Earlier this year it offered a course on "Responding to 21st-Century Atheism." This attracted the attention of Huffington Post who published a story about it on January 27, 2013 [Regis College, Catholic Institution, Offers Course On Atheism]. This provoked some traffic in the blogosphere [e.g. Jesuit college teaches atheism!].
I thought this was pretty interesting so when Regis College announced a one-day workshop I signed up and sent in my $50. Yesterday I spent more than seven hours at Regis College: six hours of lectures and an hour to eat my peanut butter sandwiches.
Join Professors Scott Lewis, S.J., Gordon Rixon, S.J., and Jeremy Wilkins from the faculty of Regis College as they explore responses to the challenges presented by contemporary atheism. This one day seminar will discuss the role of Scripture, tradition, and theology to address the questions about human living posed by today's culture and climate of disbelief.That was a mistake. What I got was six hours of Christian apologetics with nary a mention of atheism or any of the challenges it presents. The "new atheists" were briefly mentioned but the three talks (Lewis, Rixon, Wilkins) were about how Catholics can feel good about changing their religion to bring it into line with 21st century science (i.e. accept evolution). There was no attempt to defend the existence of god(s) other than some feel-good nebulous reaffirmation of the benefits of falling love with Jesus.
Saturday, April 13, 2013 from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Cost $50.00
This was definitely not a course about atheism since atheism never come up in any of the talks. I was reminded of the consequences when, in a brief conversation after the workshop, several participants got confused about the agnostic vs atheism question. These people also paid $50 and they are no more informed about atheism than they were the day before. That's a shame.
It's probably my own fault for wasting my time and money because I didn't read all the clues in the Huffington Post article last January. Let's look at some of them ...
The eight-week course, which meets every Wednesday afternoon, is on atheism. Or more precisely, "Responding to 21st-Century Atheism."It's Huffington that says the course (and presumably the workshop) is about atheism. If you read carefully what Scott Lewis said you'll get the right impression. The course course/workshop isn't about atheism, it's about "people of faith" and how to help them cope.
It's an attempt, says the Rev. Scott Lewis, for people of faith to understand and come to terms with the increasingly muscular secularism and atheism that has arisen in Western societies over the past generation.
Atheism "has become militant, aggressive and proselytizing," said Lewis, a Jesuit scripture scholar, who teaches the class with three other scholars. "It's made great in-roads and is now socially acceptable. If you're young and educated and believe in God, you're (seen as) a jerk."That was certainly true in the workshop. "Polemic theology" is defined in Wikipedia as, "... the branch of theological argumentation devoted to the history or conduct of controversy over religious matters. It is distinguished from apologetics, the intellectual defense of faith." I was hoping that the workshop would cover the challenge of atheism by confronting atheist arguments but I was wrong. It was all apologetics based on the premise that a loving Christian god exists.
While the course examines the increasing polarization between non-believers and people of faith, it will not be about confronting secularists or engaging in polemics, Lewis stressed before the first class of about 155 students in the adult-education program.
BTW, I must admit that it's hard for me to see the difference between the "militant, aggressive and proselytizing" of atheism and what I was subjected to at the workshop. I suppose it boils down to who your audience is. Atheists direct most of their "proselytizing" at the other side (believers) and while theists direct most of their proselyting at their own side.
Both sides need to lighten up, he [Lewis] said.Unfortunately, in the talk by Scot Lewis there was very little attempt to explain how an atheist can be a good person. The other two talks concentrated on the idea that Roman Catholics can be very good and moral people who understand the meaning of life. The audience was told that without god a person has no answer to the question of meaning and no foundation for morality. None of the lecturers actually came out and said that atheists were immoral but the implication was obvious—you can't live a "full" life unless you love Jesus. The dominant impression given by the speakers—and the questions from the audience—is that Catholics live on a higher plane of existence because they embrace Jesus. While atheists were never directly attacked, they suffered from the comparison.
"One idea for atheists to leave behind is that people who believe are stupid or naive," Lewis suggested. "And perhaps we should leave behind the idea that an atheist is someone who is not ethical or a good person.
"A person can be a believer and be quite intelligent. A person can be an atheist and be quite a morally upright person."
In all honesty, after attending the workshop, it's hard to "leave behind" the impression that theists are incredibly naive about the challenge of atheism. I'm reminded of ostriches and sand. And deck chairs on the Titanic.
It's the first time in memory that a Catholic academic institution in Canada has formally explored non-belief, but it nonetheless reflects the times. Five universities in the U.S. have secular humanist chaplains, and the University of Toronto now has two.I can't speak for the course but this completely misrepresents the workshop. There was no exploration of non-belief and no attempt to address the most important question that students are asking, "Is there a god?"
"I think it's very natural to offer this course," said one of the two Toronto chaplains, Mary Beaty. "Universities are encountering more and more students asking these types of questions."
However one parses the numbers, nonbelievers are undoubtedly getting bolder and even celebrated, as evidenced by best-seller lists in recent years. Lewis and other instructors conceded they will find it hard to avoid mentioning "New Atheist" authors Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but said they would not dwell on the trio.Scott Lewis did not cover "both sides of the debate" in the workshop. He may have covered it in the course. The important point here is that the three lecturers did cover the ways in which Roman Catholicism thinks it can can accommodate science. But this is not news. The lecturers were simply repeating what Roman Catholic scholars have been saying for more that 40 years. In fact, most of Lewis' lecture was based on the apologetics of John Haught.1 The audience would have benefited from hearing the "sophisticated atheist" side of that issue but that would have involved covering what atheists have to say about compatibility and that clearly wasn't going to happen at the workshop.
Lewis said he'll look at both sides of the debate. "What we will be focusing on is our response to individuals who have thrown down the gauntlet and say 'To believe in God is not to be believe in science, and to believe in science is not to believe in God.'"
"There's a little fundamentalism on both sides of the aisle."
Lewis said it's not uncommon for Catholic thinkers to believe in evolution. The course will include the work of the Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who was also trained as a paleontologist and geologist. Teilhard de Chardin accepted Darwinism as fact as early as the 1930s, but his writings were condemned by the Vatican.Believe it or not, this is true! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit, was approving quoted in the workshop as well. There was a glowing reference to his intellect and the importance of the omega point. There was no mention of the famous quotation from atheist Nobel Laueate Sir Peter Medawar when Teilhard de Chardin's book was published ...
It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hearabouts called it the Book of the Year—one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.That pretty much describes the opinion I now have of the Jesuits of Regis College.
UPDATE: I sat beside Veronica Abbas for most of the workshop sessions. She was not impressed: Responding to 21st Century Atheism.
1. Astute readers will recall that John Haught testified for the accommodationists at the Dover trial [Accommodatinism in Dover] [John Haught in Kitzmiller v Dover]. You might also recall the debate between Jerry Coyne and John Haught where Haught was so thoroughly trashed that he tried to suppress the video [Haught vs Coyne: "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?"] [Haught vs Coyne: The Letter] [Haught vs Coyne: The Q&A].