The first secular studies department

The subject of secularization has generated much discussion among sociologists and others in recent years (see a recent example with thoughts from sociologist Mark Chaves regarding religion’s decline in America). Now there is news that the first secular studies department will begin in the next academic year:

Starting this fall, Pitzer College, a small liberal arts institution in Southern California, will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”

The department was proposed by Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, who describes himself as “culturally Jewish, but agnostic-atheist on questions of deep mystery.” Over the years he grew increasingly intrigued by the growth of secularism in the United States and around the world. He studied and taught in Denmark, one of the world’s most secular countries, and has written several books about atheism.

While the field of sociology of religion has spent time in the last few decades discussing the resurgence of religion in the world, particularly the rise of American evangelicalism, perhaps this new major is illustrative of a reversal of study as atheism or non-religiousness (even though Americans who identify as this still may consider themselves “spiritual” or still partake in religious practices) gains attention.

It would be interesting to hear more about the internal discussions at Pitzer about why the study of secularism should have its own major rather than approaching the subject within several already established majors like sociology or religious studies.

Survey shows majority of Chinese are religious

Although China may have an official policy in favor of atheism, a large proportion of Chinese citizens are religious:

No more than 15 percent of adults in the world’s most populous country are “real atheists.” 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some religious beliefs or practice some kind of religion, according to the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey.

Members of the Chinese Communist Party and Youth League are required to be atheists, yet 17 percent of them self-identified with a religion and 65 percent indicated they had engaged in religious practices in the last year, reported sociologist Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, a lead researcher in the project.

The notion of China as a secular nation with little or no religion is “silly,” said sociologist Rodney Stark of Baylor University, another principal investigator…

In a nation with few sources of independent data on religion, the spiritual life survey represents one of the best pictures to date of the Chinese religious landscape. The 2007 survey involved a random national sample of 7,021 people ages 16 and older in 56 locales throughout mainland China.

The results find a middle ground between the official government figure of 100 million religious believers and extreme projections of growth that estimate the number of Christians has become as high as 130 million.

Interesting findings. You can look at the dataset here.

How exactly these religious beliefs among the people come into conflict with the official governmental policy would be interesting to explore within this data.