An Atheist Visits a Catholic Conference Aimed to ‘Confront the Challenge of Secularism’ December 5, 2011

An Atheist Visits a Catholic Conference Aimed to ‘Confront the Challenge of Secularism’

This is a guest post by Rod Chlebek. Rod is the web director for Michiana Skeptics based in South Bend, IN and a cost analyst by day.

Once a year, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture hosts its annual fall conference, this year entitled “Radical Emancipation: Confronting the Challenge of Secularism.” There was certainly a lot to choose from here; many lectures ran simultaneously. One in particular that caught my eye talked about “New Atheism.” Sounded perfect. I wanted to hear how they described non-believers like me.

Shortly after finding a seat in a small meeting room with a little over a dozen others, the chair introduced the speakers. First up was Professor Patrick Flynn from Benedictine University with his paper, “Faith, Culture, Skepticism and ‘New Atheism’.” His opening remarks noted an American Atheists billboard with a nativity scene and this “irreverent, sarcastic message”: “You KNOW it’s a myth. This season, celebrate REASON!”

Then Flynn mentioned Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger and Christopher Hitchens along with their works as he described the “New Atheism” movement.

There’s certainly nothing new about non-belief. Atheism has been around for a long, long time. However, there is something new about how we’re handling it. We’re finally making noise. I know that many of us appreciate the recent scrutiny of religion, but not everyone agrees on the delivery. (Just think about the reactions to the various billboard campaigns.) Flynn wanted the audience to believe, though, that each organization or author unified and represented all of our opinions. He couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’m always careful to ask “What do you believe?” when speaking with a Catholic. I don’t automatically assume the details or degree of their belief, or whether they attach themselves to any one particular apologist. I feel we should be getting the same consideration in return.

Later, Flynn went into a rather long explanation of premises and conclusions about New Atheists’ criteria for believing things and when we called things rational or irrational. In the end, here’s how he summed it up:

“What counts as grounds for evidence in my view is apparently much wider and much fairer that what appears to be the case for the New Atheists… The New Atheists are guilty of an equivocation of the term ‘evidence’. By ‘evidence’, they basically mean ‘the strictest scientific evidence’ or (even more worrisome) ‘scientific evidence as they, New Atheists, are willing to accept’… It would certainly seem an extremely narrow-minded and partisan viewpoint to suppose that all genuine evidence must be scientific evidence… If I ask someone ‘How’s the weather?’ and they respond ‘It is pleasant’, this hardly counts as genuine scientific evidence.”

I disagree. If we ask someone how the weather is, there is “genuine scientific evidence” on which to base a belief. We’ve probably asked people how the weather is at least a few hundred times by now. Their responses are called arguments. They becomes testable when we look or go outside. Then we’re able to tell if their arguments are both valid and reliable. At this point it becomes evidence. This is the scientific method. Whether we realize it or not we’ve been doing this since we were babies, observing the world around us and making the sort of mental notes that lead to belief. “Doing science” isn’t limited to lab coats and archaeological digs — which is what Flynn is accusing New Atheists of when he hands us an ill-fitting definition.

Next up was Professor Margaret Monahan Hogan from the University of Portland. Hogan introduced “God Conscious Humanism” which she believed was the portal to radical emancipation. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed Hogan’s lecture. She raised the consciousness of the dangers of fundamentalism of both sides of the spectrum and brought to light the spiritual nature of human beings. When I say “spiritual,” I mean it metaphorically of course. She warned us that radical secularism would strip God entirely from our lives (as if that were a bad thing) and held the Catholic Church accountable for maintaining “God Consciousness.”

Of course, the idea of the Catholic Church being in charge of anything scares me, but aside from that, I think Hogan touched on a significant part of being human. We all have the same basic set of philosophical questions about life and we all share the same set of emotions or feelings. After listening to her arguments, I think the assumption was that we atheists would live a very dry and stale life in a society without a god. She’s wrong, though. Our “spirit” is a product of nature, not of a god, and we’d be fine in a world free of religion.

Last up was Ryan Topping of St. Thomas University. He stated that young men now play video games for 2.5 hours a day and that’s a far cry from forty years ago when our parents and grandparents would have gone to an evening gathering at a fraternity. We’re finding our nourishment elsewhere, “in yoga classes or perhaps a soft bowl of tofu.” He offered a four point plan to renew the Church: “End abortion. Have more kids. Teach them Latin. Build better churches.”

