Chair in Atheism and Secular Ethics Endowed at Miami


Retired businessman Louis J. Appignani has donated $2.2 million to the University of Miami for an endowed chair in “the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics,” reports the New York Times. It is the first position of its kind in the United States.

With atheists still often stigmatized and disparaged in this country, it took some persuading for the University of Miami to agree to create a chair with the word “atheism” in the title, according to Harvey Siegel, a professor of philosophy who has helped to 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 said. “He wasn’t going to do it unless it had the word atheism in it.”

According to the Miami New Times, there was an “internal effort” to replace “atheism” with “philosophical naturalism” in the title of the position, but that did not succeed.

Appignani’s donation is aimed at promoting the “philosophical underpinnings, ethical status, and implications of atheism, as well as its historical and cultural significance,” according to Everitas, the University of Miami faculty and staff newsletter, adding:

The new chair will be an interdisciplinary appointment held by a distinguished scholar whose research and interests include the study of atheism—understood, for purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy. The new chair also will offer annually a minimum of one course on the history, philosophy, or influence of atheism.

Everitas also reports that Appignani has included a bequest in his estate plans to endow another chair at the University of Miami: the Appignani Foundation Bertrand Russell Chair in Philosophy.

Henri Matisse, "The Swimming Pool" (detail)

Henri Matisse, “The Swimming Pool” (detail)

 

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Alex
Alex
5 years ago

atheism—[mis]understood, for purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Alex
5 years ago

That’s not fair. First, the “for the purposes of this gift” signals that it’s not a definition. Second, what follows is clearly meant to convey a contrast with an approach guided by religiously motivated anti-intellectualism. And, in the U.S., that’s a common approach, even if one not all theists use.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Wait, you’re saying that Alex isn’t being fair? And I suppose the department that implicitly suggests that religious belief is anti-scientific, illogical, and unreasonable IS being fair?Report

Sherri Irvin
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

The department didn’t write the text, did it? It seems to be the text supplied by the donor. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Sherri Irvin
5 years ago

Gifts often come with strings attached. If you accept the gift, you accept the strings.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
5 years ago

Can someone from Miami say why “atheism” is “understood” in this way on this occasion?

Report

JT
JT
Reply to  Crimlaw
5 years ago

It seems to me that it’s their way of signalling that they are using the term ‘atheism’ idiosyncratically in this instance to mean philosophical naturalism because that’s what they had to do in order to receive the gift. I’m sure they would’ve scare-quoted the term if they could get away with it.Report

DJ
DJ
5 years ago

This new position sounds like it’s being funded by a rich little boy who just underwent his first major existential crisis and had to make sure the entire world knows all about it. Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  DJ
5 years ago

That seems a little uncharitable. And if true, we should see what we can do to encourage more such crises among the wealthy.Report

DJ
DJ
Reply to  Alex
5 years ago

Had the position been created prior to the problems of the Four Horsemen (excluding DCD, in my opinion), intense Syrian conflict, and the rise of the fascist Trump, then I could easily get aboard atheist advertising. Especially now, such a provocative-sounding position may invite very bad press and further drive a tolerance wedge into public perception. But, truth be told, I’d try inducing crises among the wealthy if doing so contributed more to atheist academia. Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  DJ
5 years ago

Is this meant to be better or worse than the usual motives of rich folk who endow chairs?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

On the heels of this, a supporter at another nameless school has apparently made inquiries about a new chair in professionalism, professionalism being understood for the purposes of the gift as “the imposition of creepy and sexually inappropriate behavior which bestows on its recipient very conditional and precarious professional advancement.”Report

Alex 2
Alex 2
5 years ago

There’s already a misapprehension among many American intellectuals that atheists somehow have a monopoly on rationality. Let’s not encode this prejudicial mistake into our institutions, for the love of…good.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

Whatever, I think it’s cool, and it’s great to see a chunk of change going to philosophy, for once. I’m cool with the creation of all kinds of chairs in all kinds of subjects, as long as they aren’t in hocus pocus (or, at least, the kind of hocus pocus that we don’t usually stand for). I’m sure Miami will make good use of their new hire.Report

G
G
5 years ago

” as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy”

This is interesting, because it seems to show that a great many theists philosophize like atheists. But I get that the description is merely meant to make atheism sound more respectable.

