The study of atheism and secularism is only starting to emerge as an accepted academic field, scholars say, with its own journal, conferences, course offerings and, now, an endowed chair.

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With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair “for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics.”

The chair was established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International.

Appignani has given grants to many humanist and secular causes, though this is his largest. The university, which has not publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.

“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists,” said Appignani, 83, a Florida resident. “So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate.”

Religion departments and professors of religious studies are a standard feature at most colleges and universities, many originally founded by ministers and churches. The study of atheism and secularism is starting to emerge as an accepted academic field, scholars say, with its own journal, conferences, course offerings and, now, an endowed chair.

“I think it’s a very bold step of the University of Miami, and I hope there will be others,” said Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist luminary who is the author of “The God Delusion.”

The percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has risen rapidly in a short time, to 23 percent of the population in 2014, up from 16 percent in 2007, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Younger people are even less religious, with 35 percent of millennials saying they identify as atheist, agnostic or with no religion in particular.

Secular Americans are beginning to organize themselves politically. Next month, nonbelievers are headed to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and hold a “Reason Rally” at the Lincoln Memorial to showcase their numbers and promote the separation of church and state.

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 helped broker the arrangement. He said that more than 15 years ago, when he was chairman of the philosophy department, he and Appignani began discussing the idea for a chair to study atheism and secularism.

“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,” Siegel said. “He wasn’t going to do it unless it had the word atheism in it.”

The university had reason to be cautious, Thomas LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost, said in an interview. “We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist,” he said. “Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics.”

Appignani was raised a Roman Catholic in New York City by Italian immigrant parents. He said he became a nonbeliever at the City College of New York when he discovered the work of Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner.

With the money he made from the Barbizon school, he said, he created the foundation that has given grants to groups such as the American Humanist Association and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Pitzer College, a liberal-arts school in Southern California with about 1,000 students, became the first to begin a program and major in secular studies five years ago.Scholars have formed a “Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network,” which is holding its fourth conference this summer in Zurich. A peer-reviewed journal, “Secularism and Nonreligion,” is up and running.