That’s verbatim.

Interestingly, enough, I was raised Catholic (altar boy and all) and I took three years of Latin. I became a skeptic. So much for Topping’s plan.

Afterwards, there were some questions centering around the attachment that New Atheists seem to have with Darwinism and Dawkins. Allegedly, Darwin and Dawkins mean a lot to us because they help us justify our atheism, something that we didn’t have decades ago. And now that more information is available in the realm of science, we use that to justify our atheism by idolizing it more and understanding it less (which Flynn suggested).

If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that panels and lectures like this aren’t enough if Catholics really want to achieve an understanding of what atheists believe. It would’ve been interesting to have a New Atheist up on that panel, countering their statements. At least it would’ve made for a more interesting discussion.

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  • Chris

    I don’t understand what the sign on the poster is supposed to mean. What it means, I know exactly. It says “stop !” in German and in Polish. It the kind of sign you can see when you visit (as I did) the death camp in Auschwitz (Oswiecim).

    So, is this poster implying that we, Nazi atheists, say “stop, go no further !” to the Pope ?

    I’m not sure, but I think the picture of Benedict XVI was taken during a visit in a Nazi camp. So, is this “the challenge of secularism” ?

    The whole picture is tasteless and insulting.

  • Chris, where have you been these past few years? Under a rock or something?

    The catholic church has stated many times (and ratzinger has stated many times as well) that secularism leads to nazism and horrors like nazism.
    Ratzinger also said the nazis were evil atheists and atheists are like nazis.

    Use your google magic, bro.

  • It’s annoying when theists attack a rational epistemology just to take away attention from the precarious nature of their own. How do you corroborate revelatory claims? How do you independently verify the validity and reliability of faith-based statements about reality? How do you reliably connect the natural with the supernatural?

  • Mikel

    I have the strongest of feelings that the purpose of this lecture series is not to inform Catholics about atheism, but rather to confirm to Catholics that atheism is dangerous. Keep them in the protective fold, and all that crap. Interesting though, to hear what they are saying about us.

  • I am not Catholic, nor do I believe there is rational proof for the existence of gods. And I do find many of the points made at this conference objectionable.

    That said, it seems that at no point did the speakers mock atheists. There didn’t seem to have been any disrespectful jokes or sneering jabs. If there were, I suspect you would have called them out.

    This puts this conference squarely head-and-shoulders above any atheist or skeptic event I’ve attended. In the last 12 years, first for college and then in the course of interfaith work, I’ve listened to atheist speakers in a variety of venues. This includes interviews, public conferences and more “in group” settings (student groups, etc.). At each of these events, the speaker(s) have always seen fit to openly mock religion, believers, or both, and make jokes out of them.

    I find this particularly relevant because of your comment on not misrepresenting other people’s beliefs: ” I feel we should be getting the same consideration in return.” Did you feel mocked at any time during the conference? And if not, do you feel atheist speakers and events have any duty to show the same consideration in return?

  • Oh, certainly, Drew.
    You are right.

    Theists merely think (and some rejoice in the belief) that we will all end up in god’s basement for eternal torture.

    What’s wrong with mocking religion and other stupid beliefs anyways?

    You make absolutely no sense.

  • Anonymous

    So basically they don’t have a clue and the way to fix things from their point of view is to do more of what they’ve been doing for 1800 years.  Good news for us as it isn’t working for them.  At least the rising number of atheists tell us that it is the case.

  • Pau Sunstone

    If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that panels and lectures like this
    aren’t enough if Catholics really want to achieve an understanding of
    what atheists believe.

    It doesn’t sound much like the Catholics at the Conference were genuinely interested in understanding what atheists believe. 

  • Anonymous

    Atheists mock religion because unlike our world view it has enjoyed undue privilage and protection for much too long. If people don’t want their beliefs ridiculed the best thing they can do is not hold ridiculous beliefs

  • dorcheat

    Good grief, when one looks at the conference program with dozens of sessions spread through several rooms with several speakers performing at the same times, where does a “new atheist” begin.  Like Rod Chlebek said, I suppose one needs to prioritize what lectures to attend.

    It sure would be nice if the catholic christians could record and post on say these numerous sessions so that us “new atheists” could critique and analyze.

