Speaking for Atheism and New Atheism class at evangelical Catholic university

[June 28 Update:
I appeared on a radio show to discuss the upcoming talk. Feel free to listen.]

[July 17 Update:
The full audio, and more information, is available here.]

I received a unique opportunity from Dr. Sebastian Mahfood [a professor who holds a Master’s in philosophy and a doctorate in post-colonial literature and theory] of Holy Apostles College and Seminary — a fully-accredited Catholic school in Connecticut offering graduate and undergraduate programs — to be a guest speaker for a class in the latter part of July titled “Atheism and New Atheism” representing, of course, an atheistic perspective.

Here is a course description for the class:

PHTH 619 – Atheism and New Atheism (Dr. Ronda Chervin & Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, O.P.)
The first part of the course will deal with the many forms (literary, analytic, scientific, existentialist, Freudian,  Marxist, etc.) of atheism that began to flourish in the 19th century and gained ground in the 20th century. This will provide the context for the second part of the course, which will focus on how the new atheism is confronting today’s world in the attempt it is making to secure political power in its assault against faith. The course will provide adequate ways in which Catholic leaders might respond to this onslaught.

This seems like a welcome challenge :)

I will be giving a twenty-minute talk in which I will talk about — at the very least — my background as a Roman Catholic, the story behind my deconversion following my second year of undergraduate studies, being an atheist at Catholic universities, my reasons for being an atheist [and why I think arguments for belief in any gods are insufficient to warrant belief], why I am public about my non-belief and dedicate much time to the ‘atheist movement,’ and why I think self-reflection and conversation with those whom you disagree is very important.

Following my twenty-minute talk, I will directly engage with students in a thirty-minute question and answer session in which I will answer questions concerning my twenty-minute talk and — I suppose — what the students have learned in class and/or otherwise have heard from other atheists.

I spoke to Dr. Mahfood on the telephone for about an hour and thought the discussion surrounding his class, his intentions to have me as a speaker, and more was very productive. His class — as I expected following my discussion with him– is not Biblically-based (in regards to arguments for God’s existence and related matters), but rather is grounded in non-Biblical philosophical arguments. While we obviously disagree on the conclusions we reach through our evaluation of arguments (and disagree at least in matters of metaphysics), it is nonetheless refreshing that Dr. Mahfood and I — and how the class is run — are on the same page in many ways…much unlike some religious people who seem to believe propositions because it makes them feel good or because they are useful and truth relativists I often encounter.

This will be a wonderful chance to interact with students in an evangelical college, challenge my own beliefs, and present my perspective to an audience that is much different than those I have addressed in the past. I haven’t heard of prominent atheists who have received an opportunity like this — to be a guest speaker for a college-level course while presenting an atheistic perspective — but if you have, please feel free to comment and provide information for how these interactions went.

I very much value discussions I have with theists and — when adequate opportunities present themselves — have those discussions. In this case (and others), I hope to expose others to ideas they may not have been exposed to, ‘put a human face’ on ideas, and learn something from the people who have ideas opposed to my own. I lament that conversations amongst those who disagree often don’t happen for various reasons including, but not limited to, people viewing disagreement as disrespect [and not having the discussion], problematic ideas about diversity, failing to value truth, etc. Conversation, I think, needs to be reframed. It would also be best, I think, for discussions or interactions like these to not be adversarial as my friend Dr. Peter Boghossian stresses (we’re on the same page on this issue).

This interaction will allow for me for represent an atheistic perspective but it of course will not be representative of the way every atheist thinks; individuals have different manners of presentation, reasoning for being an atheist (if that is even the case), backgrounds, values, etc. The only thing that unites atheists is lack of belief in any gods. Personally, I come from a more philosophical perspective and offer — what I hope — an intelligent defense of atheism that often might not be the case that is a result of my philosophical pursuits and interaction with theologians, priests, ministers, etc during undergraduate studies at a Catholic university. While I don’t represent everyone, I hope that you will like — if you are an atheist — having me as someone ‘on your side’ representing an atheistic perspective.

Hopefully all goes well! As always, feel free to comment and offer your thoughts.

[This post has been featured as a post on FFRF’s blog.]

