Then they met professor Jacques Berlinerblau.
A hyperactive beanpole with two doctorates, he runs his class like a stand-up act — if there were a standup act about Thomas Jefferson or Supreme Court religion rulings. The punchline would be about the Jewish atheist who teaches secularism at a Catholic school.
That would be Berlinerblau.
The apparent contradictions in Berlinerblau’s bio fit a nascent field still trying to define itself. His class is one of a small cluster across the country that are being called “secular studies,” programs that don’t fit cleanly into any one discipline. Even the professors disagree about the tenets and truths of the field.
Berlinerblau’s classes focus on secularism as the study of relations between church and state. Others are focused on the spiritual or political lives of the nonreligious. All the players, however, are driven by the rise of Americans leaving organized religion and living more nonreligious lifestyles and exploring what that means.
For Berlinerblau, a 45-year-old biblical scholar, the point is teaching students that secularism is not atheism, but instead a value system that encourages moderation, tolerance and an ability to laugh at one’s self.
Most teachers in the field see secularism as a key to society’s survival at a historical moment of ferment and upheaval in American religion.
“So Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Locke, their fear was: Don’t let your religious freak flag fly in public too much” — meaning that too much religious passion can cause divisions and even violence, Berlinerblau said one recent Monday. He constantly shifted in his seat as he talked, and even left the room at one point to bring back Starburst candies for his 13 students. “Societies with no separation between church and state have troubles.”
The class was created this fall and is already known as one of the intensive seminars available only for students in Georgetown’s elite foreign service program. And Georgetown isn’t alone in seeing secular studies as worthy of academic scrutiny. Pitzer College in California launched the country’s first concentration in secular studies, also in the fall.
The first edition of the first academic journal of “secularism and non-religion” is to publish in January. People who study religion say more articles are being published about secularism and conferences that include the topic are packed, including an overflow crowd last month at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The number of chapters of the Secular Student Alliance has jumped from 42 in 2003 to 310 today.