  • Altamontrick

    There are times in a discourse when ridicule is an appropriate response. If atheists engage more frequently in this rhetorical device, we should be neither surprised nor particularly concerned. Atheists, after all, have much to rail against, and remain, for now, in a minority position, where the polemic raised by ridicule brings needed attention to the cause. Further, the condescending, passive-aggressive, position-of-privilege
    tone adopted by some religious conferees can be as rancorous as any
    atheist’s mocking. Frankly, Drew, I don’t think there is any high ground of civility here for you to seize. You ought to just toughen up.

    I am not suggesting that atheists be universally confrontational and in my experience, they aren’t.  The lesson here is that in any exchange between believers and non-believers, the choice of rhetorical modes is situational. Individual speakers will be more or less appropriate in the emotional tones they strike, vis-a-vis the situation and the issue they are dealing with. But we should not deny to any contributor to the debate his/her access to any of the range of responses they might choose. There is no basis upon which to banish ridicule from our discourse, and discussions that lack ridicule are not necessarily better or more productive because they do.

    Of course, my projection is that the pique believers feel over being ridiculed has more to do with the intellectual bankruptcy of their belief than their concern for civility. I could be wrong, and I’m willing to talk about it. No holds barred, you understand.

  • Trace

    Yes Chris, Morva is right.

    The idea that secularism leads to horrible atrocities is a mantra among many believers.

  • Trace

    Unfortunately for him, Mr. Ratzinger should know a thing or two about nazism and the Hitler Youth (conscription and all)

  • Tim

    “At no point did they mock atheists”  Perhaps not but their poster compares us to Nazis. 

    Is that not worse?

  • How do you ridicule Reason?
    Fundamentalists damn us to Hell every Sabbath.

    q. Who killed the Catholic Church?

    a.  Cafeteria Catholics

  • Pete084

    Of course the best thing that has happened in years is the removal of the cloak of secrecy that Catholics have maintained through threats of everlasting damnation, once one child molestation case had been reported it started an avalanche of claims going back years.

    Whilst it is heartening to see even Ireland turning away from the church and heading towards secularism, it’s sad that it had to wait so long that yet more victems fell prey to this vile conspirital organisation.

    The thing that enrages me the most is the blame being laid at the door of ‘New Atheists’ by the vatican, and their complete failure to see that THEY are the architects of their own demise.

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
    Edmund Burke Irish orator, philosopher, & politician (1729 – 1797)

  • TiltedHorizon

    It is an attempt to correlate atheism with Nazism thereby building a case for causation, it is a distraction to steer the congregation’s attention away from any culpability the Catholic Church held in the holocaust. By focusing on atheism no one will open a history book and wonder why Pope Pius XII remained neutral in the face of genocide. With an easy scapegoat no one will bother looking at Hitler’s speeches in which he often cited his belief in god as justification against the Jews. More importantly, no one will discover Hitler’s inspiration, the “Cum nimis absurdum”, a papal bull issued by Pope Paul IV.

  • Matto the Hun

    Maybe we should hold a conference: “The Dangers of Supporting Institutions that Cover up the Rape and Torture of Children”

    ohh right, but then we’d be cast as the bad guys, despite being 100% right

  • Anonymous

    To be fair, as a child in Hitler Germany it’s not like he had much of a choice in the matter. Membership was not optional and you REALLY did not want to get on the bad side of that particular government.

    I still think he’s an evil man mind you, I just find his membership in the Hitler youth not something you can neccesarily blame him for.

  • You should have confronted them with Secularism. That is after all what they wanted. That would have been interesting.

  • Oh boy. Our adults play 2.5 hours of video games a day. That’s so different to the good old times in which we spent our Sundays solving the newspaper’s cross word puzzle or going to the Baseball match.

  • Allegedly, Darwin and Dawkins mean a lot to us because they help us
    justify our atheism, something that we didn’t have decades ago. And now
    that more information is available in the realm of science, we use that
    to justify our atheism by idolizing it more and understanding it less
    (which Flynn suggested).

    Sounds like mocking to me.

    I don’t really think any belief deserves to be so holy that it should not be mocked.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah. There’s something off in a world where Ratzinger becomes pope and Omar Khadr is tortured and detained indefinitely in Guantanamo.

  • Erp

    Strictly speaking the poster condemns not just atheists but also those religious people who favor church/state separation (secularists). 

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s likely that they have much less motivation to understand what we actually believe than we do to understand what religious people actually believe.

    It may be a battle, but the strategies are quite different. For us, the goals include making a safe space for existing atheists, keeping religion out of politics and (for some) coaxing people out of religion. If you want people to choose reason over religion, it’s very important to know where they’re coming from and what they actually believe. So we have an interest in learning about different beliefs in order to better plan our strategies.

