Phil Zuckerman and Ten Years of Secular Studies at Pitzer College: A Critical Examination,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

In 2011, Pitzer College offered the first—and still the only—college major in secular studies. The prime mover behind that initiative was Dr. Phil Zuckerman, who in 2011 wrote that he could “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 social grounding in evolution, and the like” (“Secular Studies Arrives at Last,” FI August/September 2011). Buoyed by students’ interest in a course he offered in New Atheism, Zuckerman felt Pitzer—a small liberal arts college in Claremont, California—offered the perfect venue for our nation’s first undergraduate degree program in secular studies. Now a full professor of sociology and secular studies as well as a Pitzer associate dean, Zuckerman spoke with me in May 2020 about the program’s progress as it approaches its tenth anniversary. We also talked about the many books and articles he has written following Society without God, first published in 2008 and now in its second edition.

During its first decade, Pitzer’s program enjoyed mixed success. Five students have graduated with a degree in secular studies. According to Zuckerman, this low number reflects two realities: one, Pitzer’s small size (approximately 1,100 students) and two, a marketplace in which “secular studies” is not exactly an “in-demand” degree. On the positive side, most secular studies classes are being filled by students looking for meaningful elective courses. Today’s high course enrollment reflects an upward trend: in 2014, when Pitzer enrolled 900 students, Zuckerman told me that in any given semester seventy-five students—about 8 percent of the student body—enrolled in secular studies classes. Pitzer’s program has earned national recognition: one website (greatdeals.net) now ranks Pitzer number six among the top twenty small colleges for secular students; likewise, Princeton Review, pointing to Pitzer’s passionately intellectual student body, rates it number seven among its “least religious” colleges. One more positive: it has inspired other institutions. In 2018, the University of Miami established an endowed chair in atheism. And thanks to a million-dollar contribution from Brian Bolton, in 2020 the University of Texas established an endowed chair in secular studies. Zuckerman has called the Texas chair “a dream come true.”

But Zuckerman also admits that since its inception, the Pitzer program has changed. It seeks less to “challenge religion” and more to emphasize (per Pitzer’s website) “the meanings and impact of political secularism and philosophical skepticism, as well as various forms of private and public secularity.” The program’s behavioral objectives state that students must learn to “compare and contrast,” “understand and analyze,” “grasp,” and “articulate” various aspects of secularity. As for religion, students must be able to “articulate the ways in which the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ are often dialectically-related concepts/phenomena,” whatever that means.

The program’s shift from “challenging religion” to “understanding secularity” is also evidenced by its course offerings. When we spoke in 2014,[1] I observed that Pitzer’s program offered no courses in quantum mechanics, astronomy, scientific cosmology, or any of the “hard” sciences that are, as Zuckerman has written, “corrosive” to religious beliefs. Students could only earn a program credit for a history course entitled “Monkey Business: Debates about Evolution,” which is still part of the curriculum. Zuckerman acknowledged that he would like more science in the program and stated that from his research, 25–33 percent of his interviewees attributed their atheism to their knowledge of the physical sciences. Yet no such courses have since been added, though the curriculum does include another history course cross-listed from Harvey Mudd College’s catalogue, titled “Science and Technology in the Modern World.” That covers scientific methodology and “what counts as good evidence.”

Of course, at a small college such as Pitzer, adding new courses is not easy. The Secular Studies website lists only six instructors (a.k.a. “advisors”) in the program, all Pitzer veterans hired before 2011, when the Secular Studies program was initiated. These instructors mostly have social-science backgrounds; only one has any background in the hard sciences. Understandably, they are—according to Zuckerman—reluctant to add new courses to their load. Moreover, as he also pointed out, students may study cosmology at the other schools in California’s Claremont system, which comprises five undergraduate colleges and two graduate schools in which students may “cross-enroll.” Pitzer students, for example, can enroll in, and earn credit for, a Harvey Mudd course titled “Introduction to Astrophysics,” which appears appropriate for nonscience majors wanting to learn scientific cosmology.

Yet something seems amiss when a “secular studies” program offers seventeen courses, including six philosophy courses, five history courses, and three sociology courses, but no science courses, especially one that might address a question fundamental to any atheist (or religious) Weltanschauung: How did the universe begin? Also absent: a course addressing the “truths” in the Bible or other so-called “sacred” texts; a course on the history of modern and contemporary secular thinkers; and a course on secular organizations, both here and abroad (a subject Zuckerman once called “quite pertinent” to secular studies). In short, any student seeking to probe the “truth value” of traditional religions and/or seeking to work as a secular activist may find Pitzer’s Secular Studies program disappointing. Or—to put the matter in other words—while the United States has numerous schools of theology and “divinity,” all of which prepare students to defend and evangelize their respective faiths, Pitzer’s “Secular Studies” does not yet offer a comprehensive counterpart for atheists.

