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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wasting Money on the Jesuits at Regis College

Regis College is a Jesuit College at the University of Toronto. One of their main jobs is to train students for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

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.

Saturday, April 13, 2013 from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Cost $50.00
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.

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 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.

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.
"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."
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.

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 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."
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?"
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.

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."
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 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].


  1. Some "workshop". It sounds more like a sneaky way to get 50 bucks per person for preaching some sermons.

    1. I thought the Jesuits were supposed to be the "intellectual" ones. I guess not.

  2. Both sides need to lighten up, he [Lewis] said.

    "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."

    He really needs to get out into the real world more often, if he thinks the main problem Catholicism faces is that's its adherents are seen as stupid, and that they are conceded to be moral.

    If you play word association with the average person and mention "Catholic priest", among the first reponses that are guaranteed to come up are "child molester" or "pedophile". Whether or not that is fair, it remains a fact. So if he thinks they don't have work to do to convince people that they are moral, he's wrong.

  3. I was fascinated mostly by the graphic on "beg the question". I have learned (quite recently) that it means to assume the thing you are supposed to be proving. But the coffee cup says "It does not mean 'to raise the question'".

    I never thought it did. When I misunderstood the meaning of "to beg the question", what I thought it meant "to avoid raising the question".

    Was I doubly wrong, or is the coffee cup wrong in what it says people mistakenly thought?

    1. Every single conference I am at, at least two or three speakers say "this begs the question" when they mean "this leads to the question". It is jarring. I'd guess that less than 10% of even well educated people know what the term means, so at some point one will have to give up and simply accept that the meaning has changed.

    2. I agree with Alex SL. Almost everyone North America thinks that the phrase "begs the question" means "raises the question."

  4. Apparently the graphic on the cup is correct, Joe. I've never liked that phrase because it doesn't make sense and it is often used in ways that make even less sense.

  5. "Beg the question" is a terrible translation of petitio principi. It should probably never be used. Many people will misunderstand you, whichever meaning you think it has. (And with good reason - there's nothing in English that makes the logical fallacy meaning transparent or even reachable from the verb "beg", yet some people have been carefully taught.) Say "raise the question" or "assumes the premise".

    1. Shoot. Meant to add: you can always just say petitio principi, too. I mean, we say ad hominem, not "to the man", and people survive.

  6. Astrobiology and theology - two subjects without a subject matter.

  7. Larry, I' am shocked to hear that the RCC took your money and didn't deliver any product.

    This is simply so out of character for them.

    Perhaps you just happened to meet up with the few bad apples in the bushel.

    This surely can not be representative of the organization as a whole.

    1. Steve

      You and I are "kindred spirits" as Anne of Green Gables would say. The RCC takes money and delivers nothing; however, I did expect the Jesuits to do so in a more professional manner. What the workshop indicated is the RCC is desperate, so desperate that one of the speakers,Jeremy Wilkins, has offered,in a comment to the Canadian Atheist post, to answer my question.

      Larry has provided a link to the Canadian Atheist post (see above).

    2. Veronica,

      Are you going to accept his offer?

    3. lutesuite

      I just sent an email to Jeremy Wilkins asking him if he would consider submitting a guest post to Canadian Atheist that redresses the complaints of the atheist members of the audience and gives Canadian Atheist readers some idea how the RCC and how the Jesuits intend to address the challenges of 21st century atheism.

  8. I personally think that organized religion as a whole (with very few exceptions) and Christendom especially have failed in many aspects including the most important one-in the providing people with satisfying answers to life's most important questions, such as have been mentioned in this blog.

    All one needs to do is to ask almost any clergy questions such as: What is that the purpose of life? Why do we grow old and die? Or if God exists, why He allows suffering? and it is almost certain, the he/she will get very vague reply or none at all. It's easy to blame people, such as atheists and even religious ones that they have no faith, if they have almost nothing to base their faith on. Saying "Just believe in Jesus and you will be saved" doesn't cut it anymore.

    This is a perfect example:

    "Why, Lord, Did You Remain Silent?”