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Anonymous

    A 14-week course and they have scheduled an entire hour to talk to an actual Atheist. How inadequate. The course is taught by two Catholics, indeed part of the reading material is all about one’s conversion from atheism to Catholicism.The course does have the students read the majority of The God Delusion, so at least they get to spend several more hours hearing the voice of Richard Dawkins in their head (or is it just me who hears Dawkins whenever I read his books?). But the scholarship standards of this course seem quite low. It’s a low bar to reach, when the course material says this:Students are required to post 300-word summary/interpretations to any two additional weeks in between these two (e.g., Weeks 10 and 12) for a total of four (4) posts. For the weeks in which a student is not making an original post, he or she is required to respond in 30 words or fewer to a classmate’s post if one is available. 30 words or fewer? Less than 30 words? I could ask a Primary School student to respond in less than 30 words.Good luck and have a good time doing your talk and Question/Answer session. Don’t expect too much.

    • Anonymous

      Certainly, this reasoned, detailed analysis of a course description illustrates the intellectual superiority of Anonymous to the students taking this course. The course description offers more content than Anonymous’ post.

  • GCT

    I would be sure to include an Atheism 101 section in your talk. I guarantee that there will be students there who come at you with, “Can you prove god doesn’t exist,” and “Atheists think they know it all,” and “Atheists claim that there’s no god!”I’m also going to sound a warning based on the class description:”…which will focus on how the new atheism is confronting today’s world in the attempt it is making to secure political power in its assault against faith. The course will provide adequate ways in which Catholic leaders might respond to this onslaught.”You’ve already been painted as a militant before you even show up. You’ll have to combat that stereotype from the get-go.

  • Justin, Sounds like they want specifics about the “goals” or agenda of the new atheists. Victor Stenger has a cute li’l book titled “The New Atheism”~you’ll find concise, directly stated objectives of “the new atheism.” Good luck and have fun~!

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to see an outline to your speech.

  • Cool! This sounds like a great opportunity.With only 20 min to speak, you obviously have to make some hard decisions about what to cover and what to leave out, but IMHO you should spend a few words criticizing the premise of the class.(1) I’d emphasize that there’s little new in the “New Atheism.” I spell this out in the draft I have up on my site of the first chapter of my book:http://freethoughtblogs.com/hallq/2012/05/09/beta-testing-a-book-chapter-1-dont-panic-on-finding-atheism-unfamiliar-and-scary/It includes quotes from Jean Meslier and Bertrand Russell you can use here, as my suggestion of the alternative term “popular atheism.” (Or, you can just explain the “Gnu Atheism” joke to them.(2) I’d emphasize that there isn’t really anything *politically* distinctive about popular atheism. The Supreme Court precedents that we’re citing when we sue people are from the 60’s and 70’s. Also, there are liberal religious believers who agree with us on almost everything politically. Our disagreements with them are about whether God exists and whether it’s good for people to be religious. That’s actually one *criticism* of Dawkins et al. in liberal circles: given that many liberal religious believers agree with us politically, why antagonize them on issues that aren’t all that politically important? Why scare people away from allying with us on political issues?I don’t agree with those criticisms, but the fact that people are making them, I think, helps highlight what’s misleading about the claim that popular atheism is trying “to secure political power in its assault against faith.”Now again, 20 minutes isn’t a lot, and everything you say you plan on talking about seems worthwhile. But on the other hand (and I apologize if you already know this), speaking at 150 wpm (or maybe a little less), you can spit out a newspaper feature article worth of material in 20 minutes (~3,000 words). Write it all out in advance, trying to cut any unnecessary asides, and you’d be surprised how much content you can pack in in that time.

  • I’ll have to say I’m underwhelmed. Gee, a “whole” 30 minutes, in amongst what I’m sure are the classic lies that Christians tell about atheism, being I can already see the nonsense starting in the wannabee martyr language in the course description. I’m guessing that if this class goes for more than a semester or two, they will quickly decide not to bring in outside speakers. Still, good luck Justin. If anything, it’ll be fun ot see if these students are actually smart and respectful or if they end up to be the typical theist that will whine about how someone dares not agree with them and pat them on the head.You say that Mafood supposedly uses “philosophical arguments”. Now, I’m guessing that this would be the ontological argument, etc. I do hope you point out how those always fail in showing that any specific god exists or that any god “must” exist at all. Sad that any adult human finds those worthwhile at all.

  • Anonymous

    I would have a hard time filling 30 minutes. Science, more specifically, Physics, Evolution, and Molecular Biology. If you study these disciplines and still believe in a supernatural being and a literal religious text, well you didn’t study very hard. The bible is very interesting book on man’s struggles with civilization but needs to be taken in the context of when it was written and why it was written.