How Should Atheism Be Taught?
The endowment of the country’s first college chair for the study of the subject draws attention to the complexity of nonbelief in America today.
Louis J. Appignani, an 84-year-old living in Florida, tells a compelling story about his conversion to atheism. Despite attending Catholic schools from a young age and through his teens, he didn’t really question belief in God growing up; people in his world, he said, sort of took faith for granted. Then he got to college and started reading the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who argued against traditional defenses of God’s existence and justified, as Appignani put it, “what I deep down believe.” Now, the proud atheist holds nothing back when it comes to his personal views on religion. The study of atheism, he said, “gave me strength to believe that faith is stupid … [that] mythology is not true.”
Appignani started his career as a businessman, serving as the president and chairman of the famous Barbizon International modeling and acting school, among other endeavors. In 2001 he turned his focus to atheism, establishing the Appignani Foundation, which supports “critical thinking” and “humanistic values” and has given grants to organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America. Then, in 2016, Appignani through his foundation endowed a chair for the study of atheism and secularism at the University of Miami, an institution he had long been involved with as a South Florida resident. His $2.2 million gift to the university marks the first time in American history that a faculty position has been endowed specifically for the study of atheism, and he hopes it will “legitimize the word ‘atheism’” in the public sphere. The university recently announced that Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of metaphysics and the philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, will hold the chair.
Appignani contends that atheists are one of the few minority groups in the country to still be widely ostracized by society. While other marginalized populations, such as women and LGBT people, he argues, are active in American politics, that’s still not the case for atheists. “If [someone said] ‘I’m an atheist and I’m running for Congress,’ they wouldn’t get elected today,” he said. As of 2016, around half of the American public said that knowing a presidential candidate was an atheist would make them less likely to support him or her—atheism was the least preferred of all the hypothetical traits the poll provided, including a history of financial problems and past marijuana use. Only one member of Congress identifies as religiously unaffiliated; one other has admitted he does not currently believe in God.
“That’s why I’m in the movement for critical thinking and secularism,” Appignani said. And he does seem like a member of a kind of movement: His foundation’s founding principle asserts that the planet will only survive if “non-acceptance promoted by faith-based ideology” is replaced by “rational scientific reasoning.”
But other conversations around the new chair, officially named the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics, are much less dramatic, painting atheism not as a radical movement or persecuted ideology but rather as a rich—yet largely uncontroversial—academic subject. 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.
This vision for the chair isn’t exactly in conflict with Appignani’s. But the distinctions between their descriptions of the chair—one that emphasizes a philosophical approach and one with far more emphasis on atheists as an identity group—is telling. Not only does it show how the interests of a donor can diverge from those of a university benefitting from that donation. It also shows how nonbelief itself has, throughout history, meant many different things—whether a mere indifference to questions of God’s existence, a staunch objection to the idea of a god in the sky, or something in between. This diversity of notions has long made atheism a difficult phenomenon to conceive of academically, and conversations about the chair reflect these complexities.
Atheism has long meant different things to different people: Even a brief sketch of atheism’s past in the U.S. shows that controversy among non-believers over how to define atheism—is it an adversarial, political movement? A much quieter set of secular principles? Some mix of the two?—has been going on for centuries. The word “atheism” comes from the Greek term a-theos, or “not/without god.” The term is ripe for debate: Should “without God” mean “against the idea of God’s existence” or even “against religion”? If the latter, how does atheism conceive of religions that aren’t based on a belief in God in the monotheistic sense? Does atheism propose an alternative to religion? Or is it just an attitude of indifference?
Leigh Schmidt, a Washington University in St. Louis historian who has studied and written about the history of American atheism, cites the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism as the first American group to openly embrace the label of “atheism” (in the 17th and 18th centuries, the term was considered a kind of slur). The group, founded in 1925, “promoted atheism as an identity and as a posture of aggressive critique of Christianity,” Schmidt said. At that same time, though, other non-believers were proposing “humanism”—which tends to be defined as a philosophy that strives for morality and meaning without religion—as a less-aggressive name for their views.