On the other hand, any prospective secular studies student would do well to heed the advice offered on the program’s website and “consult with Professor Phil Zuckerman concerning a proposed plan of study.” By my counting, Zuckerman could offer several courses that would enlighten any student “thirsting” to “challenge the prevailing religious worldviews.” For example, Zuckerman told me he would like to teach again a course on New Atheism; his online syllabus for “Secularism, Skepticism and Critiques of Religions”—designed for Trinity’s Secular Institute and taught in 2008—includes readings from Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Aayan Hirsi Ali. Equally enticing would be an independent study—or two—focusing on any of Zuckerman’s wide-ranging books or articles. Students will especially appreciate the breadth and depth of his research, as well as his clear, concrete writing style.

Then there is Zuckerman’s teaching. During a phone conversation, Monica Miller, a 2008 Pitzer grad, praised Zuckerman’s eclectic teaching methods—readings supplemented with films, music, and guest lecturers—that always elicited student interest in his subject matter. The first student to take Zuckerman’s course titled “The Sociology of Secularism,” Miller told me that Zuckerman’s class “planted the seed” for her future interest and career; she is now legal director and senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. But Zuckerman’s influence extends beyond the classroom. Miller told me he officiated at her wedding and the weddings of several other Pitzer grads. She said, “I love Phil”: perhaps the greatest compliment any teacher can receive. On the other hand, students—or any reader of Zuckerman—should be aware of several problems, even contradictions, that permeated his prose.

But let’s start with the kudos. Although Zuckerman often assumes the role of the professional sociologist and—as in The Nonreligious—posits his desire to offer “an unbiased introduction, summation and analytical discussion of religion and secularity,” his own activist position is always evident. In his Invitation to the Sociology of Religion, he calls religion “manifestly implausible” and “ultimately irrational,” and in What It Means to Be Moral, his most recent book, he states, “It’s perfectly fine to attack religion” and points to “the lack of empirical evidence” for the existence of gods. Yet Zuckerman takes pains to document what most atheists also know: namely, that “Believing intensely in religion brings an enormous number of rewards. You know who you are … you know what you are supposed to do. …  It is all laid out for you.” The religious reap the benefits of belonging to a community with anxiety-reducing rituals such as praying and illusory but comforting beliefs such as life after death.

In The Nonreligious, Zuckerman marshals substantial evidence for the interesting differences between secularists and the religious, such as differences between their family backgrounds, educational levels, level of “general intelligence and cognition,” political orientations, and even personalities. If you’ve ever wondered about the nature of a “typical” atheist, Zuckerman offers you a persuasive answer. At the same time, he dispels the old myths that secularists lead unhappy, meaningless, immoral lives; his evidence shows that “a secular individual with a sense of purpose, meaning and satisfying social contact is as well adjusted as a comparable religious individual.” Especially fascinating is his evidence (in What It Means to Be Moral) that social interaction and “the prevailing social milieu”—not religion itself—are the major factors that make people more “giving” or generous. Take a “religious” person out of his or her church and put a “secular” person into a humanist congregation, and now the secular person will be “more generous” to the less fortunate. In sum, when it comes to a person’s willingness to give, “Community is more important than faith.”

Also in The Nonreligious, Zuckerman expands on an important theme introduced in his first book, Society without God: countries “with the highest levels of atheism and agnosticism … are the most successful, healthy societies today,” with “the greatest level of social harmony, civility, freedom, equality, peacefulness and prosperity.” The Scandinavian nations are the poster children here. By contrast, “the greatest levels of inequality, oppression, crime, corruption and destitution can be found in highly religious nations.” Likewise, his plethora of evidence shows that among U.S. states, the least religious, most educated states suffer fewer social problems than the most religious. They have lower homicide, obesity, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and child abuse rates. An example: Mississippi’s child-abuse fatality rate is twice that of New Hampshire’s, and Kentucky’s is four times higher than Oregon’s.

Zuckerman’s research has lessons for activists wondering about how they can help accelerate America’s increasing secularity. Education clearly matters; among the twenty-three countries with high levels of atheism, eighteen placed among the top twenty-five nations with the highest reading and math scores on the 2018 PISA. But “education” goes beyond learning the basics. From his in-depth knowledge of Sweden and Denmark (Society without God; see also Nordic Journal of Religion and Society [2009], 22 [1]), Zuckerman agreed with me that U.S. schools should consider following Sweden’s lead and require comparative religion to be studied at all levels. Over time, Swedish students exposed to various religious beliefs and lifestyles learn that there is no reason to believe one religion is “truer” than any other (see my “Humanisterna’s Challenges,” FI, October/November 2020). Their beliefs and interest in religion simply “[wither] with age, undramatically and without much to-do.”

