Three months ago, on May 18, 2013, William Holt, of Nashville, Tennessee, graduated from Pitzer College with a degree in secular studies -- making him the first student in the United States to graduate with such a major.
Secular studies is an interdisciplinary department (called a "field group" at Pitzer College) which focuses on manifestations of the secular in societies and cultures, past and present. The field group emphasizes the meanings and impact of political secularism and philosophical skepticism, as well as various forms of private, public, and cultural secularity. Seeking neither to applaud nor condemn secularism and secularity, secular studies instead attempts to critically understand and analyze both, utilizing the tools and approaches of social science, history, philosophy, as well as the arts and humanities.
In order to fulfill the requirements for a degree in secular studies, William took a series of related courses from various disciplines, including such courses as "Secularism: Local/Global" -- which examines secular movements and church-state issues in the U.S., former USSR, India, Turkey, Japan, France, Scandinavia, Israel, Jamaica, etc. -- and "Secularism, Skepticism, and Irreligion" -- which explores the philosophical, personal, social, and political reasons people reject religion and embrace secularity. And he wrote his senior thesis on the New Atheism. "My thesis explored the history and politics of atheism in Western culture and how a new generation of secularists use the writings of the popular New Atheists -- Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, et al. -- to create political and social identities."
William initially chose religious studies as his major. "But the religious studies degree did not provide an adequate investigation of how religion functioned in relation to secular institutions. And I was particularly interested in how American secularism, as expressed in the Constitution, functioned in relation to religious belief, individuals, and traditions. I also felt that -- in religious studies -- secularism and secularity were largely unexplored."
He didn't, however, abandon religious studies. In fact, William also majored in that -- earning two degrees upon graduation, one in religious studies and one in secular studies. "I saw secular studies as a sort of extension of my religious studies. The double major allowed me to assemble a series of courses that complimented one another; a single major in either one would not have given me the depth of knowledge I would have liked." There was also a practical motivation in earning the religious studies degree. "I knew it would be a more recognizable major on my transcript. Future employers, or graduate programs, would know what a religious studies major was. But secular studies, to some people, can almost seem like a grim joke."
What sort of reactions has William gotten in response to his major in secular studies? "I have had my fair share of quizzical looks, shoulder shrugs, chuckles, and outright confusion. My father would call me and ask how my major in 'atheism' was going. My Methodist Southern mother -- bless her heart -- has been more than supportive, but she too has to work on a little pitch line so she can explain it to people without falling over her words or saying that her son is the Antichrist. Now, whenever I go home, we aren't afraid to share our own experiences and beliefs with one another. I thank this major for instigating these types of new conversations. And though I run the risk of sounding trite, this major has opened up new dialogues around belief, power, and governance. My friends have been nothing but supportive. But like any friends, that means getting a fair share of jokes thrown at you. For the last two years of college, I was affectionately known as Secular Bill. I have met some people who have absolutely loved what I am doing and have encouraged me to keep it up because 'this world has too much religion.' I often find those comments the most worrisome and the least informed -- it is the equivalent to someone thinking that doing a religious studies major requires that I become a priest. On a brighter note, this major has encouraged my family and friends to consider their own religious/spiritual beliefs and the history of certain modes of thought."
What does William plan to do with his degree? "Probably whatever any recent graduate will do with a liberal arts degree: keep looking for jobs. No, honestly, my major has given me the critical thinking skills, broad literary and theoretical knowledge, and interpersonal skills to pursue a number of vocations. Right now, my major is already informing my work with the non-profit media and writing education group Story Pirates. These wonderful people take the stories of children across the country and turn them into hilarious musical sketch comedy shows with professional actors -- the word made flesh, if you will. My degrees in secular studies and religious studies have instilled in me a passion for building communities around art, writing, performance, and spiritual and personal expression. I am also considering continuing studies either in theater or in divinity school. Secular studies has taught me how belief informs certain institutional structures and actions, whether receiving my M.Div or my MFA, this knowledge will certainly be put to the test."
In response to the skepticism of some who view the existence of secular studies with worry or disdain, William has this to offer: "The major cannot be understood as a bleeding-heart liberal political statement bent on disavowing religious traditions, communities, and individuals. Rather, it is part of acknowledging the plurality of beliefs around us. It must not be about pushing our own unexplored ideologies. Maybe in our contemporary atmosphere of irony and awkwardness, secular studies can start to address the ways that we can bridge gaps, find understanding, think critically about personal choices, and appreciate alternative modes of thought. I was able to find a sort of spirituality in the process of navigating these two majors, and I hope secular studies can survive to offer that same gift to more eager and willing minds."