Regis College, a Jesuit-run theology school at the University of Toronto, is surprising some people by offering a course on atheism. But the course is not what people might expect.
"This is an outreach class offered in the middle of the day. We have 125 students in attendance; normally we have half that number," said Dean Gordon Rixon of Regis College to The Christian Post on Wednesday. "There has been such an interest that we have decided to offer a one-day course on a Saturday."
The course was created as a response to Canada becoming more secular, Rixon shared. "This is not a course to villainize but to understand," said the dean of Regis College. "This is more of a reflecting course that allows us to form a Christian response to atheism."
The eight-week course at Regis examines disconnect between non-believers and people of faith, and was designed to stimulate dialogue and reflection.
Meanwhile in the United States, Steve Brown, a senior lecturer at Ohio State University, has also experimented with a lecture course mixing Christianity and atheism. Brown, who is Christian, taught the course with his good friend and fellow colleague Wesley Craig, who is an atheist. Brown wanted his students to have a fair look at the debate on the topic of divinity.
"We took surveys at the beginning, middle and end of the class to track what the students personally believed," said Brown. "What we discovered was that it was uncommon for people to change their views. Students who were unsure about their faith decided one way or another at the end of the course. However, nearly all of the students had an increase in respect for people who believed something different than them. That was the goal."
When asked if the students enjoyed the course, Brown had this to say: "The students loved the class. The first time we had the course, two years ago, we received extremely high student evaluations. Last year, we had perfect evaluations."
Hemant Mehta, who runs the popular blog "Friendly Atheist," would likely approve of Brown's course done in partnership with his atheist colleague, but he would probably be less approving of Regis' new atheism course because he believes that the courses should include discussion with atheists.
"In general, though, atheists tend to hear a lot of stereotypes about who we are and what we believe thrown around in the Christian world – in churches, popular books, etc. I've read a number of books written by Christian apologists and it's amazing how many mistakes they make when describing atheists. Those are problems that could have been fixed if only they had consulted with an atheist when they were writing! Yet, these ideas get perpetuated throughout churches, homes, and Christian schools."
Mehta offers that Christians and atheists must begin to understand one another without preconceived perceptions. The "Friendly Atheist" believes that it is vital for Christians to know what other people think and believe, especially those they're trying to reach out to.
"Atheists often criticize Christians for never truly challenging themselves. This could provide Christians with the opportunity to put their beliefs under the microscope and see if they still come out intact. I would add that not every course syllabus seems ideal, though. It's one thing to read a book written by a New Atheist and then have a discussion led by a Christian professor. It's another to have an atheist in the room willing to (politely) discuss and debate those same ideas."
Despite not having an atheist as a lecturer, the atheism course at the 200-student Regis College doesn't seem to be lacking interest. "The students love it! The buzz is quite extraordinary," exclaimed Dean Gordon Rixon.