By Frances Huang with Mark Kolsen
In 2012, Pitzer College introduced the first secular studies program in the United States. Directed by sociology professor Phil Zuckerman, the program offers several courses - and a major - enabling students to understand secularism from a historical, philosophical and sociological perspective. The program attracts many different students; during an interview last year, Zuckerman said the program attracts its fair share of theists, who usually develop a more nuanced view of what it means to be an atheist (for more see)
However, as Zuckerman admitted, Pitzer’s groundbreaking program has one major shortcoming: it lacks courses devoted to scientific cosmology. That shortcoming, however, is being addressed at UC Berkeley, Pitzer’s neighbor to the north. “Origins: From the Big Bang to the Emergence of Human Beings,” a Big Ideas Course I took last semester as a Berkeley freshman, offers a wonderful overview of both scientific cosmology and evolutionary biology.
During the first part of the course, students learn about the formation of the universe and the origin of the elements, which were created by nuclear fusion inside stars. They understand why, as Carl Sagan famously said, we are all made of stardust. Students also learn the five key theoretical steps required for the origin of life: the making of building blocks, restricting these building blocks to a certain environment, separating the inside of the cell from the outside, replicating the cells, and harnessing the energy.