But beyond education (and several other factors), nothing advances secularism more than the degree to which a society secures its people’s basic needs. According to Zuckerman, “Atheism and societal well-being are indeed most likely causally linked, and it is the latter (societal well-being) that most likely causes the former (secularity) and not the other way around.” He also quotes independent researcher R. Georges Delamontagne: “It is not a lack of secularity that causes societal dysfunction but societal dysfunction that impedes secularity.” It’s no accident that the least stratified so-called “welfare states” such as Sweden are the least religious, and that poverty-stricken nations such as India or Haiti are among the most religious.

These are not new ideas. In the chapter on religion’s evolution in his book The World Until Yesterday Jared Diamond has written: “poorer social strata, regions and countries tend to be more religious than richer ones: they need more comforting. … Within American society, the highest religious commitment and the most radical Christian branches are found among the most marginalized, underprivileged social groups.” And in his superb film Contradiction Jeremiah Camara has shown how Black churches offer solace to their less-affluent congregations, the most religious segment of the American population. Zuckerman’s research is thus a stark reminder that atheist activists should never forget Marx’s dictum that “religion is the opium of the people” and that words and arguments are insufficient antidotes to opium. As Zuckerman told me, rhetorical persuasion has limits; if American atheists really want change, they should above all strive to create a democratic socialist society similar to Sweden’s or Denmark’s. “Secularism through social security” brings other benefits: in The Nonreligious, he reminds feminists that “wherever secularism has become a strong presence in society the health, wealth and overall status of women have all dramatically improved.”

But while Pitzer’s secular studies students can learn much from Zuckerman, they might also encounter several problems in his writings. First, like sociologists Tina Block and Mark Shipley (see Mark Kolsen, “Researchers and ‘No Religious Affiliation’: How Terms Such as Spirituality and Sacred Mask Atheism,” FI, June/July 2019), Zuckerman uses religion and spirituality inconsistently. During our conversation, and often in his writing, Zuckerman equates “religion” with a belief in the supernatural. But because sociologists like (in Zuckerman’s words) “to cast a wide net” over social phenomena, readers will notice his definition often moves beyond what people believe to how people act or how they label themselves. Thus, when asked, one may deny the existence of the supernatural but—by Zuckerman’s logic—be “religious” because one participates in religious rituals (an “inclusivist” definition of religion) or because one calls oneself religious (a “constructivist” definition of religion). Religion’s definition thus becomes, in Zuckerman’s word, “fuzzy”: something a reader might accept given that in thinking, speaking, and acting, humans are (in his words) “a great deal messier and more complicated” in separating reason from superstition than Enlightenment thinkers predicted.

But religion’s “fuzziness” leads Zuckerman to make some strange statements. In The Nonreligious, he wonders if Canada is a “religious” country because it celebrates Christmas (!). When I asked him about this he laughed, though I had never interpreted his question as a rhetorical one. Another example: During a conversation with Sam Harris, Zuckerman once said that “it would be great to have Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc., all existing here and there, but neutered of their supernatural boo-hah. I know that may seem contradictory or absurd but I believe it is possible.” Baffled from years of experience with Catholics, I asked him about this, and he referred to the ritual-observing behavior of many secular Jews. But then Zuckerman admitted that, like secular Scandinavian Lutherans who baptize their children, Jews might just be a special case. How most theistic religions could viably ditch their supernaturalism remains a mystery—at least to me.

And then there is Zuckerman’s use of the term spiritual, which—similar to Block’s and Shipley’s use—assumes a confusing variety of forms. Sometimes he equates spirituality with “religion,” as when he refers to secularists as people who make no “reference to otherworldly, spiritual or supernatural places, force or beings.” Spiritual can also be equated with “metaphysical” or “theological,” as when he assures readers that when the Danish equate “Christian” with “being a good person and treating others well,” their “Christianity” does not imply anything “spiritual or theological.” Finally, spirituality can appear synonymous with valuing any phenomena beyond the self, as when Zuckerman talks about the “nontranscendent spirituality” of atheists who value nature, science, music, art, and human cooperation. By contrast, “transcendent spirituality” values supernatural phenomena. With this distinction, Zuckerman admits that—per Bruce and Voss (MK, please identify Bruce and Voss further – TF)—“A good deal of alternative ‘religiosity’ and spirituality is arguably secular in character.”

