The University of Miami will soon become one of only two schools in the nation to have an entire program dedicated to studying atheism and atheists from an academic perspective.
The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein reports that, with a donation of $2.2 million, benefactor Lou Appignani is endowing the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics:
“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists,” said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. “So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”
“I think it’s a very bold step of the University of Miami, and I hope there will be others,” said Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist luminary who is the author of “The God Delusion.”
“It’s enormously important to shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality,” Mr. Dawkins said in a telephone interview from his home in Britain.
This isn’t something to take lightly. With the rise of non-religious people in recent years, there’s a lot to explore in terms of how we think, what motivates us, and our role in the traditionally religious fabric of the country. Universities everywhere have professors (and majors) dedicated to the study of religion — and specific religions — but, so far, only Pitzer College in California (with Professor Phil Zuckerman) lets you major in Secular Studies.
Pitzer is finally getting an academic sibling in that regard.
The Center For Inquiry welcomes the new position:
The Chair will be a distinguished scholar whose research and instruction will focus on the interdisciplinary study of atheism, and will include a course on The History and Study of Atheism each semester.
Robyn Blumner, CEO of CFI, also heralded the announcement, saying, “The University of Miami’s mission statement declares that it is ‘absolutely committed to freedom of inquiry — the freedom to think, to question, to criticize, and to dissent,’ and this endowment is a powerful affirmation of that mission. We at the Center for Inquiry offer our congratulations to the university and the Appignani Foundation.”
It’s worth noting that using the word “atheism” in the position was a make-or-break issue.
Mr. Appignani said he rejected a last-minute proposal from a dean to call it a chair in “philosophical naturalism.” Instead, he and the university leaders worked out the title, broadening the scope by including humanism and secular ethics.
The final name may be a mouthful, but the shorter version of it is that students at the University of Miami will be able to study atheism just as they can study Islam and Judaism and Catholicism everywhere else.
None of this is advocacy. None of this is designed to turn students into atheists. (That’s what the rest of college is for.) And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
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