Secularism, Skepticism, and Critiques of Religion

by Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology, Pitzer College, Claremont, CA

The rejection of religion…is, in fact, almost as old as human thought itself. -James Thrower

The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice. -Emma Goldman

Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest. -Emile Zola


The world seems more religious than ever these days. But in the midst of all this holiness and piety, there are dissenting voices: people who reject religious doctrines and deny a faith in God. And there have always been such voices, going back to the earliest Greek and Indian philosophers. This course will examine major critiques of religion and theism as posited by significant doubters and skeptics — from classical thinkers all the way up to the contemporary work of atheists such as Richard Dawkins. We will explore the following questions: why critique religion? What motivates skeptics, secularists and those who reject religion? What are the strongest arguments posited against theism? The weakest? What are the sociological characteristics of secular people? Why is secularity relevant to today’s socio-political-religious situation? How is religious faith – or rather, its absence – linked to larger social and cultural developments?


  1. Euthyphro, by Plato (will be handed out in class)
  2. The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud
  3. Why I am not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell
  4. The End of Faith, by Sam Harris
  5. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
  6. God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
  7. Infidel, by Ayann Hirsi Ali


Week 1 Introduction to class

Week 2 Definition of Terms; Skepticism and Doubt in Antiquity

Week 3 Skepticism and Doubt in Antiquity, continued

  1. Freud, first half

Week 4-6 Critiques of Theism and Religion

  1. Freud, second half
  2. Russell

Week 7 Secularization

  1. Harris, first half

Week 8 Atheism, Secularism, and Societal Health

  1. Harris, second half

Week 9-10 Non-believers: a sociological and psychological portrait

  1. Dawkins

Week 11-1 The Bible Under Skeptical Scrutiny

  1. Hitchens
  2. Ali, first half

Week 14 Personal Journeys from Faith to Reason

  1. Ali, second half