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Louis J. Appignani, an 84-year-old living in Florida, tells a compelling story about his conversion to atheism. Despite attending Catholic schools from a young age and through his teens, he didn’t really question belief in God growing up; people in his world, he said, sort of took faith for granted. Then he got to college and started reading the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who argued against traditional defenses of God’s existence and justified, as Appignani put it, “what I deep down believe.”
In 2001 he turned his focus to atheism, establishing the Appignani Foundation, which supports “critical thinking” and “humanistic values” and has given grants to organizations such as the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America.
As of 2016, around half of the American public said that knowing a presidential candidate was an atheist would make them less likely to support him or her—atheism was the least preferred of all the hypothetical traits the poll provided, including a history of financial problems and past marijuana use.
Then, in 2016, Appignani through his foundation endowed a chair for the study of atheism and secularism at the University of Miami, an institution he had long been involved with as a South Florida resident.
His $2.2 million gift to the university marks the first time in American history that a faculty position has been endowed specifically for the study of atheism, and he hopes it will “legitimize the word ‘atheism’” in the public sphere. The university recently announced that Anjan Chakravartty, a professor of metaphysics and the philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, will hold the chair.
Read more about atheism in education by Isabel Fattal at The Atlantic