Why aren't all scientists atheists?

Atheism at the universityThe study of the wicked

Phil Zuckerman does not want to discuss the existence or non-existence of God. As a sociologist, he is more concerned with how religions affect people's lives.

It became clear to him that there is actually no research on non-religious people, on atheists, agnostics or secular humanists. Not an academic discipline devoted to the minds of a growing part of humanity.

Zuckerman wanted to change that. The scientist, who describes himself as "culturally Jewish but otherwise agnostic," teaches at Pitzer College in California, a university with about 1,000 students. At Zuckerman's initiative, the private university introduced the "Secular Studies" course six years ago - the first in the USA and one of the few worldwide. The University of Miami in Florida followed suit, recently opening a professorship in atheism.

23 percent of Americans do not believe they belong to any religion

The academic initiatives reflect a trend that is making headlines: the USA, traditionally a religiously shaped country, is becoming more and more secular. A survey by the Pew Institute, the most prestigious US opinion research institute based in Washington, found that more than 23 percent of Americans do not belong to any religion; ten years ago it was 16 percent. Especially 20 to 40 year olds are increasingly deviating from their beliefs: 35 percent - i.e. more than a third - describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or simply as non-religious.

Phil Zuckerman's students enroll in the new course for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to take a critical look at religion, says the sociologist.

"The second group consists of students who are interested in the political aspects of the secularization debate, especially in questions of the separation of religious communities and the state, or in current issues such as the influence of evangelical Christians or the debates about abortion law and climate change."

And then there are those who study helps them to find themselves.

These students, atheists or agnostics themselves, wanted to learn more about the history of humanist ideas and explore their own secular identities.

All of these factors came together at Monica Miller. Miller grew up in California, a state in which a disproportionately large number of non-denominational people live.

She doesn't believe in a God, she says, but she is a humanist - and as such she believes that science and reason could serve to solve some of the great global problems.

'Godless' science is growing

Miller studied at Pitzer College, took part in a course on the "Sociology of the Secular". He opened her eyes to the influence of religion in other parts of the United States, especially in the south - and in other parts of the world. She later studied law, and now works as a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, an organization that specializes in constitutional issues.

During her law studies, she would have been interested in topics relating to the separation of religious communities and the state - and in cases relating to the violation of the first amendment to the constitution, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The interdisciplinary secular studies program has been growing since she attended Pitzer College. Six lecturers - sociologists, historians, philosophers and cultural scientists - hold courses on topics such as "Atheism and Existentialism", "Fear in the Age of Reason" or "The Bible as Literature".

And the still young science of secular studies is also establishing itself in academic circles: There are two specialist journals and a research conference that takes place every two years.

Phil Zuckerman lived in Denmark for a while and wrote a book about secularization in Scandinavia: "Society without God". His specialty arose from the research stay:

"I'm particularly interested in religious indifference. In my opinion, secularization is most extreme when people simply don't care about religion. A particularly passionate atheist, on the other hand, still reacts with a reflex - namely to a particularly strong religiosity, which he rejects, with the he fights. "

The university as a "secular cathedral"

So it is no coincidence that not only theologians view secularization studies with suspicion. They fear that the new discipline could become a forum for church haters.

And some atheism activists are also skeptical. Greg Epstein, for example. He is a humanist at Harvard University, a kind of 'pastor'. He founded the Humanist Hub, a community center for students, faculty and citizens who have one thing in common: They are not religious.

If someone wants to support secularism programs in universities, Epstein recommends, please don’t just donate to research. The money is better off with projects like his community center. Because: Atheists have a strong need to found communities. This is not only an academic problem, but also a social one.

Therefore, he suggests, academic research into atheism must go hand in hand with a greater presence on campus of secular chaplains, humanist chaplains, so to speak. After all, the university is a kind of secular cathedral.

Phil Zuckerman doesn't want to build cathedrals, either religious or secular. He just wants to understand the phenomenon, he says, to illuminate the turning away from religion from different angles - political, philosophical, demographic.