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Secularists, atheists really, are following other ethnic and religious identity groups in using academia to create and/or shore up a particular cultural identity. For example, noted atheist secularist, and editor of the Humanistic Bible, A. C. Grayling is opening a “secular university” this year.
Jews, African-Americans and Hispanics have all used academic studies for just that purpose and now atheist secularists are following suit. Whether this new initiative is a good thing or not, depends on how it is handled. There precedent for doing it well, and for doing it quite badly.
In doing so, atheist secularists must also admit that despite claiming otherwise, theirs is every bit as much an identity claim as it is a supposedly neutral approach to a bunch of cold facts. That alone may be a valuable issue to surface.
Like their predecessors in this process, these atheist secularists seek recognition of a particular identity, in this case a sort of anti-theistic religious identity. That claim will disturb the many secularists who take great umbrage at having their secularism described as a faith, but what else could it be?
The kind of secularism advocated by people like Professor Grayling, is not determined by race, ethnicity, or by geography. It is determined by commitment to a premise for which there is no proof i.e. the absence of God. While I don’t share their conclusion, there is no reason why either that claim, or the work of those who espouse it, should be any less worthy of exploration than Judaism or Buddhism, which already have their place in the academy.
Like other so-called area studies advocates however, secularists now also run the risk of becoming myopic defenders of an intellectual fiefdom whose value is inversely proportional to its ability to interact with and be informed by other disciplines. And based on the number of statements and publications which are more concerned with explaining the “foolishness” of faith and the threat of religious domination, which come from this community, it seems that they may be traveling down just that road.
The issue for any identity group is the degree to which it can maintain its particular identity while also remaining engaged with the larger community — both learning from it and contributing to it. There is no doubt that many religious and ethnic groups have done, and continue to do a remarkably bad job in that regard. There is now increasing evidence that secularists will continue that tradition rather than help correct it. I hope that I am wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Of course, it may just be a matter of time. The early generations of Jewish studies programs were mostly for Jewish men, and they were none-too-friendly for others. The early generations of African-American and women’s studies programs were famously hostile to whites and to men, respectively. Perhaps, just as there has been improvement in those fields, we will see the same evolutionary process in secular studies. One can hope.
And hopefully, those pursuing this field will begin that process by acknowledging how remarkably like those they most oppose they really are. That is the recognition which accompanies most great leaps in personal awareness and intellectual growth — the kind, presumably, to which Professor Grayling and his supporters are most deeply committed.