Syllabus

Official syllabus with dates will be distributed in class.

GOD AND THE “NEW ATHEISM” (Senior Seminar)
THEO 490.01

SEMINAR DESCRIPTION

The following is the course catalog description of the Senior Seminar:

Reading and analysis of classic works in the historical development of the theology in the church and the university, and in modern and contemporary understandings of theology in relation to both, with the aim of illuminating the communal and public dimensions of theological inquiry.  Required of all majors.

The Senior Seminar is designed for senior theology majors to bring their theological education into maturity and integration. Adopting the seminar format, students will explore a major topic within Christian theology (this year “God and the ‘New Atheism’”) over the course of a semester.  The seminar format places special emphasis on student initiative, participation, and independent research. In addition to general classroom discussion facilitated by the professor, who will also provide lecture materials on occasion, students will actively lead seminar sessions through formal presentations and panels based upon shared texts. The seminar format is designed to promote advanced levels of theological thinking, while providing students opportunities for developing skills related to the communal and public dimensions of theological inquiry.

This year’s Senior Seminar theme is “God and the ‘New Atheism’.” This topic extends the theme of the Junior Seminar (God/Trinity) while allowing seminar participants to focus their study in a way that addresses an issue of contemporary and public significance: by examining, understanding, and creatively engaging the phenomenon known as the New Atheism. Represented by such public figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheism represents a particularly aggressive brand of atheistic criticism of religious belief and practice. Because this phenomenon has created such a public stir, inciting a number of sympathetic and critical responses as part of a large-scale public discussion and debate (e.g., books, popular news articles, television appearances, blogs, movies, formal debates available on YouTube, etc.), the New Atheism deserves the careful attention of those who represent this generation’s “new theologians.”

The selection of this topic includes within it two working assumptions: first, that Christian theology cannot simply ignore such public criticism; and second, that Christian theology must be willing to learn from such criticism, even if, in the end, it defends theistic belief. The Senior Seminar invites its participants to engage in a public form of theology that is at once apologetic and self-critical: that is, while defending the legitimacy and articulating the vital significance of theistic-christological belief and religious practice (this is its “apologetic” moment), participants are encouraged to appreciate and learn from the “new atheism” as a stimulus for the ongoing task of self-criticism in Christian faith and theology.

At the conclusion of the spring semester, students will present their research to a broader public in the form of a research symposium.  Toward that end, students will hone presentation skills throughout the course of the semester, while advancing other research and writing skills germane to theological inquiry. Seminar participants will also participate in the development of a multi-authored blog (https://theologyseniorseminar.wordpress.com/) that will serve as a public space for sharing resources and ideas.

SEMINAR GOALS

Students will:

1)    Integrate their theological education through study of a major issue in contemporary theology;

2)    Thoroughly explore and understand the phenomenon of the New Atheism, and several recent theological responses to it, in terms of its main spokespersons, major arguments, and broader impact on the contemporary discussion of religion and the public sphere;

3)    Develop in collaboration sophisticated theological responses to the challenges posed by the New Atheism;

4)    Continue to form their own theological methods and topical interests in view of a major topic in contemporary theology that allows for diverse forms of engagement;

5)    Use a defined method to argue a thesis in a major research paper of the student’s choosing;

6)    Develop advanced levels of theological thinking, including the exercise of its communal and public dimensions, through student-led sessions involving panel presentations, both in class and in a broader public forum.

SKILLS DEVELOPMENT

Students will:

1)    Become more competent and efficient readers of theological texts by understanding their rhetorical and argumentative strategies, implicit methods, and relationships to other key texts in and beyond the seminar;

2)    Develop skills in researching and writing theologically by producing a major research paper;

3)    Develop oral communication skills by giving formal presentations in the seminar.

SEMINAR REQUIREMENTS

Attendance and Punctuality:  Since in-class participation is essential for the overall success of the seminar, regular and punctual attendance is expected. One absence is permitted. (One absence = a full week.) For each additional absence, the student’s cumulative grade will be lowered by half a letter grade.  Students are expected to be punctual.

