Zuckerman to discuss impact of rising secularism on culture

The terms “religious” and “secular” are often presented as opposites, but according to Phil Zuckerman, that is a misconception.

“We mustn’t think of religion as one thing and secularism as just the absence of that,” said Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. “Secular people are not like empty vessels walking around without these values, aspirations, political, agendas or goals. Quite the opposite.”

Zuckerman will give a lecture titled “Irreligion Rising: Why More Americans are Becoming Secular” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.

According to Zuckerman, America is seeing the “most significant increase of non-religious people in the history of the nation.” Twenty-three percent of Americans today claim no religion, an increase from 4 percent who made the same claim in the 1950s.

“In no state is religion growing, and in every state it’s decreasing,” Zuckerman said. “More and more people say they’re not religious. Not all of them are atheists, obviously, and not all of them are agnostic, though significant chunks of them are. So something is happening [demographically].”

A variety of factors might contribute to the rise of American secularism, such as a reaction against the religious right, church scandals and anti-religious humor in popular culture, and Zuckerman said the trend is unlikely to be reversed.

“Most people are religious because they’re raised religious. It’s a socialization effect,” he said. “So, as more people stop raising their kids religious, you’re going to see even more people being secular.”

Zuckerman said the rise of secularism will likely have significant impacts on American society.

“On the positive, we’re going to see an increase of women’s rights, an increase of gay rights, a more rational approach to solving problems like global warming, and a greater separation of church and state,” he said.

“On the bad side, we’re going to see decreases in social capital, heightened individualism, a decrease in certain religious heritage, traditions, celebrations, and we’re going to see a bit more of people not connecting with each other as much.”

In addition to his teaching at Pitzer, Zuckerman is the author of five books, including his most recent work, Living the Secular Life, which was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014. He is also the founder of the first secular studies department in the United States. Like non-theologically based religious studies departments, secular studies at Pitzer is an interdisciplinary program that combines sociology, anthropology, history, psychology and the humanities to study secular culture holistically.

“A huge chunk of humanity is not religious, so we have to understand secular culture,” Zuckerman said. “You can’t really understand France today if you don’t understand secular culture. You can’t understand Turkey if you don’t understand political secularism, and you can’t understand Israel if you don’t understand the divide between religious and secular Jews. You [also] can’t understand the gay rights battle or abortion rights battles. There’s so many culture wars in our country that are connected to religiosity and secularity.”