Unholy Trinity? Secularism Institute Renews Liberal Arts Curriculum

Secularism is controversial in today’s political debates, championed by some and vilified by others. So when Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., opened a center for the study of secularism in September 2005, some people worried that it could become a source of friction on campus—yet another battleground in the culture wars that are wreaking havoc in higher education.
The reality has been far more encouraging. The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) has turned into a small but powerful magnet for professors and students across the Trinity campus and beyond who are interested in discussing big issues of the day in a neutral setting. The Institute holds monthly dinner seminars attended by faculty from a wide variety of departments, and courses developed under its auspices have become popular offerings in humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The Institute has also held national curriculum-development workshops that have turned into wide-ranging, interdisciplinary discussions. At the conclusion of a 2006 workshop, Stanford historian Paula Findlen enthused about the collaborative atmosphere, saying, “When have I ever discussed someone’s syllabi with such a large group of colleagues?”

How did Trinity make a secularism institute a uniter rather than a divider? The story begins with the Institute’s primary sponsor, the Posen Foundation of Lucerne, Switzerland. In the early 2000s, the foundation sought to encourage academic research on the growing world population of people who have no religion. It reached out to sociologist Barry Kosmin and me, the authors of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which had documented the growth of the no-religion population. The foundation worked with Kosmin to find a U.S. college that would be receptive to hosting the kind of institute the foundation had in mind. Kosmin became the Institute’s founding director. I, a demographer and longtime collaborator of Kosmin at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, became the associate director. The initial support was for five years. In June 2010, the Posen Foundation renewed its support for another five years and remains the Institute’s primary funder.

From the start, academic collaboration was not only desirable, but unavoidable. As the only two full-time employees of the Institute, Kosmin and I knew that we couldn’t accomplish the Institute’s mission without reaching out to other parts of Trinity and beyond.

The Institute has managed to flourish without ruffling the feathers of religion scholars at Trinity. Frank Kirkpatrick, professor of religion and a former dean of faculty, has been a strong backer of the secularism institute and has drawn on its research in his own work. In a written statement, Kirkpatrick said: “The study of religion is incomplete without a thorough knowledge of secularism, which has proven to be both a viable and attractive alternative for many people to religious belief and practice and a challenge to religious believers to make a stronger case for the place of religion in contemporary society. Religion and secularity are like twins: Each has its own identity but they need and feed upon each other to develop the richness of thought and life that, at their best, embody these twin orientations. The ISSSC curriculum has brought a much needed contribution to the fullness of the study of religion at Trinity College.”

The monthly dinner seminars, one of the Institute’s most popular features, are designed to generate new courses in the liberal arts. Attending is a constantly changing cast of about a dozen faculty, Institute staff and visiting experts. Each month, one of the faculty fellows selects a set of articles—in essence, a proposed syllabus–and circulates them in advance to the participants. Professors who had only nodding acquaintances have found common ground at the Institute.

Case in point: Edward Cabot, who teaches public policy and law, recently sought the help of biology professor Daniel Blackburn for an evolutionary biology segment in his course on the Bill of Rights. Blackburn will be contributing to the course next semester with lectures and a lab illustrating evolutionary principles. The discussions began at this year’s ISSSC faculty seminars on “Evolution in Nature and Society.” Blackburn wrote: “This sort of cross-disciplinary collaboration is exactly the sort of thing ISSSC is great at fostering. I only got to know professor Cabot this year through the seminar series, and now we’re combining efforts on a pedagogical venture from which the students are bound to benefit. This is one of many such collaborations that the ISSSC has stimulated over the years.”

During its first five academic years, ISSSC sponsored the development of 23 courses by Trinity College faculty. It has also sponsored the development of 13 courses at the Claremont University Consortium in collaboration with Claremont-McKenna College in California. At Trinity and Claremont, the sponsored courses have been prepared by faculty from the following academic disciplines: philosophy, political science, economics, history, international studies, biology, chemistry, computer science, sociology, public policy, cultural studies, fine arts, and the Italian, English, French and German language departments.

The Institute has amplified its impact outside Hartford through its sponsorship of national curriculum-development workshops that have drawn faculty from Stanford, Yale, Princeton and Boston universities; Williams, Boston and Hamilton colleges; and other schools. Each year, the Institute chose a different theme for new courses, such as “The Heritage of the Enlightenment” and “The Global Impact of Secular Values.”

Curriculum development is one of three focuses for the Institute, the other two being research and public activities such as lectures, colloquia and scholarly conferences. Each of the three corners of the triangle strengthens the other two. The best-known research by the Institute is the 2008 edition of the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 54,000 American adults. The largest national survey of Americans’ religious identification, it is widely quoted in the news media and is the primary source for religious data in the Statistical Abstract of the United States.

While secularism is sometimes considered a topic only for the humanities and social sciences, Kosmin and I have made a point of reaching out to the hard sciences as well. We directed a 2007-08 survey of the worldviews and opinions of scientists in India. We also produced a book called Secularism & Science in the 21st Century that grew out of the 2006-07 annual theme, “The Secular Tradition and Foundations of Natural Sciences.” The book, downloadable from the Institute’s website, includes chapters on teaching science, the evolution-creation conflict and on scientific literacy and public policy, written by scholars from Trinity College, Western Michigan University, Michigan State University, the University of Florida, the University of Granada in Spain and the University of Haifa in Israel.

At many universities, size is the measure of a department’s success: how many professors, how many graduate students, how big a budget. We are more interested in intellectual impact. Says Kosmin: “We do not aim to create a discipline or a separate department of secularism studies … The new courses developed by our faculty fellows are taught, for example, as part of typically large departments such as philosophy, history or biology. This maximizes the number of potential students taking the courses every year. It brings the issue and concept of the study of secularism in society and culture to the forefront and to mainstream academic curricula.”

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Ariela Keysar is an associate research professor in the Public Policy & Law Program at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and co-author of Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why, Where, Paramount Market Publishing, 2006.

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