For as long as there has been college, there has been the study of religion. The study of atheism, however, has fought an uphill battle. Thanks to a hefty donation in late April, establishing the nation’s first academic chair “for the study of atheism, humanism, and secular ethics,” the University of Miami seeks to lead the way in this novel collegiate field.
Retired businessman, Louis J. Appignani, and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International donated $2.2 million to aid the school in its secular causes. While this donation to the University of Miami is not his first grant of its kind by Mr. Appignani to humanist and secular causes, it is the largest.
“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists,” said the 83-year-old Appignani in an interview with the NY Times. “So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”
“I think it’s a very bold step of the University of Miami, and I hope there will be others,” said Richard Dawkins to the Times. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and atheist luminary who is the author of “The God Delusion.”
“It’s enormously important to shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality,” Mr. Dawkins said.
The college atmosphere is supposed to be a place for the open exchange of ideas to promote the notion of higher learning. However, as history has shown, this is not often the case.
American history, at large, is riddled with the persecution of individuals and groups whose spiritual views varied from the status quo. For the past two centuries, groups like the National Liberal League and the American Secular Union advocated for a secular republic in which religious freedom applied to the irreligious as well as the religious.
In the early 20th century, people were arrested for blasphemy if they dared challenge the establishment of religion.
Chapters for the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism operated on college campuses across the US, with “The Damned Souls” at the University of Rochester being one of the most noteworthy. The founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, Charles Lee Smith, gained the public’s attention in 1928 when he opened a storefront in Little Rock, Arkansas and distributed what Time Magazine called “godless propaganda.” Practicing his first amendment right would eventually lead to his arrest for blasphemy after mailing literature to local clergy.
This momentum has carried over into modern day America as secular societies have begun to organize themselves politically. According to the Times, next month, nonbelievers are headed to Washington to lobby Congress and hold a “Reason Rally” at the Lincoln Memorial to showcase their numbers and promote the separation of church and state.
Even today, however, there is a stigma associated with those who choose not to believe in God. The University of Miami even took some persuading to create the chair with the word “atheism” in the title, according to Harvey Siegel, a professor of philosophy at the University, who helped broker the arrangement.
“There was great reluctance on the part of the university to have an endowed chair with the word ‘atheism’ in the name, and that was a deal-breaker for Lou,” Mr. Siegel told the Times. “He wasn’t going to do it unless it had the word atheism in it.”
Executive vice president of the University, Thomas J. LeBlanc noted that this chair is not one of advocation for atheism, but rather education.
“We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist,” he said. “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.”
As the Times reports, Appignani wanted the college to follow his specific protocol:
Mr. Appignani said he rejected a last-minute proposal from a dean to call it a chair in “philosophical naturalism.” Instead, he and the university leaders worked out the title, broadening the scope by including humanism and secular ethics.
Mr. Appignani was raised a Roman Catholic in the Bronx by Italian immigrant parents. His father was a clothing presser in the garment district. He attended Catholic schools and said he became a nonbeliever at the City College of New York when he discovered the work of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner.
With the money he made from the Barbizon school, he said, he created the foundation that has given grants to groups like the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
This move by the University of Miami is nothing short of historic. Broadening the scope of spiritual and secular studies offered to students will only lead to a lesser ignorance and freer minds.
It is important, however, to note that even atheists can exhibit the same obstinate and militant traits of the most dogmatic religious zealots.
An individual’s peaceful beliefs should be of no concern to others. If atheists truly want the freedom to believe what they want to believe, then that same freedom must be afforded to others without fear of persecution.
Spirituality comes in many forms and those who attempt to force their version of it, or even lack thereof, onto others, have no place in the expansion of human consciousness.