Anyway, I don’t see anywhere in the description that the Chair has to be an atheist, which is interesting.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

About time that atheists get some play equal to funded posts for this or that religion’s philosophers. Now we need weekly atheist page in papers that have, usually Saturday, a religion page that features a minister pontificating, a la Detroit Free Press. As we were warned, tyranny of the majority ought to be avoided (Madison, Federalist Papers).Report

Miami Grad Student
Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I’m a bit disappointed by the comments here, but I’m not terribly surprised. After all, three of the Four Horsemen aside from Dennett have (1) basically articulated views that were far more eloquently given by people like Nietzsche, Russell, and Voltaire while speaking in general ignorance of these figures, and (2) embraced a particularly bad form of scientism and anti-philosophical animus. Nevertheless, it seems quite absurd to me that people would be upset by the idea of a chair with the word ‘atheism’ in its name, especially when there are innumerable chairs explicitly devoted to theology and religion. Given the immense intellectual impact of religious belief on the development of Western society, why in the world would it be unreasonable to have a chair devoted to the study of atheism? Prima facie, the gradual shift toward atheism has had an impact on Western values such as political liberalism as well as the development of the scientific method. Even if you thought it didn’t, this in and of itself is something interesting and in need of study.

The name and description of the chair are the result of an imminently reasonable compromise. First, philosophers are not in the position to turn down endowed chairs just because their names don’t suit our respective fancies. Do you have any idea how arrogant it sounds to turn donors away just because we don’t like the name of their proposed chair? Philosophy already has a bad PR problem, let’s not make it any worse. Second, the chair characterizes atheism in the way it does so that it isn’t just focused on a historical study of atheism. This is both in the interests of the university and the donor, who is not merely interested in the study of atheism as a historical and cultural artifact but also in the advancement of philosophical theorizing within the framework of an explicit atheistic worldview. People mock the description because they think it implies that only atheists have a monopoly on science, logic, and reason. What it actually says is, “a philosophical approach that ***emphasizes*** the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy”. The implication here is that these methods are emphasized because they are all atheists can legitimately use to answer such questions, whereas theists emphasize additional forms of evidence like scripture and appeal to tradition. Is that an unreasonable implication? I think not. The fact of the matter is that a large number theists outside of the Ivory tower *do* appeal to things like tradition and scripture in order to answer questions concerning knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy. Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I guess different people are concerned about different things. Aren’t some people asking why “atheism” isn’t just understood as “atheism” for purposes of this chair. Instead we get:

“atheism—understood, for purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy”

I doubt many people are mocking this because they think it implies that only atheists emphasize such things, though maybe some are making that mistake. What seems strange is that a chair in the study of “atheism….” would be introduced via an “understanding” of atheism that is so very different from the standard understanding of that term. Why did that happen?

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Miami Grad Student
Miami Grad Student
Reply to  Crimlaw
5 years ago

“I doubt many people are mocking this because they think it implies that only atheists emphasize such things, though maybe some are making that mistake.”

At least two people above (Arthur Greaves and Alex 2) said this explicitly.

“What seems strange is that a chair in the study of “atheism….” would be introduced via an “understanding” of atheism that is so very different from the standard understanding of that term. Why did that happen?”

I thought I already explained this above. It was added to make sure that the scope of the position was sufficiently broad so as to not only cover the history of atheism but also secular approaches to ethics, politics, etc. Why are people having such a problem with this idea? These sorts of addenda are commonplace. “We are proud to announce a new chair in ___. For the purposes of the chair, ____ is understood to encompass both blah and yadda, and thus those who specialize in blah and yadda are encouraged to apply.” I really don’t see what all the hullabaloo is about. Report

Alex 2
Alex 2
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

For what it’s worth, I Liked your earlier post, and agree with Samuel Lebens below that a chair in atheism is a fine idea. It’s just that the phrasing *does* imply that atheism, as against theism, is somehow allied to reason and science. The reply that atheists must emphasize empirical/rational methods because they can’t legitimately fall back on scripture is a red herring, because anyone can be a dogmatist.

What you see as mockery was not intended as such. I really think there exists a bias against theism in the academy (philosophy in particular), and I don’t want that to become even more entrenched, because theism/atheism and skepticism/dogmatism are orthogonal positions.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

The purpose of the chair may be precisely what you say, and that would be wonderful. An idiosyncratic and potentially offensive definition of “atheism” is the problem.Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I guess you tried to explain this above. Apparently your deep knowledge of all of this is so far beyond mine that I fail to follow your explanation.

