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Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J., will be leading a course at Toronto’s Regis College in the new year that will study atheism. Photo by Michael Swan

News Regis course a response to atheism

By 
  • December 9, 2012

TORONTO - Most of the time the theologians at Toronto’s Regis College are talking and teaching about faith in God. For eight weeks beginning Jan. 16 scholarly minds at the Jesuit graduate school will focus

on how and why people have rejected faith in God.

Jesuit Scripture scholar Fr. Scott Lewis will lead a team of Regis theologians teaching a non-credit course called “Responding to 21st- Century Atheism.”

Atheism means a little more to Jesuits than to most Catholics. Almost 50 years ago Pope Paul VI gave the Church’s biggest order of priests the special task of dialogue with atheism.

But 50 years later the face of atheism has changed.

“It’s more than just the village atheist now,” said Lewis. “It’s reached new proportions. It’s quite active and very aggressive.”

The University of Toronto now has a volunteer atheist chaplain from the Ontario Humanist Society and the Humanist Association of Toronto who is a member of the university’s chaplaincy association. The Humanist Chaplaincy of the University of Toronto offers ceremonies marking major life events, engagement in social justice issues and counselling.

Whether scanning the shelves of a bookstore or taking a first university course, many people find themselves confronted with a brand of atheism that rejects faith as the antithesis of reason, said Lewis, a Scripture columnist for The Catholic Register.

“You find all kinds of books telling you you’re an idiot if you believe in God,” said Lewis. “It’s a very aggressive attack on belief. I don’t think people of any faith, Christian or non-Christian, can afford the luxury of doctrinal differences now.”

While Lewis is ready to take up Pope Paul VI’s call to arms, he does think there’s a reaction to atheism that really doesn’t work — the blogosphere world of apologetics.

“The trouble with circling the wagons is that usually the minds close and then we can’t get anywhere,” he said.

People who want to fight against evolution or wage a kind of political war in favour of God don’t advance the idea of faith. Lewis believes debates like the one between atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Toronto in 2010 are the wrong way to dialogue with atheism.

“I would rather have discussions — not with these very militant atheists, but with very thoughtful ones and with very thoughtful theologians and people of faith who are not threatened,” he said. “I think both sides could learn from each other.”

A starting point for people of faith has to be the proper distinction between faith and belief, said Lewis.

“Faith is a relationship with God. Belief is how you package it. Beliefs can change. Faith should not, it should deepen,” Lewis said.

The course will include a couple of lectures on atheism and the Bible from Lewis, a look at psychology and atheism from Jesuit psychologist Fr. Joe Schner, a serious look at the problem of suffering by spirituality Professor Michael Stoeber, and a theological and philosophical perspective from Jesuit Father Gordon Rixon.

Atheists are, of course, welcome to take the course. Lewis concedes that the Regis College crowd tends to be pretty solidly theistic.

“It’s kind of like preaching to the choir,” he said.

The course is part of the Regis College “Windows on Theology” program aimed at people with a general interest or just thinking about serious study of theology. There are no course pre-requisites. Register at www.regiscollege.ca.

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