San Diego State has new course on atheism

August 30, 2011 • 8:45 am

KPBS radio in San Diego, California, has a 15-minute interview with Professor Roy Whitaker, who’s going to teach a new course at SDSU called “Atheism, humanism, and secularism.” Whitaker is described as a “religious studies professor and expert in the history of religion and irreligion; and African American religious thought.”

You can hear the show at the link above. Whitaker thinks that atheism properly belongs in academic programs on religious studies, citing the rise of secularism in the United States as well as the popularity of New Atheist books and the effort of sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who has designed an entire secular studies major at Pitzer College.

Whitaker hasten to adds that the course doesn’t have an “anti-religious bent,” but that’s the way it should be. No proselytizing should be necessary. Whitaker describes the course content, with particular emphasis on atheism in marginalized groups (blacks, gays, etc.), a special section on Islam.  I just wonder how hard-hitting a case for atheism the students will be allowed to read: will they be assigned books by Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins?  Yes, there shouldn’t be any proselytizing, but there’s no need to turn the strong arguments for atheism into pablum.

The KPKS site also adds this:

Southern California colleges are leading the country in the field of secular studies. Claremont college recently announced their latest bachelor’s program devoted to secular studies, UC Irvine now offers courses on Atheism and Secularism, and San Diego State University is debuting its first course on Atheism, Humanism and Secularism this Fall. We will be speaking with the SDSU professor who is instructing the course to discuss this recent trend in higher education and the field of religious studies.

h/t:  Chris

17 thoughts on “San Diego State has new course on atheism

  1. An interesting FYI: Dr, Rebecca Moore who is the chair of the religious studies department at San Diego State University, is also the founder of the Jonestown Institute. She lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown back in 1978. She is also the daughter of a pastor, John Moore.

  2. Any chance the Moody Bible Institute will start a course in secularism and atheism? Now that would be news.

  3. “Whitaker hasten to adds that the course doesn’t have an “anti-religious bent,” but that’s the way it should be.”

    I disagree – it need not be “anti-religious”, but it should be “a-religious”. A few months ago, CFI Ottawa had a talk on the New Testament by a professor of religious studies (who is an atheist), and he was commenting on the fact that the profs who teach courses in Norse or Greek mythology never have to worry about getting into discussions with their students about the existence (or lack thereof) of the deities being studied.

      1. I agree that religion is, for the most part, dangerous and harmful. But the course is not about religion, it is about atheism, secularism and humanism. I’m certainly not suggesting that religion should be treated positively, but rather that religion should be treated as irrelevant. For the medical course question, a more appropriate analogy might be to ask if I would attend a medical course that did not specifically include a section on what is wrong with homeopathy.

        1. Any course about atheism, by definition, must deal with the question of god, thus religion. Instead of ignoring or attacking religions, it would be best to evaluate all ideas through logic and personal experience.

          I applaud Professor Whitaker. It sounds like he is doing this right. I envy him the experience of seeing the veil fall from people’s eyes.

  4. I wondered if he describes himself as atheist (or similar), but I’ve found nothing. On he ‘follows’ the work of a someone who is a ‘pagan humanist’. Perhaps RW thinks it’s useful to appear to be on the fence so that he can engage the spectrum of believers, but it just strikes me as woolly

  5. This course should be taught in a dispassionate manner, just like all courses are (or SHOULD be) taught. I know a guy (an Episcopalian priest) who teaches at an historically Catholic university, but I have NO confidence that he maintains academic neutrality. I don’t think he understands the difference between educating and indoctrinating.

  6. The class will be called, “Atheism, Humanism, and Secularism – Religious Studies 380”

    The texts for the coursework will include, Michael Martin, “The Cambridge Companion to Atheism” (2007), Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley, “Critical Humanisms: Humanist/Anti-Humanist Dialogues” (2003 and Geoggrey Brahm Levey and Tariz Modood, “Secularism, Religion, and Multicultural Citizenship” (2009). The course will also feature a veiwing of Bill Maher’s “Religulous”. One of the chapters assigned is in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. It is William Lane Craig’s “Theistic Critiques of Atheism” which is terrible. If you’ve heard his debates, this is more of the same.

    It will also include a site visit to an “irreligious site” which I assume could be a UU church.

    I think, overall, I would have liked to take the class. If nothing else, it’s a start.

  7. @ Matt G

    Why should college courses be passionless? How tedious would that be? If it doesn’t incite passion of what use is it?

    FWIW I have a good friend, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches World Religions course in the International Business school at a Lasallian university. He is utterly non-sectarian in class. It can be done.

    Religion is certainly not going away anytime soon but programs like this will provide the next generation of freethinkers a solid foundation upon which to stake their claim to equal rights, representation, and consideration.

  8. Susan Jacoby’s current WaPo column calls college level courses too little, too late:

    First paragraphs:

    This week’s “On Faith” question about the appropriateness of secular studies programs in universities is only tangentially related in the United States to the more fundamental and important civic issue of why Americans are so ignorant of the secular side of their own nation’s history. I am less concerned about whether the American public is unacquainted with secular philosophy than I am about its vast ignorance of the founders’ determination not to establish a Christian government. College courses cannot fill the empty space left by public elementary and secondary schooling in which secularism is considered a dirty word instead of an honorable part of American history.

    If Americans were not in dire need of remedial education on this subject, Texas Gov. Rick Perry would be automatically disqualified as a presidential candidate because of his unabashed contempt for the constitutional prohibitions against any government favoritism toward religion.

    Secular studies in college, including philosophy as well as the history of science and nations, are fine for those who want to study the subjects in depth but such programs can do little to alleviate the damage from sins of omission committed against young schoolchildren in many areas of the country. One of the great victories of the religious right since 1980 has been its ability to convince a significant proportion of Americans that public education is dominated by secular values and a secular interpretation of history, when the truth is that many local school officials and teachers are terrified of saying or teaching anything that contradicts conventional wisdom about religion as the foundation and essence of the American nation.

  9. I took a class at Indiana University titled “Atheism, Theism, and Existentialism” under Professor Nancy Levene and “Evolution and its Critics” under Professor Sideris.

    Both of these classes were in the Religious Studies department. And, surprisingly, both professors seem to lean considerably towards atheism, although neither would ever belittle someone who thought otherwise or stymie conversation.

    Books for Atheism, Theism, and Existentialism included:

    The Anti-Christ
    Fear and Trembling
    The Myth of Sisyphus

    And other assorted classic texts.

    Books for Evolution and its Critics delved into The Descent of Man and some Huxley and then quickly moved into more modern texts like Dennet’s Breaking the Spell and Haught’s (horrible) book against Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris.

    Both worthy classes. I bet this is done in lots of colleges!

Leave a Reply