The Univ. of Miami’s Chair for the Study of Atheism Isn’t Interested in Advocacy

In 2016, the University of Miami announced that it would become one of only two schools in the nation to have an entire program dedicated to studying atheism and atheists from an academic perspective. That’s because atheist benefactor Lou Appignani was donating $2.2 million to the school to help create the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics.

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“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 wasn’t just a vanity move. 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.

Now students at Miami, religious and not, would get a chance to study atheism beyond just “New Atheism” or the ancient philosophers.

But what will the courses look like? And do they advocate atheism the same way Appignani does in his personal life?

The Atlantic‘s Isabel Fattal takes a close look at those questions in an article published today, and there’s actually more of a difference than I would have suspected. Part of that is because of the interests of Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of metaphysics and philosophy of science currently at Notre Dame who will hold the seat created by Appignani. (Appignani had nothing to do with Chakravartty’s selection.)

Chakravartty, who will begin his new role in July and will be placed in the university’s philosophy department, plans to teach courses in the history and philosophy of science and in secular ethics, among other topics. Ultimately the philosopher isn’t interested in disparaging religion but rather in taking a look at why some people believe in God and why others don’t, and in the more optimistic project of exploring what an ethical and contemplative way of life without God might look like. “The cardinal sin of a philosopher is to be dogmatic,” Chakravartty said.

Although the university has yet to finalize his roles, Chakravartty’s initial ideas for course topics include one on how scientists have historically thought about social issues, the relationship between atheism and scientific inquiry throughout history, and the role of secularization in political and social movements. (It’s worth noting that despite all of the controversy around the word atheism, most of these topics are already taught in philosophy and religious-studies programs.)

There are inevitably going to be critics who see any study of atheism, even in the context of philosophy, as advocacy. But it’s pretty clear that religious people can take these courses and still believe in God when they’re done. We’re not talking about the professor from God’s Not Dead.

On a personal note, I’m thrilled Miami picked someone whose credentials are superb and who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the “angry white” atheist. Not that hiring someone like Richard Dawkins would have been a problem, but a position like this, with its built-in spotlight, is a neat opportunity to showcase godlessness beyond the “New Atheism” that’s taken hold in the mainstream. Chakravartty isn’t from that mold. That will hopefully allow him to offer fresh perspectives on the issues atheists are grappling with today.

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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