University of Miami creates a professorship for studying atheism

Well, it’s only fair; after all, there are a gazillion professors of religion on Earth! And now we have a small step to rectify that situation: according to the New York Times, the University of Miami has established a chair for the study of atheism, presumably to be filled by a full professor:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami has received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair “for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics.”

The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes — though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.

“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.”

Religion departments and professors of religious studies are a standard feature at most colleges and universities, many originally founded by ministers and churches. The study of atheism and secularism is only now starting to emerge as an accepted academic field, scholars say, with its own journal, conferences, course offerings and, now, an endowed chair.

“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.

As you might expect, creating such a chair wasn’t easy, although professorships in theology meet no such objection:

With atheists still often stigmatized and disparaged in this country, it took some persuading for the University of Miami to agree to create a chair with the word “atheism” in the title, according to Harvey Siegel, a professor of philosophy who has helped to broker the arrangement. He said that more than 15 years ago, when he was chairman of the philosophy department, he and Mr. Appignani first began discussing the idea for a chair to study atheism and secularism.

“There was great reluctance on the part of the university to have an endowed chair with the word ‘atheism’ in the name, and that was a deal-breaker for Lou,” Mr. Siegel said. “He wasn’t going to do it unless it had the word atheism in it.”

The university had reason to be cautious, Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost, said in an interview.

“We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist,” he said. “Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics.”

Yet throughout the country, private universities like the University of Miami have professors of religion, usually in divinity schools, who do advocate for religion. They write books on their faith, they give lectures on their faith, they teach the precepts of their faith to students, and so on. Just to name one example, John Haught is a professor of theology at Georgetown, and has written book after book advocating for his religion and dissing atheism. Why isn’t that advocacy?

At any rate, who would you nominate for this chair? My choice would be Phil Zuckerman, currently a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California. He certainly has the requisite scholarship under his belt, including a book you should all read, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell us About Contentmenta study of atheism in Denmark and Sweden).

 h/t: Greg Mayer


  1. M Franco
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Jerry for the post!

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Agreed! And it is nice and warm in Florida, I hear.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Could we import some bot flies? Just for freaking out the straights.

  2. GBJames
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink


  3. Hempenstein
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Take that, Templeton!

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Can’t believe this – in the south no less.

    PCC would be excellent but is retired and maybe no looking for a move to Florida. Should at least be a guest speaking at the classes.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Well, while Miami is certainly south, it’s more South America than Confederate South in many ways. If this post were established at FSU or at UF, both in the northern part of Florida, THEN it would be in the South. North Florida is certainly god’s country to the max and closer to Alabama in temperament.

      It is in the Miami area that they are most concerned with climate change in the state overall as well I think.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        It is in the Miami area that they are most concerned with climate change in the state overall as well I think.

        Hmmm, maximum elevation 42ft ; mean elevation 6ft. I wonder why they’re so concerned about climate change?
        The last time I was house hunting, I flat-out rejected all areas of the port city of less than 25m elevation (because the last tsunami in the area had a peak run up of about 10m), and with a site slope of less than 2 degrees (to encourage precipitation runoff to **** off to somewhere else).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I thought everyone moved to Florida when they retire….at least that’s what Canadians do.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        I recall seeing a few Canadians over in Hawaii as well. Maybe just the rich ones?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 20, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          The rich ones probably from BC.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        I have dual residency: Massachusetts & Florida. I travel north tomorrow.

  5. BobTerrace
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Greg Epstein is another name that comes to mind but he might not want to leave Harvard.

  6. Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I’d like to read a detailed discussion of exactly what would be studied.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Related: not that it matters too much, but what department will this chair be associated with, if any?

      Personally, a good social-scientific investigation of secularism and its prospects would be a good thing.

      (Also, a good *history* of secularism and non-theism. _Doubt_, for example, was too gullible and bend-over-backwards inclusive.)