Individual Presentations: Each student will give a presentation on a portion of the reading material assigned on a particular seminar session.  The 10 minute presentation will be part summary and part analysis, with emphasis placed on the latter. See below for more information on presentations.

Blog Contributions:  Each student is required to contribute regularly to the seminar’s co-authored blog. See below for guidelines on blog usage.

In-Class Panel Presentation:  Students will form panels for presentations on major texts assigned for seminar reading. These in-class panels, comprised of 5-6 students each, will provide the structure for that day’s session. Further information on the format of these panels will be provided later in class.

Research Paper
: Students will produce a major research paper (20-25 pages) on some topic related to the seminar’s theme.  Guidelines for the research paper will be distributed later in the semester.

Note:  Initial proposals with a preliminary thesis statement, brief description of the paper, and a bibliography are due Friday, January 30.
Final proposals with outlines and refined theses are due Friday, Feb. 27.
First drafts of papers are due Monday, April 6.
Final submissions are due Monday, April 20.

Public Panel Presentation:  At the end of the semester, and in a public form, each student will participate on a panel. Based upon their respective research topics, students will present in one of six panels. The panelists should work together to create a thematically coherent presentation. Use of PowerPoint is expected. Guidelines for these panel presentations will be distributed later in the semester.

REQUIRED TEXTS

Beattie, Tina. The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008 ) ISBN – 978-1570757822

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) ISBN – 978-0618918249

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005) ISBN – 978-0393327656

Haught, John F. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) ISBN – 978-0664233044

Johnson, Elizabeth A. Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2007) ISBN – 978-0826417701

McGrath, Alister. Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).

Ward, Keith. Is Religion Dangerous? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) ISBN – 978-0802845085

THE ELEMENTS OF GOOD PRESENTATION

While the format and style of student presentations are certainly open to variety and novelty according to the personality and interests of the presenter, there are a few fundamentals that should be a part of every good presentation.

Summary:  The presentation should provide a very brief summary of the most important points of the reading. It is important that the presenter not simply repeat in tedious fashion what the readings already say. Since the presenter should assume we have all read the material, he or she should avoid plodding through the reading point by point. A good summary highlights major points (four to five) for the purpose of bringing the reading into crystallized form.

Evaluation:  In addition to summarizing, the presenter should be prepared to make evaluations or informed judgments about the text at hand. This may take many forms. For example, the presenter may wish to illuminate something about the text’s argumentative and rhetorical strategies. What are the author’s premises? What does the author presuppose? Is the argument (or position taken) persuasive? Is the rhetoric helpful or excessive? Are there problems or underdevelopment in the author’s position? Or, more ambitiously, is the author right? What are the various aspects of the author’s position that stand to reason, or fail to convince?

Critical Questions:  To conclude your presentation, provide the seminar participants critical questions (2-3 will suffice) for further consideration.

Blog Contribution:  Use your presentation for material in the composition of one of your required blog postings. For more on blog contributions, see below.

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BLOG

The blog is designed to provide the seminar participants a shared and public space for collaborative learning. The following are the expectations and procedures related to this integral part of the seminar.

1.    Each student is expected to submit additional materials (links, bibliographical entries of articles, books, Youtube segments, etc.) throughout the semester to help build up the blog. Submissions should be sent to the instructor by email.

2.    Each student must contribute at least six major blog entries (approx. 400-500 words) throughout the semester. More are very welcome! (Does not include the Presentation and Panel Blog entries described below.) Entries can be reactions to the seminar readings, reactions to ongoing research for seminar papers, or reactions to other items encountered throughout the semester (e.g., video debates on the blog, popular articles, documentaries, etc.).

3.    Each student must contribute at least 15 comments to other student entries throughout the semester (approx. 50-200 words).

4.    Presentation Blog Entry: Each student will compose a major blog entry based upon the materials associated with his/her in-class presentation (approx. 1200 words). (Note: this entry is in addition to the six major blog entries mentioned above.) These entries should be posted within three days of the presentation.

