Speaking for Atheism and New Atheism class at evangelical Catholic university

Justin Vacula
FFRF Member

The blog below is a submission from FFRF member Justin Vacula.

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 20-minute talk, I will directly engage with students in a 30-minute question and answer session in which I will answer questions concerning my 20-minute talk and -- I suppose -- what the students have learned in class and/or otherwise have heard from other atheists.

The talk and the Q & A will be released to me soon after the talk and Q & A takes place. I will then release the talk and Q & A to the public by placing it online in some manner (likely, with help from the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast's producer, Jason, as an extra episode).

This will be taking place on July 17.

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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.

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