    For them, I suspect their goals are different. I seriously doubt they have much of an interest in trying to convert (or re-convert) atheists to their religion. The people who claim they used to be atheists and are now religious are but a shadow of the number who went the other way. Re-converting an atheist is very difficult. It’s much better to concentrate on keeping the religious within the fold. For that, you need to create an image of atheists that is scary and unpleasant. In the particular case of theists with intellectual curiosity, you have to work to portray atheists as intellectually lazy or superficial.

    The point is not to understand atheists so as to convert them, but to control the narrative of what atheism is so as to contain the hemorraging of members by making the secular alternative look bad.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. I always find it silly when people bring that one up

  • I’m taking Latin, and it has had no noticeable effect on my world view.  

  • Gus Snarp

    Old news, but every new instance of this kind of promotion of outright hatred of non-believers (and really, not just non-believers, but anything secular, which would include the kind of secular government we’re supposed to have in the States), is absolutely tasteless and insulting. And this sign is seriously offensive propaganda.

    Of course, it’s also confusing. I rather like the notion of “radical emancipation”, which in my mind would signify freeing one’s self of controlling religious institutions like the Catholic Church, and they don’t really play up the contrast they’re trying to create between the Pope on the one hand and Nazi death camps on the other, instead one could draw an association between the two from this image.

  • Donalbain

    If I wanted to learn about atheists, you know who I would invite to speak? An atheist!

  • Anonymous

    “End abortion. Have more kids. Teach them Latin. Build better churches.”
    That’s okay, but I think  “Buddy Christ” is better.

  • Rod Chlebek


  • If I ask someone ‘How’s the weather?’ and they respond ‘It is pleasant’, this hardly counts as genuine scientific evidence.”

    Parallel to Hemants response to Professor Flynn’s weather analogy:  The Professor does not seem to understand the difference between a claim and evidence for a claim.

    “It is pleasant” is a claim. Going outside and feeling the warmth of the sun and the caress of the breeze, and smelling the fragrance of the air is gathering empirical evidence for or against that claim.

    “The one and only supreme being, maker and ruler of the universe, omnipotent and omnipresent throughout space and time forever into the past and forever into the future, wants you to sit in front of me and give me cash,” is also a claim.  So far, no empirical evidence has been offered.

    What Flinn and his friends offer are yet more claims,>/em> but claims are not evidence for other claims. Piling up claim upon claim is a way to fool the mind into thinking there’s actually some substance there, that there must be a pony somewhere in that huge pile of horse shit.

  • Jeez, what’s wrong with a bowl of tofu?  That’s racist, among other things.

  • Rich Wilson

    Latin, because if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.

  • the captain

    I would love a bowl of tofu right about now.  Though I’d prefer that the tofu be soft, not the bowl.

    Also: I’m in my tenth year of Latin, and it sure hasn’t encouraged me to go back to the Catholic church.

  • Kevin S.

    Especially when there’s so much more you can skewer him with.  It’s his past in Ireland that damns him, not Germany.

  • Tofu is absolutely divine stir-fried with a helping of spring onions, liver, and a dash of sesame oil, garlic, and ginger 😀

  • Kalafarski

    Atheists don’t hold beliefs that are exactly easy to mock.

    What are they going to say? There was this atheist and she did not believe in God. Oh, the lols.

    Not exactly as funny as talking snakes or magic underwear…

  • NickDB

    To be fair, you’re right, but when they start labeling us Nazis just for not believing their fairy tales, then I think it’s worth pointing out that it is an ex nazi saying it.

    I’ll fight fair if they do.

  • Anonymous

    I thought that they were comparing Catholics to Nazis.  My mistake.

  • Oh, excuse me for the under the rock thing. It was early in the morning and misread you for a christian saying atheists were nazis. My bad.

  • Demonhype

    Especially since him being an ex-nazi is true and requires no dishonesty on our part.

  • Trace

    True and yet… it took him several years to desert the army that was responsible for all those “secular” atrocities.

    War is hell 🙁

  • LOL they’d call us “inflammatory, disgraceful heathens” 

  • With any luck, this will be as effective as their highly successful anti-contraception campaign, which I know for a fact all Catholics believe and adhere to 110%

    (there is sarcasm in there, just to be clear for those who are sarcasm-impaired)

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