    THESE were the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the former concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, on May 28, 2006. At the site where the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of Jews and others, he added: “How many questions arise in this place! Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil? . . . We must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature!”

    Shouldn't the head of the world's largest religion know an answer to a question like that?

    1. The question that Ratzinger should have asked is why the catholic church remained silent in the face of the extermination of the European Jewish population.

      It could be that anti-semitism is a core tenet of christianity and the catholic church was far too busy colluding with every fascist organization running amuck in Europe at the time, a tradition by the way that continues to this very day under the aegis of current pope.

    2. Blessing the perpetrators, in exchange for territory, is hardly remaining silent anyway.

  9. Interesting.

    You atheists are obviously having a good time bashing theists but what do you have to offer? Universe popped out of nothing, molecular machines assembled themselves, handful of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen became self aware, and last but not least "who designed the designer?".

    Therefore no God! Do you have anything convincing?

    1. No, you have convinced me with your compelling arguments from incredulity and ignorance.

      I finally realize that that it was your invisible, one eyed friend Odin that created the universe from the body of Ymir.

      How could I have been so blind all these years ?

    2. Me too! I am so convinced: unless we can explain everything that has been scientifically demonstrated to an ignorant fool (to the fool's satisfaction), and unless we have scientific explanations for each and every phenomenon at the quantum/subatomic-particle level (in excruciating step-by-step detail), some magical being did it is the only reasonable answer. How could I be so blind!

    3. (Are you the Eugen who was a believer, yet reasonable to talk with before? If so: what's up!?)

    4. What convinces me until what time, if any, that I see better evidence is:

      1) I see no direct evidence of the sort of god who performs miracles, answers prayers, or in short outperforms coincidence and placebo.

      2) The universe is a lot bigger and more complex than the flat Earth surrounded by a dome of water which the early Biblical tales describe. For example, google the Lagrangian of the Standard Model, take a good look at it, and then realize that as complex as it is, it is incomplete as a description of how this universe works. I find it inconceivable that an intellect capable of designing this universe would care any more about me personally than I care about any individual ant.

      3) As between the two assertions "the universe came from nothing" or "God came from nothing and then created the universe", the first actually makes more sense to me. The statement I would use however is "we don't know where the universe came from".

    5. @Eugen,

      I am an atheist because I've seen no convincing argument for the existence of god(s). My position is no different than yours on the existence of most gods. I just go one god further.

      It's not up to me to prove that god(s) don't exist. The burden of proof is on those who make extraordinary claims that fly in the face of evidence.

      If you've got a really god argument for the existence of god(s) then post it at: A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters.


    6. Larry

      The fence between atheists and theists is too tall . I cannot produce an argument that would pass atheist filter. On the other hand, how good is Krauss and a universe out of nothing?

      After three years of reading blog discussions, forums, science papers and books this is a type of issue I didn't get satisfactory answer to from the atheist side.

    7. Eugen, sorry to hear about the blood pressure, there is a correlation between salt intake and hypertension, stay away from processed foods and reduce your salt consumption in general.

      I'm reading "The World Until Yesterday" by Jared Diamond and he makes a case for a genetic component for the propensity that traditional people (as he calls them) have for diabetes and hypertension as they transition from their previous lifestyles and diets to a western lifestyle and diet.

      He claims that genes for the efficient conversion of glucose to stored fat were selected for in traditional societies by a boom/bust cycle of over abundance of food/famine and the same genes that allowed them to survive works to their detriment when they adopt western ways.

      Perhaps the adoption of the Paleolithic diet could resolve your blood pressure issues without recourse to imaginary beings or medication.

    8. Eugen,

      On the other hand, how good is Krauss and a universe out of nothing?

      I have no idea. But to me, not knowing how something started, or if something started, or whether it started from nothing or from something, is completely inconsequential to the existence of gods. As our knowledge advances the questions become much bigger. Long ago volcanoes and thunder, for example, were gods.Today we know that those things are completely natural phenomena. So it becomes quite weird to think that if there's still open questions that's where we will find the gods. That on the one hand. On the other, really, why believe something just because we don't know something else? As far as I am concerned, Krauss could be completely wrong about how the universe started and if it started from nothing, and that would not make any difference. It would just show that we don't have some answer. Whether the question is answerable or not. Truly, wouldn't make any difference to me.

