One of the fastest-moving academic trends in the U.S. today is the creation of ‘secular studies’ programs, the advent of which seems both long overdue and suspiciously tilted. Pitzer College, a small liberal arts school in California, recently launched an entire “department” devoted to secular studies. And, in what is sure to be an interesting counterpoint to the mission of First Things, the country’s first “academic journal of secularism and non-religion,” published by Trinity College in Connecticut, is due to launch this January.
In one sense, it’s difficult to object to the rising academic interest in secularism. To borrow an argument from John Henry Newman in defense of theology as a scholastic subject: if the university is to be truly ‘universal’, then, it cannot and should not ignore one of the strongest forces shaping Western culture over the past five centuries. Indeed, from the vantage point of a religious believer, this sudden upsurge in professorial interest in the phenomenon of secularism might even be considered a boon. If academic elites begin to take both sides in the meeting of faith and public life more seriously, perhaps longstanding stereotypes of religious believers can begin to be combated.
But then, of course, there are issues surrounding this emerging field which even its leading proponents concede have not been resolved. What, for example, does a class on secularism study? How can such a subfield avoid extensive overlap with courses in politics, literature, or sociology? And, given the endless proliferation of subfields at the university level in recent decades (with everything from area studies to zoological management becoming a seemingly distinct sector of research), is another spinoff dedicated to something as notoriously mercurial as ‘secularism’ truly the most prudent way of evaluating this topic?
A recent piece in the Washington Post offers perhaps the most detailed look at what the emerging discipline might involve. Focusing on a seminar run by Jacques Berlinerblau at Georgetown University, the article reveals the content of this particular course to be rather disappointing. “Berlinerblau’s classes focus on secularism as the study of relations between church and state,” reports the Post, which goes on to describe just how ragtag even this narrowly focused seminar can be on certain days. In describing the intellectual sources of the American Founding, for example, Berlinerblau rather glibly summarizes:
“So Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Locke, their fear was: Don’t let your religious freak flag fly in public too much” — meaning that too much religious passion can cause divisions and even violence”
While Berlinerblau and others in his field are to be commended for their rejection of “angry atheism” as a valid response to religious believers, this reduction of ‘secularism’ to one strain of late-Enlightenment Deistic liberalism is overly narrow.
And, so far at least, religious believers would do well to hold on to their recurring concerns about ‘academic indoctrination.’ At the conclusion of the seminar, as recounted in the article, “all but one” of his students raised their hands to describe themselves as “secular.” The course seems to have fallen prey to reiterating a sort of Habermasian distinction between “private” and “public” spheres, rather than a fuller view of secularism as a spectrum, one which in which it is possible to espouse a spectrum of belief ranging from full religious faith to agnosticism or atheism to all sorts of quasi-mystical or pop-philosophical thoughts.
Nevertheless, since this field is barely on its feet, it’s worth giving it room to grow. It holds promise, and serious religious believers ought to track its as a means of potentially reclaiming their voices in the public square, rather than let it fall prey to the usual suspects in academia who promise neutrality but simply can’t deliver it.