to school to study Theology would most likely believe to some degree that the documents and religious institutions they study hold some holy power, this is however a completely one sided opinion, perhaps even more so than someone presupposing that government and religion should be separate.
So far as I know, secular colleges and universities do not offer degrees in theology. (Maybe I’m just under-informed on this point.) So when you speak of “someone going to school to study theology,” you must be speaking of theological seminaries. Why should a theological seminary offer a degree in secularism? That makes no sense to me.
As for secular institutions of higher education, “secular studies” encompasses the entire curriculum, including the study of religion, which is studied in a non-doctrinal fashion. So in secular institutions, a degree in secularism makes no sense.
In sum, I don’t see how this proposal makes sense for any institution.
My reply . . .
I just had an hour long telephone conversation with my brother who is a minister, and from that conversation I could say that even in a seminary there might be some open minded individuals who think it is important to have some knowledge of how the other side thinks. I don’t know if a whole degree in those institutions would be realistic, but perhaps some courses might fit into their path in some way. If society becomes more and more secular and secularist become more outspoken and political, then there might be very practical reasons for those entering seminary to study it. It may help them to figure out where their religious institutions and vocations will fit in an ever changing world, so it might be a stretch, but I wouldn’t say it would be completely unthinkable.

Part of one of the later replies to the thread was "IMO, it’s not really worthwhile; university students that are majoring in the hard sciences and philosophy are effectively “learning secularism” as it is - as long as their professors are good at their jobs."
Here's my response to that . . .
I think there is truth in that, most of my profs were pretty good at their jobs, though I was already an atheist. I still think it’s possible that having, at least a course if not an entire degree, that is specifically named secularism would be useful. If some of these classes are as you say effectively teaching secularism, rather than ask “Why call a course or degree Secularism” ask “Why not?” I’m not claiming there might not be good arguments against it, but I think perhaps naming it could do well in promoting more understanding and respect for it. I also think the bent would be a little bit different that a degree aimed at teaching hard sciences and philosophy, and I think it would have some slightly more specialized goals. In the above category, learning about secularism is merely a by product, whereas if the course was named for secularism it would be put more front and center. It might study secular social movements, political movements, philosophical stances and yes of course the influence of hard sciences and philosophy. I think though, having that name would probably propel the research in slightly different directions, and if many people were studying this that it would go in directions that we can’t fully predict (though we can make some good guestimates I imagine) where such a field might go, how it might branch off in the future. Speaking of branching off, perhaps it’s simply one of the next logical branches that are to inevitably come from such degrees as hard sciences, philosophy, and I’d add religious studies.
I also think that it makes secularism in general more visible, and less misunderstood, to be vocal, politely vocal perhaps (though I’m reminded of a Hitchens article about when rudeness is in fact called for). In the past I have had some times where I was tempted to self censor my self, or keep my atheism under wraps, or at least sugarcoat it with a label that is going to be easier for religious people to swallow. Other times I’ve made no secret about it. Personally, I don’t usually go out of my way to bring it up, but also try to be truthful and honest about what I really think and believe if asked. I think that is part of the problem, self censorship, or being too quiet about it, out of the fear of upsetting someone, or simply to avoid conflict. Sure there are some situations where that might be the best route, but I wouldn’t say it is anywhere near universal.
I look to the whole queer movement, and how their movement to come out of the closet, and be proud of what they are, how that has done a lot to make the world, or at least parts of the world, more accepting and less judgmental. I just today read something on someone’s blog about how a gay teen challenged his mother who was very anti gay and managed to change her mind about spreading hate towards gays. If he’d just shut up about it, and kept it a secret knowing how his homophobic parents would have reacted, he’d never have had a chance to change her mind. (I wasn’t able to post the link, somehow I got blocked, but it was called (A Teen’s Brave Response to “I’m Christian, Unless You’re Gay”) and it was on a blog called “single dad laughing” the april 2, 2012 post if you are interested in reading it. I sometimes wonder if the reason there are no courses, or very few to my knowledge or degrees that explicitly label themselves as secularism studies or something similar, is perhaps a result of a habit of avoiding calling what it is, when it comes to secularism, maybe even a subconscious self censorship that even secularists themselves don’t really recognize. It’s just a thought, but I think it’s a thought that such a degree or course might be able to research. It might turn out to be completely wrong, but isn’t it premature to say that without researching it first?
These days it’s become much more accepted, would shows like ‘Will and Grace’ have been possible thirty years ago for instance, and enjoyed by both gay and straight people. I know there is still loads of homophopia, but I also think there is a lot more straight people who are willing to stand up and say that gays are normal, natural and should have all the rights as anyone, and not be feared. Maybe it seems trivial to talk about mere sitcoms, but that existence hasn’t come about in a vacuum, there has also been a lot of political advocates of gay rights, and people doing ‘queer theory’ research in university. Another example might be the feminism movement. They have their courses that are specifically named Feminist theories, and feminist critiques and research. I think that has helped their struggle to bring understanding and equality to the world. And yes, there are still lots of misogynists around, but I do think they have had a positive impact from being vocal, visible, and outspoken not only in the general population and politics, but in academia as well. I think a good argument could be made that secularism might also benefit from taking that approach, and doing it explicitly.
Readers (if anybody is actually reading this lol) what are your thoughts on the matter?

Also, if anyone wants to see the post on CFI's forums for context, you can find it here -

Edit and Update: Found some such degrees do in fact exist

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