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    “Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam”, said the Provost for Looking the Other Way. I suppose you can study these things dispassionately as history and literature and epistemology. But I expect that individuals in these faculty positions would also sneak in some apologetics.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. I have serious doubts that no one in the religion department at U of M advocates for religion. I’m not even sure how that could work but I am sure it would take constant attention. If the claim is accurate it is something to be proud of.

  8. Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I’d nominate Christopher DiCarlo. If you recall his talk at INR5 in Vancouver last year, he appears to have been denied tenure several times for being an outspoken atheist, so getting the post would be a good way to balance the scales so to speak.

    • Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s an excellent choice and I should have thought of that!

      • Posted May 21, 2016 at 12:15 am | Permalink

        I’ll mention it to him tomorrow at INR6.

  9. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I would nominate AC Grayling.

  10. Posted May 20, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Meanwhile in Texas.

    Nothing like sidestepping the first amendment, and not auctioning off the public land.

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    In Religion Studies, Universities Bend To Views of Faithful
    Scholar of Mormon History, Expelled From Church, Hits a Wall in Job Search

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Have the Mormons been around for long enough to actually have a need for historical research – as opposed to just reading the documentation, analysing the golden plates to determine provenance, etc?
      Or am I just making the old mistake of introducing “evidence” into religion, when we know (from the evidence) that the thing that religionists really fear is having to contact evidence?

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Richard Carrier.

    • vegaz
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      +1 for Carrier. Very smart and articulate.

  13. CJColucci
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I can’t help thinking of the Fox Newsbunny who thought she was doing probing journalism when she asked Reza Aslan in an accusing tone why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus. (As it happens, everything I know about Islam I learned from Christian and Jewish academic experts on a religion to which they did not adhere — but nobody would think that strange, would they?) Maybe the expert on atheism who gets the job will be a believer in some religion, which would hardly be disqualifying. Then we could watch heads explode.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      That interview was one of the most appalling I’ve ever seen to pass for journalism. My sympathies were 100% with Reza Aslan on that one, and I’m not exactly known for siding with him. Quite the opposite.

      However, I can’t think of a single theist who knows the subject well enough to teach it. Even ordinary, everyday atheists like me are easily able to pick huge holes in the arguments of any theist when they debate atheism.

      The person who immediately came to mind when I started reading this post was the one Jerry named at the end – Phil Zuckerman. He has a lot of excellent work on the subject under his belt after years of research.

  14. S.K.Graham
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Let’s hope it does not go the way of some of those other _______ Studies departments…

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    There’s supposed to be a difference between a department of theology at a specifically Catholic school (in which John Haught teaches) and department of religious studies at a more or less secular school in which individual professors may or may not be believers but cannot teach a class entirely from their viewpoint.

    The situation gets a tad grey when the school was originally church-affiliated, but now is only nominally. You have schools such Princeton which were originally hired to train ministers (Presbyterian in Princeton’s case) and later expand their curriculum but do the latter in a somewhat secular direction. Princeton isn’t altogether a “Christian school” in the sense that The King’s College in New York is. (They even had Walter Kaufmann in their philosophy department.) Still, Princeton’s religion department in past years has been reputed to be effectively a miniature seminary.

    Happily, other schools have religion departments which include courses focusing on skepticism. An entire course of the skeptical approach to religion was a requirement for the major when I was at University of Pennsylvania, and the New Testament professor was a full-blown non-believer, though the church history professor was an Anglican priest. It was not my major when I was there.

  16. Posted May 20, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink


  17. Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Aw, man! So much do-goodery for secularism, but a fortune made off a scam!

  18. Posted May 20, 2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    ““We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position…”

    That’s exactly why “atheist” needs to be in the title. People can read “religious studies” and come away thinking there isn’t necessarily any advocacy going on, but “atheist” means there is. What a depressing double standard. We can’t let them enforce it.

  19. Posted May 21, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I’d like to nominate Yoda

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