Are you speaking on behalf of the Miami department here or are you offering only your own view of things? Why haven’t any Miami faculty said anything about this? Many of them regularly read Daily Nous.

You say the odd “addenda” specifying how to understand “atheism” in this context is common. How common? None of the endowed positions in my home department include anything like this.

Report

Samuel Lebens
Samuel Lebens
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I do agree that it’s a good thing to have chairs in all sorts of things. I also think that a chair in atheism is an eminently good idea. There are already lots of very good philosophers of religion who are atheists, but to create a platform such as this makes sense to me.
But I do take serious exception to the way that the gift defines atheism, as ‘a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy.’ Many committed theists would say that their approach emphasizes those methods, when dealing with those questions. I would have thought that atheism is much better defined as the view that God doesn’t exist. Let a chair of atheism study the social and philosophical ramifications of denying the truth of theism, let them develop a philosophical account of the world that makes it clear that there is no reason to posit the existence of God. But, under the gift’s definition, most analytic philosophers of religion, even if they call themselves theists, and believe in the existence of God, are actually atheists!Report

Samuel Lebens
Samuel Lebens
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I don’t think that appealing to scripture and tradition automatically means that you don’t emphasize the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason. It all depends upon what reason you have for appealing to scripture and tradition, when you do!Report

Samuel Lebens
Samuel Lebens
Reply to  Samuel Lebens
5 years ago

Furthermore, it’s at least possible to reject the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason and also to reject the existence of God. That would still be atheism, surely.Report

Miami Grad Student
Miami Grad Student
Reply to  Samuel Lebens
5 years ago

The site wasn’t offering a definition of atheism. It used the phrase “understood, for purposes of this gift…” not “which as everyone knows, is defined as …”. As I already said above, the added description was intended to broaden the scope of the position. Part of it is devoted to the study of atheism in particular, but it is also more broadly aimed at secular approaches to ethics, politics, etc. Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Miami Grad Student
5 years ago

I am completely fine with there being a chair in atheism. My objection is to the definition given for atheism, which goes against the plain meaning of the term “atheism”. If they had said that the ROLE of the chair was to “emphasize the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy,” I would have no objection whatsoever. That seems like a good role. But they defined the term “atheism” in that way, which is either (a) an example of ignorance, or (b) a slam on religious believers.Report

Daniel Howard-Snyder
Daniel Howard-Snyder
5 years ago

John Schellenberg or Paul Draper would be excellent choices for this position. Both are atheists. Who would be better suited than them?
Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

A chair that *include[s]* the study of atheism–“as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy”, so this is a description *given* that the approach as designated is non-belief in a supernatural supreme being. This is not a definition of atheism–it is a (partial) specification of the mission of this endowed chair as one investigating atheism as non-belief in a supernatural supreme being. No big mystery here. Except that “atheism” is another largely pejorative term, like many more familiar charged slurs. I never use it to describe myself (a very much lapsed Evangelical)–I’m “non-religious”–the dis-latinated and thus disarming synonymous term.Report

Mark Alfano
5 years ago

Theists should love this. As Tennyson put it, “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

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PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

—“Atheism—understood, for purposes of this gift, as a philosophical approach that emphasizes the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy”

I find it difficult to make much sense of this definition. Some atheists would adopt this approach, perhaps 50%, and so would some theists, perhaps 25%. The dictionary does it better. . .
Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

As the Miami grad student says, it’s not a definition.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

recent grad- It is a definition of atheism as it is to be understood for the purposes of this project. As such it is nonsensical. It may be just poor copy-writing but it could just as easily be poor thinking. Atheism is a philosophical decision not an approach. Next we’ll be told that Materialism is an approach that emphasizes science, logic and rationality. Oh wait,…

Arthur Greeves puts my view well.

” If they had said that the ROLE of the chair was to “emphasize the methods and techniques of science, logic, and reason in dealing with questions of knowledge, ethics, politics, and social policy,” I would have no objection whatsoever. ”

Except that I would have added to this list the role of justifying atheism in the first place, which seems by far the most important task it could be undertaking. Report