A recent news item caught my eye. It said that the Jesuit-run Regis College at the University of Toronto had started offering a course on “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.
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.”
Actually I don’t know any atheist who thinks all believers are ‘jerks’. Some are and some are not, just like atheists, in fact. What atheists do think is that believers are simply wrong.
My first question was why the University of Toronto, which I had thought of as a secular public institution, has a college run by a religious group. Any Canadians out there who can educate me as to how their public university structure works?
My next reaction was that the introduction of such a course was a sign that atheists speaking out openly about their lack of belief in any god and challenging the bubble of privilege given to religion in the public sphere was having an effect, contrary to the claims of accommodationists that by doing so we risk driving ‘moderate’ religionists into the more extreme creationist camp.
It is clear that in the course Lewis is going to stack the deck somewhat against atheism, saying that while the instructors will mention the works of New Atheist authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, they won’t dwell on them. Lewis says that “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.'”
I suspect that this course will backfire because the more students learn about atheism and the conflict between religion and science, even from those who seek to counter it, the more likely they are to be intrigued by these questions. And once people start questioning their beliefs, it’s difficult for religion to get them to stop at what they think is the proper place
The big success of the New Atheists has been to break the taboo against atheism as the view that dare not speak its name. This course will only serve to further break down that taboo.
So go for it, Scott Lewis!