The Way of Beauty Chair for the Study of Atheism at the University of Miami I

University of Miami by Jaine

Just days ago, the New York Times reported that the University of Miami has established a Chair of Atheism, Humanism, and Secular Ethics, believed to be the first of its kind in the world. Louis J. Appignani, an 83-year old retired executive of the modeling school, Barbizon International, has donated $2.2 million to fund the Chair.

Mr. Appignani, the son of Italian immigrant parents, was raised in the Bronx and attended Catholic schools until his college years.  He then studied at Baruch College at the City College of New York (CCNY) where he was influenced by Bertrand Russell's philosophy.  Leaving the faith of his youth, he became an atheist. Now living in Florida, Mr. Appignani continues donating large sums of money to causes that support studies about atheism and free thinking.

Miami has the seventh most Catholic population of any American city, and 31 percent of Miami residents claim to be Catholic. The president of the University of Miami has stated that the Chair does not represent advocacy for atheism or secular ethics but is simply placing this study on an equal footing with other Chairs.  Mr. Appignani put it this way: "I'm trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists.  So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

35 percent of millennials say they identify as atheist, agnostic, or with no religion in particular. At the University of Miami, St. Augustine campus ministry promotes various programs and events to strengthen the faith of these millennials, help them deepen their relationship with God, discern and discover their vocation in life, and grow into strong Catholic leaders concerned for others.  

What Is Atheism?

(The remainder of this essay has relied on the Pew Research Center, articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia [1914 ], written by a group of theologians, the New Catholic Encyclopedia and Supplement [1967, 1979] by J.P. Reid and B. Mondin, respectively, and from the article, "Atheism" in HarperCollins Encyclopedia  of Catholicism [1989], by Michael J. Buckley, S.J.)

The word atheism (Gr: a theos, without or no god), is used to deny the very existence or reality of God.  "The meaning of atheism depends upon the 'god' that is denied. . . .(Buckley, "Atheism," 108). Atheism is a system of thought, but much more than an idea, by which a man or woman lives without God.  This system can deteriorate into a hardened way of life covering all aspects of life, into a total world view.

The Nones and Affiliated Atheists

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the largest number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has risen rapidly in a short time to 31percent of the population in 2014, up 6 percent from 2007.  68 percent of atheists are men, and the median age of atheist adults is 34.  About two-thirds of atheists identify as Democrats and call themselves political liberals. 8 percent of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in a God or a universal spirit.  65 percent say they seldom or never discuss their views on religion with religious people.  About 32 percent say they look primarily to science for guidance on questions of right and wrong, up from 20 percent in 2007. 

Proud to Be Atheist

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia 17, "atheism is one of the main and most characteristic signs of our time.  Never before in the history of mankind have religious belief, in general, and the Christian faith in particular, been assailed by so many criticisms or been so radically repudiated.  While in previous ages to believe in God was almost natural to man, the same is not true of today's men and women.  In fact, it is to be assumed that modern man and woman live without God."

Several organizations that espouse atheism can be found on the Internet.  This month, non-believers will lobby Congress and hold a "Reason Rally" at the Lincoln Memorial to display their numbers and promote the separation of church and state.

"The conciliar Fathers dedicated an important section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to the study of the different types of atheism, to their causes and to the answers the Church should give to them.  It addressed two forms of systematic atheism: the humanistic atheism of the Western world.  Here it is assumed that human freedom is incompatible with the dignity of religious belief; and the materialistic atheism associated with communism, grounded on economic and social reasons" ( New Catholic Encyclopedia 17).

In 1965, Pope Paul VI created the Secretariat for Relations with Non-Believers.  This new agency was charged with the responsibility of studying the phenomenon of atheism based on scientific research in historical-doctrinal, sociological and cultural, and psychological perspectives.  

The Psalmist may have written 'only the fool says there is no God' (Ps 53:1-6), but for the past 200 years, atheism has shown little trace of embarrassment at the charge. Societies promoting atheism are growing by leaps and bounds. 

Atheism as a Way of Life: practical atheism, pseudo-atheism, and absolute atheism 

Practical atheism is the most common and most curious of atheistic attitudes.  In this form of atheism, persons conduct their very way of life by ignoring the force of moral law and moral standards. They exclude God and live without God irrespective of philosophy, morals, or of religious faith. This group may worship false gods by promoting economic exploitation and social injustice.  Not only are they unaware of their atheism but would deny they are atheists.  (New Catholic Encyclopedia  1)

More in The Way of Beauty

The sad fact is that many leaders in this group have been educated in elite Catholic institutions where concern for the poor and where practicing a faith that does justice are essential to their core mission. Fidel Castro and his brother Manuel, educated in Jesuit schools, forced Cuba into economic atheism rooted in communism.

The negative atheist does not know God, his denial, the result of ignorance rather than indifference. For St. Paul tells the Romans (10:14): "Unless they believe in him, how shall they call upon him.  And how shall they believe unless someone preaches to them?"

Pseudo-atheism denies God, but in their hearts they yearn for the presence of God.  Pseudo-atheists may not even realize what they are actually doing.  They are searching for the Unknown God mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (17:23f).  They believe in God in whom they think they don't believe. They may be agnostics-those who doubt the existence of God. College students can fall into this category mainly because their parents failed to raise them with any religion. (New Catholic Encyclopedia  1)

Radical and absolute atheism excludes God consciously, consistently, and actively. Radical and absolute atheists deny the existence of any spiritual and transcendent uncaused Cause of all things-God.   Militant atheists are recruited from this group. Their denial of God becomes the affirmation of all affirmations. The denial of God sets up an entirely original set of values which posits man's complete autonomy.  The absolute atheist rejects the reality of God because of his closed mind or his insufficient reflection on the evidence of God's existence.  

The absolute and self-confident atheist is utterly convinced of the truth of his position, which rests chiefly on two arguments.   

The first argument is that there is no direct evidence of God, nor can God's reality be inferred from anything in the world of experience. The universe is intelligible-so far as man has succeeded in deciphering it.  Consequently, there is no need to posit the Creator of all things. 

The second argument is based on the presence of evil in the world. This argument is based on emotion and runs like this: Where is God in suffering? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering to happen, especially to the innocent. Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity.  Or, God is dead. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living.   And yet, even in dark hours, we do sense a ray of light that holds meaning for us.  (New Catholic Encyclopedia 1)

(Column continues below)


There are several causes of atheism:  

The mystery of God means that we can assert nothing about God;  

False humanism, that is, human freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord who is author and purpose of all things;  

The problem of evil and suffering;

Hedonism and materialism;

Scandal and the failure of Catholics to live faithfully their respective vocations.  Living faithfully means putting on Christ for all to see.  It means living as ambassadors for Christ and witnessing to him always and everywhere. 

Jesus called the Twelve. In dramatic fashion, he called the rabbi and virulent persecutor of Christians, Saul of Tarsus.  Their disciples called others. That legacy and vocation, and that responsibility have been passed down through the ages. They are ours.

(Next week's essay will discuss ways to address atheism from the Catholic perspective.)

Image: University of Miami by Jaine via Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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