5.    Panel Blog Entries:

  • One week prior to in-class panel presentations, student panelists will together formulate a set of basic comprehension questions (7-10) and a set of analytical/discussion questions (5-7) based upon the readings. These questions should be posted by one of the panelists as a separate blog entry on the Monday before the day of presentation. These questions will assist the seminar participants as they read the materials for that week. Participants should come to the seminar prepared to discuss the analytical/discussion questions.
  • After the panel presentation, each panel will provide the seminar participants an executive summary of the seminar’s proceedings that day, e.g., the major points discussed, the major questions raised, further connections and questions to be considered as the seminar proceeds. This executive summary will be posted on the page “Seminar Proceedings” on the blog. This will provide additional documentation of our collective work. The executive summary will be send to the instructor by email, who will post it on the blog. Both the Panel Blog entries will figure into the panel’s final grade.

6.    At the end of the semester, each student will electronically submit to the instructor all contributions to the blog in the form of a word document. Students should therefore copy and paste all blog contributions into a Word file for documentation as work on the blog proceeds. This documentation is important, since 20% of each student’s final grade will be based upon the quality of blog participation.

7.    With students’ permission, final research papers will posted under the “Seminar Papers” page.

GRADING GUIDELINES

The following is a description of the letter grading:

A range= Superior, exceptional, outstanding. The assignment demonstrates critical, informed, and creative theological inquiry that reflects superior understanding of essential theological/historical concepts. This means the student demonstrates depth of insight beyond what is normally expected. Carefully nuanced reasoning and writing, free from material, structural and grammatical error are presupposed in this grade.

B range=Good. The assignment demonstrates ready command of full range of concepts and shows some critical, informed, and creative inquiry that reflects above average understanding of essential theological/historical concepts. This means the student has produced an assignment that is free from material, structural and grammatical errors.

C range= Acceptable. The assignment demonstrates satisfactory ability to describe overall picture and essential concepts. This means the student has completed the assignment in a manner involving no significant errors. Material may not be free from structural and grammatical errors. Nuanced reasoning is not demonstrated.

D range= Below Average. The assignment demonstrates reasoning that is neither carefully nuanced nor coherently presented; writing is insufficient in depth of insight and/or use of texts; presentation is not free from material error in structure, spelling and grammar. This means that the student failed to respond adequately to the assignment and its intentions.

F range= Unsatisfactory. In one or more of the following ways the student: 1) failed to turn in the assignment; 2) did not respond to the assignment as given; 3) submitted work so thoroughly flawed as to indicate that the student did not make a serious effort; 4) was involved in plagiarism or cheating.

WRITING ASSISTANCE

The Writing Center helps students with writing projects, multimedia projects and oral presentations. They offer one-on-one consultations that address everything from brainstorming and developing ideas to crafting strong sentences and documenting sources. Take advantage of this learning opportunity. For information and making appointments call 977-2930 or visit http://www.slu.edu/departments/sesc/writing.html.

STATEMENT OF ACADEMIC HONESTY

Students must exercise academic honesty in all their work. Simply put: if a student is caught cheating or plagiarizing in his/her work, assignment will automatically receive a failing grade. Other consequences may follow, as instances of academic dishonesty are to be reported to the administration. Academic dishonesty cuts to the very heart of the enterprise of higher learning, and will therefore be treated with great severity.

Please resist every temptation to use someone else’s work as your own. Take note that your professor is quite aware of various internet sites advertising term paper downloads. There are  tools (beyond the ordinary Google search) that enable professors to check for instances of plagiarism.

The following is a statement of the university regarding academic honesty:

“Students are expected to be honest in their academic work. The University reserves the right to penalize any student whose academic conduct at any time is, in its judgment, detrimental to the University. Such conduct shall include cases of plagiarism, collusion, cheating, giving or receiving or offering or soliciting information in examinations, or the use of previously prepared material in examinations or quizzes. Violations should be reported to your course instructor, who will investigate and adjudicate them according to the Policy on Academic Honesty of the College of Arts and Sciences. If the charges are found to be true, the student may be liable for academic or disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion by the University.”

