They may want to rethink this

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!


  1. invivoMark says

    I’m not quite so optimistic. It sounds to me like the point of the course is to reinforce strawman atheism, and convince believers that we’re all fundamentalists with wacky ideas and full of hubris.

    I’d feel better if this course could have an actual atheist sit in to interject whenever appropriate, “no, that isn’t what we believe/say/do.”

    On the other hand, maybe it will lead many wannabe young theologians into debates for which they are woefully unprepared, and entertainment will ensue.

  2. says

    Okay, here’s the backgrounder on religion in public universities in Ontario.* Originally, most schools were run by churches. When newer schools are established (say, starting in the 20th century), they’re most likely to be secular. The University of Toronto has different colleges (think Oxbridge), many of which were established back when religion mattered, and so are still quasi-religious–St. Michael’s is Catholic, Trinity is Anglican, Knox is Presbyterian and so on. There is no issue with public funding** because the University as a whole is a mix of denominational and secular institutions. Keep in mind that we don’t have strict separation of church and state and our constitutional history has been largely about accommodating minority interests, resulting in a multicultural rather than secular approach.***

    *Education is under provincial jurisdiction, and though this outline may be applicable in other provinces, it may not be in others.
    **We don’t have much in the way of private universities in Canada.
    **This observation void in Quebec where they threw off the shackles of the Catholic Church during the Quiet Revolution and went as secular as they could manage.

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    Ontario’s Catholic schools, in particular, are a throwback to the initial bargains made in founding the country: Ontario would set up Catholic schools for its Catholic minority, and Quebec would set up Protestant schools for its Protestant minority. It was all a ‘don’t trample on my culture’ bargain to ensure both sides would get a reasonable shake, since at that time in both places, schools tended to teach religion anyway.

    Quebec, as mentioned, got rid of its separate school setup a while back; I suspect the fact that Quebec was much more of a Catholic monoculture than any other province meant that when they had problems with the one church that had any power, it was a lot easier to break off from dealing with churches entirely. Most of the other provinces were much greater mixtures of faiths, so it was easier to go church shopping.

    Unfortunately, in Ontario, the last time that any proposal to deal with Catholic schools came up, John Tory brought up the idea of making the ‘separate school’ system funding available to any private school that abided by the regulations of what to teach; and that got used as a club against him in the election. Which means it will likely be several years before anybody else dares bring it up again.

  4. Perchloric Acid says

    The University of Alberta also has some religious colleges within it- St. Joseph’s College, St. Stephen’s College, and Augustana College are various denominations, and part of the U of A.

  5. garnetstar says

    No, if you believe in God and try to force everyone else to live by your beliefs, you’re seen as a jerk.

  6. Kevin Dugan says

    Sure they did, it involved some rope, firewood and a torch. At least they thought this was the proper response, and some probably still would if they could get away with it.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    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 [sic] believe in science, and to believe in science is not to believe in God.’”

    If this course were done right, I would love to be a fly on the classroom wall and hear how the arguments on this subject have changed since I was an undergraduate in a Dominican-run college (back 55 years). One has to be careful not to wind up the main course at a heretic roast with the Dominicans, but they are fairly good with rigorous arguments: when they argue for philosophical non-anthropomorphic theism, you can at least see what they’re taking for granted. Unfortunately Lewis is a Jesuit “scripture scholar” and I’m afraid it will just be bible-thumping and debaters’ tricks.”Science” vs. “theism” is already a fraudulent alternative that does not bode well for the level of his course.

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