      Think about it this other way: most of scientific evidence shows that most of the tales about gods are exactly that, tales. So holding to unknowns to justify believing in any of them would be plainly ridiculous, wouldn't it? Example, evolution is a fact. Why believe that the god of the Christians is real if the evidence contradicts the tales of the bible in that respect? (Leaving aside the nonsense, contradictions, and plain bullshit attached to this god.)

      See? There's plenty just before even touching on how/if the universe had a beginning from something, from nothing, et cetera ...

      Have fun at the park!


    9. For a genuine concern and advice, thanks, it is very good for anyone sailing through mid life.


      The book you are reading and theory sound very interesting. I heard of Paleolithic diet but could it be a fad?

      Negative Entropy

      I can imagine running serious blog to be pain in the a**. It takes quite an effort. Weather in our area is greatly improving so yes, fresh air and walk is the best.

       Do you visit this blog often? Atheist-theist fence is tall but I'm close to it and I jump high so I'll come more often and take a look what you guys are doing.

      Thanks for your comment about Krauss. When I heard his idea my first thought was "how is that better than theistic explanation ?". That's the bottom line. It just looked as his preferred explanation because of his atheism.  Beginning of the universe is a very serious issue to both sides. If universe didn't pop out of nothing then some of us are left with inconvenient solution. 

    10. Hi Eugen,

      Yes, I visit this blog often.

      I guess we will see you around. Welcome!

    11. Re: "When I heard his idea my first thought was "how is that better than theistic explanation ?". That's the bottom line. It just looked as his preferred explanation because of his atheism."

      I've actually read the book. The title is open to misinterpretation. His substantive claim is that a) there are a lot of cosmological data that indicate that the sum total of all the matter/energy in this universe is ... zero, or as close to it as our measurement accuracy can detect; and b) the current consensus theory of Cosmic Inflation and its underlying theory of Quantum Field Theory support a mechanism by which the laws of physics which govern this universe could spawn other universes randomly.

      I don't think these are controversial claims among cosmologists, but read the book for the details and evidence.

      Most of the book covers those issues, but there is a bit at the end on the issue of how the laws of physics themselves might arise. This is a philosophical issue rather than something measurable (i.e., not science). The basic philosophical answer is due to Stengler: "'nothing' is unstable". That is, if nothingness means not just no energy, space or time, but also no laws of any kind, then there is no law to prevent laws from spontaneously forming, until some set of them, such as our set, produces physical universes.

      My feeling about this philosophical hypothesis, based on experience with my own hypotheses, is that any guess made in the absence of evidence is overwhelmingly likely to be wrong. (But might be interesting.)

      Of course, that same objection applies to those who jump to conclusions about a book without reading it.

  10. Nice to see Negative Entropy! I clicked on your profile but it looks like you are not running your blog anymore.

    Argh, this self congratulatory tone raised my blood pressure a little, that's all. ....and you Oberski will have to pay for my blood pressure medicine. Pray to one eyed Odin to puff you some money out of nothing so you can pay for it.

    1. Hi Eugen,

      Sorry to hear about your blood pressure. I claim the "you-know-what-you're-up-to-when-you-comment-argument-from-ignorance-on-an-atheist-forum" clause.

      No, I don;t run the blog any more. I had it completely forgotten, so I let it go.

      Anyway, less salt man. Proper diet and exercise. And please don't over-stress yourself at work. Spring is finally here, so a walk in the park is advisable (I'm back from that myself!).


  11. Well, I wish I were there! Certainly, theist believers are not different than atheist believers. Both are systems of belief. No to belief that God exist is just difficult as believing that God does exists. I guest the priests were as right as the chemist atheist. Watching them posing their arguments is as boring as watching paint dry! Atheist evangelists are not different from fanatic preachers. What motivates them? God?