[For further information on the university’s policy, see “Policy on Academic Honesty,” http://www.slu.edu/colleges/AS/academichonesty/html.%5D

SUBMISSION OF WORK

Students are expected to turn work in on time. Late submissions of work will not receive full credit. The best grade a late submission can receive is a “C”. 24 hours after the original due date (starting with the beginning of class), the best grade the submission can receive is a “D”. After this 24-hour period, late work will not be accepted and the student shall receive a zero for the assignment.

STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES

Any student who feels that he/she may need academic accommodations in order to meet the requirements of this course—as outlined in the syllabus—due to presence of a disability, should contact the Office of Disabilities Services. Please telephone the office at 314-977-2930, or visit Room 131 in the Academic Resources Center, 3840 Lindell Blvd. Confidentiality will be observed in all inquiries.

ELECTRONIC DEVICES IN CLASSROOM

Students are asked to avoid using electronic devices in the classroom, including laptops, due to the increased misuse of such devises since the introduction of campus-wide wireless Internet. Exceptions will be granted by the professor only under very specific circumstances.

COURSE EVALUATION

Per department policies, students are required to complete an evaluation of the course at the end of the semester in an on-line format. Instructions for the final evaluation process will be given at the end of the semester.

SCHEDULE OF SESSIONS

I.  Introduction

1)    Introduction to the Seminar: Themes, Methods and Procedures

2)    The New Atheism in Context; Initial Theological Responses

  • Various articles and video debates on New Atheism (see blog under “Research” and “Video Resources”)
  • Articles from May 5 (2008 ) issue of America Magazine: Richard R. Gaillardetz, “Catholicism and the New Atheism,” pp. 12-15; John F. Haught, “True Believers: Have the New Atheists Adopted a Faith of Their Own?,” pp. 16-18; Richard J. Mouw, “An Evangelical Moment? To Combat the Rise of Atheism, Christians Must First Look to Themselves,” pp. 20-22; Stephen J. Pope, “Called to Love: Christian Witness Can Be the Best Response to Atheist Polemics,” pp. 23-25; Michael J. Buckley, “The Madman and the Crowd: For the New Atheists, God is Not Worth a Decent Argument,” pp. 27-29

II.  Encountering the New Atheism (Presentations)

3)    Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

  • Chapter 1: A Deeply Religious Non-Believer (Background on Dawkins)
  • Chapter 2: The God Hypothesis
  • Chapter 3: Arguments for God’s Existence
  • Chapter 4: Why There Almost Certainly is No God
  • Chapter 5: The Roots of Religion
  • Chapter 6: The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?

4)    Dawkins (cont.) and Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

  • Chapter 7: The “Good” Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist (Dawkins cont.)
  • Chapter 8: What’s Wrong with Religion? Why Be So Hostile?
  • Harris 1 (Background on Harris)
  • Harris 2
  • Harris 3
  • Harris 4

III.  New Frontiers in the Theology of God (Presentations)

5)    Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God (Part I)

  • Introduction and Chapter 1: Ancient Story, New Chapter
  • Chapter 2: God as Mystery
  • Chapter 3: Suffering and the Crucified God
  • Chapter 4: Poverty and the Liberating God
  • Chapter 5: Women’s Experience and the Wisdom of God

6)    Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God (Part II)

  • Chapter 6: Racism and the Liberating God
  • Chapter 7: La Lucha and the God of Fiesta
  • Chapter 8: Religious Pluralism and the Generous God
  • Chapter 9: Evolution and the Creator Spirit
  • Chapter 10: The Triune God

IV.  Four Theological Responses (Panels)

7)    John Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens

8)    Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life

9)    Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?

10)    Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion

V.  Seminar Papers

11)    Discussion of First Drafts; Preparation of Panels

12)    Final Drafts Due; Preparation of Panels

VI.  Public Panel Presentations

13)    Panels 1, 2 & 3 (Topics TBA)

14)    Panels 4, 5 & 6 (Topics TBA)

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