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Atheist will endow "Secular Studies" chair at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
The $500,000 donation will help students understand secularism as it affects politics, culture, history, etc.
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The Freedom From Religion Foundation along with donor Brian Bolton will spend $500,000 to launch the “Brian F. Bolton and Anne Nicol Gaylor Endowed Professorship in Secular Studies” at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. (Gaylor, who died in 2015, was a co-founder of FFRF.)
In layman’s terms, they’re giving the university half a million dollars to cover the expenses for at least one professor to teach interested students about non-religiosity (in all of its many forms) for a certain number of years. Far from an attempt at indoctrination, the classes developed under this umbrella would help students understand secularism as it affects politics, culture, history, etc. They would be open to both religious and non-religious students interested in the subject matter.
Secular Studies involve the interdisciplinary examination of religious, philosophical, social, historical and political issues based on reason, science and evidence. The professorship will focus on quality research and intellectual engagement within the context of an access-driven, public institution that reaches first-generation students, students with disabilities, and adult learners.
Two areas housed within the UW-Whitewater College of Letters and Sciences — the Philosophy and Religious Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments — will closely collaborate with the dean to leverage the funds in a manner that has the most impact.
This may be one of the most under-appreciated but wisest investments when it comes to the future of the secular world. (Also in that basket? The funding of solid, professional reporting on Secular Americans and Christian Nationalism, which the Stiefel Freethought Foundation has supported for several years.)
Any “movement” as large, diverse, and growing as this one doesn’t just need activists. It also needs people well versed in who the “Nones” are, how atheism plays out among various groups of people, what the history of non-religiosity looks like, etc. There are so many areas to study when it comes to atheism that extend beyond theological debates, and a university can be the perfect setting for it. The more people who study this material, religious or not, the better off we all are. It means more honest discussions about who we are and what values we share, more thoughtful conversations about how and why our ideas spread, and (yes) more activists with a solid foundation in our history.
Even if students don’t major in Secular Studies (because, as with so many liberal arts majors, there’s an open question of what you do with it), taking classes that cover “Secularism and Public Opinion,” “Philosophy of Religion,” “Fundamentalism and Rationalism” can expose more students to ideas they may never have come across on their own. (On a personal note, taking an African American History class in college was eye-opening, in part because I never would have covered that material in my major-related courses.)
FFRF isn’t starting from scratch here. Pitzer College launched the first such Secular Studies program in 2011 thanks to Dr. Phil Zuckerman, who has continued to mentor students, publish academic papers, and write books about the Nones. (An FFRF donor contributed $300,000 to that program in 2021.) The University of Miami received $2.2 million from philanthropist Louis J. Appignani in 2016 to endow a chair “for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics.” Dr. Anjan Chakravartty currently serves in that seat. Bolton, a retired academic psychologist, also endowed a similar chair at the University of Texas at Austin. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will now begin its own foray into that world.
Zuckerman called this development “fantastic news” in an email to me:
Secular life has been ignored by academia for too long, and I’m so happy to see that starting to change. Secular people, secular movements, and secular values are a big part of our world, and we need to study them and understand them and make sense of them.
For too long, we have ignored the history of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists; we have overlooked the psychology of the irreligious; we have sidelined the politics of the anti-religious; we have whistled past the culture of secular folk.
But with developments like this, our knowledge of the secular the world—past and present—ill develop and deepen.
He’s absolutely right. If colleges can offer secular versions of New Testament History and Literature and Islamic studies, it’s long past time for students to be able to learn about non-religiosity as well. Now, at least at some institutions, they can.