Exploring Atheism and Secularism

By Michael R. Malone

Exploring Atheism and Secularism

By Michael R. Malone
The creation of an endowed chair for the study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics demonstrates UM’s commitment to a leadership role in pursuing new knowledge, information and ideas.

Over the course of history, few subjects have provoked as much passionate debate and disagreement—at times with horrifying consequences—as religion and religious beliefs.

Yet in recent years, a surprising common ground has emerged in the field of the divine: Studies show religion is in decline, and the world is experiencing an uptick in secularization. 

This shift portends profound implications for a host of areas of modern life, and the University of Miami—through a $2.2 million gift from the Louis J. Appignani Foundation—has taken the bold step to create a new chair for the study of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics—the first such chair in the country—to explore these implications.

“Atheism is a philosophical position to be explored and analyzed, and since we already address the topic in various departments—including our Religious Studies Department—this chair will add to an already established discourse,” said University Provost Jeffrey Duerk.

Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame who also directs the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, has been appointed to the new chair and will officially join the UM on July 1. This new position likewise advances UM President Julio Frenk’s initiative to provide for 100 endowed chairs by the University’s centennial.

Philosophy chair Otavio Bueno, who was closely involved in the selection of the new endowed chair, suggested that the timing is ripe to explore such a complex subject and that the new appointee brings a unique skillset to manage the task.

“The U.S. is currently polarized in so many dimensions. Complex issues need to be addressed, and it’s important to talk about them and to have resources to analyze them carefully,” said Bueno, who did his doctoral studies in the UK. “The university, as a research institution, should address these issues—seeking to understand their sources and why it’s so hard to settle them—in interesting, careful, rational and evidence-based ways.”

“In addition to his outstanding philosophical research, Professor Chakravartty also offers an impressive outreach ability: he is able to open and conduct discussions in such a way that we end up with a better understanding of the complex issues under consideration,” Bueno added. “He’s also extremely kind and non-defensive—he actually brings people together to examine the relevant issues from multiple points of view. Folks can then take off their guards. Instead of becoming polarized, people feel welcome, and good, rational discussion can emerge.”

Harvey Siegel, a professor of philosophy who chaired the department for 12 years, first met endowed chair donor Louis Appignani 15 years ago. At the time, the Miami Herald had just published an article about the formation of the Appignani Foundation, and Siegel, who had then just been named chair, was encouraged to meet with the founder.

“The article made it clear that the founder had as his primary purpose the challenging of religion and the advocacy of atheism,” Siegel remembered. The two met on campus and enjoyed a “charming” lunch, “but he wanted to do something that would advocate for atheism, and I told him that the U should not and would not do that,” Siegel said.

Appignani, through his foundation, continued to support a number of department events, sponsoring speakers and lectures, over many years.

“We tried to find some kind of way that our scholarly ambitions could meet his own ambitions—and after 15 years we found a way to do that—through the endowed chair,” Siegel said. “He appreciates that the U cannot advocate for atheism, but he also appreciates that it’s of value to study the questions in their full historical and philosophical dimensions.”

Appignani was motivated both as an entrepreneur and for academic reasons to fund the endowed chair.

“I’m an entrepreneur and wanted to support something different—the idea that there was no organized study in the country and that this would be the first [was exciting],” he said. “The chair extends the reach of scientific inquiry to delve into early man’s thoughts on atheism and on down through the millennium. There will be Interesting courses that span philosophy, government, and history.”

He’s proud of his support several years ago that helped sponsor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion,” to a week on campus as a visiting scholar.

“Dawkins is probably the most influential educator-philosopher who has been expounding the cause of free thinking, questioning facts, and promoting critical thinking,” said Appignani. “He met with students, went to classes, and gave a final lecture that filled up the stadium with over 4,000—he really made a big impact,” Appignani said.

He believes the new chair and the studies and coursework that are developed will have a long-term positive effect on spreading the idea of critical thinking throughout the country.

“I’m just proud of the University for taking the leap forwards into the future. It should help recruiting young people and developing a reputation to emphasize critical thinking on all the major issues of the day.”

For his part, Chakravartty is “thrilled” to be coming to Miami, and his enthusiasm has everything to do with the city’s reputation as a “city of the future,” and the University’s reputation as a leading academic institution with a diverse student body.

“There’s a lot of data showing an increase in the numbers of people not having any theistic beliefs and who identify with a more secular understanding of the world,” he said. “It’s important that we think about what that means, and how we’re going to organize our society and live with each other.

“It’s outstanding and a feather in the cap of the University that it is taking a leadership role. The University of Miami seems the perfect place where this kind of mandate might flourish given the wonderful diversity of students who come from so many different parts of the world—exactly what you want to have a rich discussion about these kinds of issues.”

Chakravartty specializes in the philosophy of science, metaphysics and epistemology. Canadian by birth, he focused his doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge on the philosophy and history of science—explored  through an interdisciplinary lens encompassing both the sciences and the humanities. 

He appreciates that the University, in announcing the chair, defined atheism in a very broad way.

“The term means a lot of different things to different people. For some, it’s the denial of theisms or the existence of a god or gods. That leaves a lot open: One can deny theism expressed in those terms by suspending judgement or one can one can say ‘there are no such things.’ Some people are just uninterested in the question; they don’t find it a meaningful one.

“The chair is framed in a way that suggests or promotes the idea that it will be a broad and interdisciplinary exploration of some of these issues, including how we might use the sciences, logic and reason as a basis for study,” Chakravartty said.

Regardless the scope of the definition, he’s intent on remedying some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that he has heard, observed and even experienced personally regarding atheism.

“It’s not uncommon to encounter people who believe that if you’re an atheist then you can’t really be ethical—but that’s clearly dubious,” he said. “I’ve encountered in my extended family some who think that if you don’t have some sort of religious faith, you can’t be a moral person.”

These views, he said, should prompt study, debate and research on the nature of ethical behavior and the moral basis for action.

“It’s important to think about misconceptions inherent in some of these views. There’s nothing in the definition of atheism—whether on the narrow or the broad interpretation—that entails anything about not being able to act morally.”

A lot of the coursework will take shape once he’s at the University, but he is scheduled to teach a Fall 2018 course on science and humanism. “First and foremost, we’ll be looking at an important area of philosophy which concerns values—a number of issues exploring how the sciences and values intersect with and impact society. It’s in the context of this relationship between science and society that I would like to engage the idea of humanism.

“It’s important that the University is taking a leadership position with respect to these issues, which are really important to people, not only in this country but across the world,” Chakravartty said.