More recently, a loud, adversarial brand of atheism, known as the New Atheism movement, has gained traction. In the mid-2000s, atheist figures such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, a writer who has a doctorate in neuroscience, brought nonbelief into the public sphere—and onto the New York Times bestseller list. These thinkers—referred to by some as “evangelical atheists”—invoked reason and science as defenses for their atheism, and many of them have not been shy in critiquing religion. For example, Dawkins, whose nonprofit foundation enjoys the “avid” support of Appignani, has encouraged supporters to “mock and ridicule” believers. Scholars have attributed the movement’s popularity to a multitude of forces, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the anti-Islam sentiment that emerged, the increasing growth and power of the Christian right, and a broader sense of resentment over atheism’s long history on the fringes of American public life. In short, these atheists felt they had an important message to share and that society had long belittled their views—it was time for them to get serious about their movement.
As the movement grew, atheism started to appear more socially acceptable. The numbers of Americans openly identifying as atheists rose significantly in the past decade: A 2014 Pew Research study asking American adults about their religious beliefs found that 3.1 percent of them identified as atheists, compared to 1.6 percent in 2007. But the New Atheists’ tactics are by no means favored by all who identify as atheists, and atheist groups that are active in the public sphere continue to debate among themselves just how critical of religion—if at all—they ought to be.
The creation of the University of Miami chair calls attention to the age-old multiplicity of definitions for the word “atheism”—and the many conflicting ideas on what its role in public life should be. Some of the discourse around the new faculty position has focused on whether it’s a vehicle for advancing an “advocacy” agenda in favor of atheism or an avenue for neutral scholarship of a cultural phenomenon. The university, a private nonsectarian research institution, has been careful in clarifying that this chair is not intended to proselytize on atheism’s behalf. This emphasis is noteworthy given Appignani’s views on religion; it’s also noteworthy in the context of the atheist-activist movement that’s grown in the U.S. over the past decade, with which Appignani is closely associated.
But even Appignani says the chair should be seen as an opportunity for open debate, not necessarily for advocacy. The one-time businessman said he hopes students who do believe in God will actively participate in debates and offer their own perspective (even though he personally “feel[s] 100 percent that they are wrong.”) “We’re not missionaries. We’re not trying to convert people,” he said. “We just want an equal seat [at] the table.”
Chakravartty, too, plans to ensure his courses and programs are open to students of all convictions—any pro-atheism advocacy, he argued, will occur by accident. “When you turn a spotlight on something so as to understand it well, a lot of misconceptions, misapprehensions, and false beliefs with respect to that thing are revealed,” he said. This approach is emblematic of what many in postsecondary education describe as higher learning’s core purpose: “I think that’s where universities have their strength—in the study of things and not advocacy of things,” said the University of Miami’s provost, Jeffrey Duerk, who began his role at the university after Appignani gave this gift.
Most gifts to universities tend to come with some kind of “donor intent,” said Noah Drezner, an associate professor of higher education at Columbia University Teachers College who has studied issues of philanthropy and fundraising at higher-ed institutions—even in the donor’s choice of a particular topic or a particular university. He said the real issue is how a university sets boundaries with the donor and ensures he or she doesn’t influence its academic outcome. Appignani, who didn’t play a role in the selection of Chakravartty for the University of Miami position, plans to maintain some distance from the chair while also keeping a watchful eye. “I do not want to interfere with what the university does,” he said. “I just want to make sure that they don’t lose focus of why I’ve given this gift.”
Regardless of how, if at all, Appignani shapes the chair’s future at the University of Miami, the conversations he’s renewed around “atheist advocacy” speak to atheism’s complex place in American society at a time when many young people are drifting away from traditional models of religion. The conversations are also a testament to the often-contentious role higher education can play in broader sociopolitical debates.
In the Cold War era, Americans associated atheism with communism—and despite perceptions, particularly in some urban circles, that nonbelief is the norm, the American anti-atheist sentiment has not yet fully disappeared.
As the polls of Americans’ presidential preferences reveal, atheists are still largely distrusted in the U.S., although levels of stigmatization range widely depending on where someone lives and what kind of community they’re a part of; scholars have argued that this distrust stems from America’s history of associating religion with morality and good citizenship. A 2017 Pew survey that asked Americans to rate groups along a “feeling thermometer” from cold to warm found that adults gave atheists the second-coldest rating, just after Muslims (although the ratings of both groups have gotten “warmer” since the last survey in 2014). In a 2014 poll, nearly half of respondents also said they would be unhappy if a member of their immediate family married an atheist.
