The University of Miami will soon launch its search for a scholar of atheism, humanism and secularism after a $2.2 million donation paved the way for the nation's first academic chair for the study of nonbelief.
School officials admit the position may raise eyebrows, but they argue that it's valuable to explore how a lack of belief informs worldviews in addition to looking at the world through the lens of faith, The New York Times reported.
"We didn't want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist," Thomas LeBlanc, Miami's executive vice president and provost, told the Times. "Our religion department isn't taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we're not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics."
Only 3.1 percent of U.S. adults identify as atheist, but a growing number of Americans no longer affiliate with a particular religious group, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. These so-called religious "nones" represented 15.8 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, compared to 12.1 percent in 2007.
The University of Miami's move is somewhat unprecedented in the academic world, although some religion departments already offer courses on atheism or humanism, the Times reported.
Pitzer College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, created a program in secular studies in 2011. It offers courses like "Secularism and Skepticism," "Sociology of Secularity" and "Monkey Business: Controversies in Human Evolution," according to the school's website.
Louis Appignani, who donated the $2.2 million to Miami and demanded that the academic title include the word "atheism," told the Times that he hopes the position will help eliminate discrimination against nonbelievers.
"This is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate," he said.
U.S. adults are less likely to vote for an atheist candidate than they are to vote for a Muslim, Mormon, Jew or evangelical Christian, Gallup reported last year.
Four in 10 Americans (40 percent) said they would not vote for a generally well-qualified presidential nominee if he or she was an atheist, compared to 38 percent who wouldn't vote for a Muslim and 25 percent who wouldn't vote for an evangelical Christian, the study reported.
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