Much more problematic are Zuckerman’s recent definitions of atheism and agnosticism, and his concept of “aweism,” evolving from those definitions. In What It Means to Be Moral, he says, “Atheism refers to the lack or absence of a belief in God. That’s it” (his emphasis). Likewise, “agnosticism asserts that maybe there is God, maybe there isn’t and no one can really say for sure one way or another.” At first glance, these dictionary-like definitions might seem harmless: a brief, convenient way to begin a book on morality.

But these narrow definitions are problematic. First, they don’t reflect the reality that most thoughtful atheists understand nonbelief as a function of evidence: to wit, the lack of evidence for supernatural beliefs. Many—especially scientists such as Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins—have often stated that if new evidence emerges, they would reconsider their beliefs. Experienced scientists know that in any field, new evidence can unexpectedly come to light. And because thoughtful atheists assume an open-minded “scientific” attitude toward belief, they will say—as Dawkins has on many occasions—that they are really “agnostics.” Ultimately, then, there is little meaningful difference between a thoughtful “atheist” or “agnostic.”

The problem, however, extends beyond definitions and the scientific mentality of many agnostics and atheists. In “Aweism” (FI, April/May 2009), Zuckerman introduced a bizarre concept termed aweism, a concept grounded in his perception that agnosticism is “too cognitive, too heady.” He then wrote: “‘Agnostic’ implies a strictly contemplative position regarding life in its vexing questions and mysteries. But when I ponder the existence of certain existential questions and cosmic mysteries, I often have an emotional reaction beyond that of mere puzzlement or cold contemplation.” More recently, he wrote that “The label atheist … doesn’t adequately capture the joy of living I am fortunate enough to often experience: the general sense of amazement and deep appreciation that I regularly feel sweetly, wistfully.”

Aweism is a bizarre concept for two reasons. First, the distinction between “emotionless” agnosticism/atheism and aweism seems false. Even most “hardline” atheists/agnostics, such as Richard Dawkins, occasionally express their deep appreciation—yes, awe—for nature and our ability to comprehend it. More importantly, “aweism,” according to Zuckerman, is the mentality humanity should assume because “the depths of the infinite, the source of all being, the causes of the universe, the beginning or ends of time and space—when it comes to such matters, we don’t have a shred of a clue. And perhaps we never will.” It’s a theme he introduced in 2009, when he alluded to “unanswerable” questions; more recently, he argued that unlike theists, atheists/agnostics “have no master story to tell about the origins or the ultimate future of the world.” Facing “irreducible unknowingness,” they should “embrace mystery,” an embrace that is “the heart of agnosticism.” In summary: “Aweism humbly, happily rests on the belief that no one will ever really know why we are here or how the universe came into being, or why.”

Not a shred of evidence? We will never know? Really?? While it’s true that scientists today don’t know what happened prior to the big bang—when spacetime presumably began—they have some fairly good ideas that are now the subject of intensive research. Some are based on empirical evidence such as the CMBR (cosmic microwave background radiation); here Zuckerman is incorrect to state that this “cosmic vibration tells us nothing about what was before the Big Bang.” Rather, the small matter fluctuations observed in the CMBR are well predicted by the “slow roll” theory of inflation, which posits a dense “inflaton,” a pre–big bang field governed by quantum mechanics. The theory also predicts eternal inflation and multiple universes. Of course, this is only one theory, and, like others, it is still speculative, grounded less in empirical evidence and more in mathematics, a subject that—Zuckerman once admitted—he “hated” and never understood. Zuckerman is correct to speculate that—despite their continuing efforts—scientific cosmologists might never conclusively prove their theories. But it seems to me that it is much too early to concede that secularists will never have a true (as opposed to a biblical) story for the origin of the universe and should thus retreat into “aweism.” I also think that Zuckerman’s questionable viewpoint offers more evidence that Pitzer’s secular studies students would benefit from a required course in scientific cosmology.

Despite its shortcomings, Pitzer’s Secular Studies Program offers an excellent alternative to the many Eastern schools (such as Amherst, Trinity, or Bard) that have historically attracted secular students. Yes, like Pitzer, these colleges have secular student bodies and strong secular on-campus organizations. But none offer a department and major focused on secular studies. And none have a professor like Phil Zuckerman, a secular activist, thorough researcher, and caring teacher devoted to making the earth a more rational planet, a planet governed by the principles of democratic socialism.

[1] https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/06/pitzer-secular-study-program-confounds-critics/

In 2011, Pitzer College offered the first—and still the only—college major in secular studies. The prime mover behind that initiative was Dr. Phil Zuckerman, who in 2011 wrote that he could “sense the thirst out there. So many students, perhaps galvanized by the New Atheists, wanted to take classes that challenged religious worldviews, explored the …