It’s not surprising, then, that higher education has a long history of atheist professors being pushed out of universities. An infamous example is that of Bertrand Russell (coincidentally, the author who catapulted Appignani into atheism), who was banned from teaching at the City College of New York in 1940 amid backlash from religious groups and parents who condemned his views on religion, morality, and sexuality.
Still, it also makes sense that the endowed chair at the University of Miami is part of a larger American narrative in which people—and young people in particular—are moving further and further away from religion. About a quarter of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated today, compared with 6 percent in 1991. Millennials are also three times more likely than the oldest generation of Americans to identify as religiously unaffiliated; today, nearly four in ten people ages 18 through 29 describe themselves as such, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, a rate nearly four times as high as the same age group did in the mid-1980s.
Mirroring this trend has been a rise—albeit a gradual one—in interest and support for the academic study of atheism and related topics. Recent examples include a program in secular studies at Pitzer College, as well as the first academic journal on secularism and nonreligion, both launched in 2011. According to Schmidt, the Washington University historian, the growing number of religiously disaffiliated Americans “provides a background where it is a little bit easier for a university to accept money for a chair with the word atheism in the title.” Such an initiative, he said, “would have been a much harder sell” 50 or 60 years ago.
Yet young Americans who don’t associate with a religion still have complex views on what that identity means—and public-interest trends have reflected that complexity. For starters, not all Americans who are religiously unaffiliated see no place in their lives for God or for ritual. A PRRI report in 2017 found that only 14 percent of those who identify as religiously unaffiliated—researchers tend to call them “nones” because of the box they check on questions about religious affiliation—identified as atheist. Some “nones” are largely indifferent to questions of religion, and still others see a role for religion in their lives; a Pew study conducted in 2014 found that 61 percent of “nones” said they believe in God, and that about a third of them said that religion is at least somewhat important to them.
There’s even fragmentation among those who explicitly identify as atheists: When the New Atheism movement began, campus organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance started to grow in popularity, said Stephen LeDrew, a sociologist of secularism and atheism. After a while, though, many young people turned away due to what they perceived as the Islamophobia and misogyny of the New Atheist movement, a movement that they expected would align with progressive values. These kinds of concerns are compounded by the fact that self-identified atheists are disproportionately white, male, and highly educated when compared with the general public.
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According to the agreement between the University of Miami and Appignani, atheism is defined for the purposes of this gift as “a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason, and rejects all appeals to supernatural entities in dealing with questions of science, knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy.” The definition continues: “Atheism includes a range of theories and theoretical approaches that reject explanations in terms of God or other supernatural entities, and in that sense rejects theism.”
Some critics have contended that atheism isn’t a suitable subject of academic study because it’s an argument against something as opposed to a topic or set of ideas. Others took issue with the connotations of using the word atheism in the title of the chair. David Kling, a professor and chair of the religious-studies department at the University of Miami who was familiar with the language of the agreement, offered one such critique: “The word [atheism] itself stands against something—theism.” He worried that a rejection of appeals to theism would “constrain academic freedom” and impose limitations on the kinds of projects the chair-holder could work on. “We don’t expect faculty in our department to accept or reject appeals to supernatural entities; rather, we expect them to critically examine the phenomena,” he said.
In light of the word atheism’s controversial status, Appignani insisted that the University of Miami include it in the chair’s title—and as the first word—despite some hesitation on the part of the university. Still, he seems to care about its other stated focuses, humanism and secular ethics, too, and he even equates the term “atheism” with these focuses. These words are all “one and the same in my book,” he said, adding that “when you’re studying atheism you’re studying secularism … it’s just the word [atheism] itself [that] conjures up negative things.” Chakravartty, like Appignani, pointed to the chair’s full name as an explanation for its focus. The chair is intended to teach “a philosophical approach to the world that emphasizes the methodologies of science, logic, and reason in facing up to questions of … how we should act in the world today,” he said. This explanation frames the academic study of atheism not as the study of an argument against something but rather of a particular set of ideas about how to engage with the world.
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.) He will teach at least one course annually on atheism and related topics, and will organize programming with the intention of outreach to the broader community through potential formats such as conferences and podcasts.
When asked if he sees this chair as a political or an academic endeavor, Appignani was adamant that it is “strictly academic”; he said the point is that young people will now be “exposed” to the study of nonbelief and will “be able to choose” what they agree with—“and not be ostracized in the process.”