Academics Arts and Humanities

Gift Establishes Chair in Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics

Louis J. Appignani says he hopes his $2.2 million gift will help end discrimination against atheists.
Louis J. Appignani, right, with wife Laurie,  previously brought distinguished philosophers and scholars, including noted biologist and humanist Richard Dawkins, center, to UM.
Louis J. Appignani, right, with wife Laurie,  previously brought distinguished philosophers and scholars, including noted biologist and humanist Richard Dawkins, center, to UM.

Entrepreneur Louis J. Appignani has made a $2.2 million gift to establish a permanent endowment and create the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics in the College of Arts & Sciences. The South Florida resident's generous gift will propel new interdisciplinary courses, scholarship, and research concerning the philosophical underpinnings, ethical status, and implications of atheism, as well as its historical and cultural significance.

The new chair will be an interdisciplinary appointment held by a distinguished scholar whose research and interests include the study of atheism—understood, for purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy. The new chair also will offer annually a minimum of one course on the history, philosophy, or influence of atheism.

UM Executive Vice President and Provost Tom LeBlanc, who noted that a multidepartmental faculty committee will search for the first holder of the chair, said the University was most grateful for the gift. "The topics of naturalistic ethics and arguments for and against theism have been part of Western education for most of its history," he said. "At the University of Miami—as in most other American universities—these questions are examined in courses regularly offered by multiple academic departments. This new position will enhance UM's multidisciplinary approach to these longstanding and important subjects."

Appignani’s gift fuels UM President Julio Frenk’s bold initiative to recruit 100 talents by the University’s centennial, as well as Appignani's desire to legitimize atheism.

“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists,” Appignani told The New York Times. “So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”

Established in 2001, his Appignani Foundation supports creative thought organizations that spread humanistic values, expand creative educational opportunities, encourage long-range critical thinking, and emphasize scientific reasoning. The retired businessman is the former president and chair of the modeling school Barbizon International.

Previously held at UM, The Appignani Foundation Lectures welcomed distinguished philosophers and scholars including the noted biologist and humanist Richard Dawkins, Frances Kamm of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Jon Elster, Robert K. Merton Professor of the Social Sciences at Columbia University.

Appignani is an avid supporter of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. He founded the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in Washington, D.C., a project of the American Humanist Association that uses qualified humanist-minded attorneys to pursue cases that are violations of the law as well as of humanist principles of religious liberty, freedom, and civil rights.

He also will be endowing another UM chair, The Appignani Foundation Bertrand Russell Chair in Philosophy, through a bequest in his estate plans.