Well, as reader Diane G. told me when she sent me this link, “Don’t get your hopes up.” And indeed, although, as the Washington Post reports, the Jesuit-run Regis College at the University of Toronto is starting a new course, “Responding to 21st-Century Atheism,” it isn’t all it appears to be. (Why are Jesuits running a college at the University of Toronto, anyway?)
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.”
When I read that second sentence, my reaction was identical to that of one commenter:
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.
Both sides need to lighten up, he 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.
I like that “perhaps”—as if Lewis isn’t quite sure!
The comments, by the way, are not pro-Catholic: another sign public nonbelief is becoming more acceptable in the U.S. Here’s another:
What is the syllabus?
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.’”
The course comprises two lectures from Lewis; a look at psychology and atheism from Jesuit psychologist Rev. Joe Schner, who will examine whether the human brain is hard-wired for religion; an examination of suffering by Michael Stoeber, who told the introductory class that the “New Atheists” tend to overemphasize “the underbelly of the Catholic Church”; and a theological and philosophical perspective from Jesuit Gordon Rixon.
What—no atheist lecturers? (Well, at least they admit that the Catholic Church has an underbelly!)
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.
Why would they even consider not mentioning those New Atheist authors? But of course they won’t dwell on them, for those are the three who have posed the strongest challenge to faith.
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 [sic] 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.”
There’s that “fundamentalist atheist” trope again. What, exactly does it mean for an atheist to be “fundamentalist”? What Lewis means, actually, is “passionate and strong-minded.”
Apparently there’s also theodicy, though I’m not sure why it’s included in this course:
Central to the course will be the question of suffering — “the oldest religious question in the world,” Lewis said. “Why, if there’s a good God, do we have suffering, especially of the innocent?”
It’s also the hardest question for Abrahamic religions, and one that has never received a satisfactory answer. If you want to befuddle a religious person in private or public debate, ask them that question, then stand back and watch the fun!
What about evolution?
As for science and Darwinism, the biblical book of Genesis “is not a science book and should not be read as one. Our faith does not rise and fall on the age of the Earth.” And people of faith are at a threshold moment: “We cannot continue thinking of God in traditional ways and still accept Darwinian science.”
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.
Whenever I hear the phrase “the Bible (or the book of Genesis) is not a science book,” I read it as “the Bible is not true.” For it, and the Catholic church, make epistemic claims that are indeed scientific, in the sense that they can be empirically tested—at least in principle. So if the Bible isn’t a science book about Genesis, Adam and Eve, or the Exodus, why is it a science book about the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection?
And about Catholic thinkers “believing” (I prefer “accepting”) evolution, I echo the comment of Thomas Carlysle resonding to Margaret Fuller’s comment, “I accept the universe”: Gad, they’d better! Accepting evolution (with the caveat that humans evolved a soul) is the official position of the Catholic church. Anyone who considers himself a “Catholic thinker” better take note of the multifarious evidence for evolution.
Nevertheless, 29% of American Catholics remain creationists. To me, that shows that when science conflicts with what you want to believe—even if the science is accepted by Church dogma—you can still reject the science. In a Time Magazine pol in 2006, 64% of Americans stated that they’d reject a scientific fact if it conflicted with the tenets of their faith.
At any rate, this is a sham course in atheism, one that would certainly please the Templeton Foundation. Its whole purpose is apologetic: to show how to answer the New Atheists rather than truly come to grips with their arguments. In other words, it’s about how to keep believing what you want to believe despite some nagging criticism. Stay classy, University of Toronto!
I close with a final comment from a reader of the Post piece: