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Age of Atheism or Religious Revival?

Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams

ROME, MARCH 29, 2007 (Zenit) - The notion of holiness can seem boring to modern man, but in reality it is the greatest adventure of human existence, says a theology dean.

Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams, dean of theology at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university, makes that point in his new book, "Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be."

He spoke with us about the state of religion and spirituality in Western society.

Q: Several books have come out in the recent past making the case for atheism and the end of religion. At the same time people seem to be returning to religious faith in greater numbers. Which is it, an age of atheism or a new religious revival?

Father Williams: What seems most clear is the heightened interest in all things spiritual, whether that means theories proposing to debunk religion, "lite" spirituality, or a more serious exploration of the Christian faith.

The category of spiritual and religious books is the fastest growing sector of publishing. People seem tired of chasing after a purely material success and are exploring life's bigger questions. What does it all mean? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Q: Do books such as Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation," or Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" pose a serious threat to Christianity?

Father Williams: They may not pose a serious threat to Christianity as such -- the Church has faced far more stalwart adversaries -- but they do cause confusion and unrest for many Christians, especially the uncatechized.

In reality, the atheistic theories these authors propose are centuries old and resurface anew in every generation. They may appear novel to those who encounter them for the first time, but they could have been lifted straight out of texts from Voltaire, or Auguste Comte or any number of other Enlightenment authors.

The new threat posed by books such as Dawkins' is that they come with a veneer of "scientific" plausibility, which adds cachet -- if not substance -- to his arguments.

Q: Is "The God Delusion" an honest inquiry into the nature of religion?

Father Williams: Of course not. That would be like calling "The Da Vinci Code" an honest inquiry into the history of Christianity.

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. We expect scientists to be objective, impartial and intellectually serious. Unfortunately, with authors like Dawkins this isn't the case. He studiously avoids all evidence that would contradict his theories, and his stated intention is to win over his readers to the atheist crusade. In this book, he is a proselytizer, not a scientist.

Q: You also work as an analyst and commentator for NBC News. What is your perception of the attention that religious faith is given in the media?

Father Williams: To a certain extent the mainline media have picked up on people's interest in religion and offer occasional stories that touch on Christianity and the Church.

The fact that NBC/MSNBC brought me aboard and Fox News regularly features my colleague Father Jonathan Morris testifies to a growing awareness of the importance of religion and spirituality to the public at large.

The success enjoyed by EWTN, which enthusiastically offers Catholic doctrine and spirituality, is further proof of people's hunger and thirst for real spiritual food.

Q: In the later years of his life Pope John Paul II repeatedly asserted that the third millennium would usher in a new "springtime of faith." Was this just an expression of his natural optimism, or can we see real signs of such a springtime?

Father Williams: The Holy Father's words reflected a serious analysis of the state of society in the wake of the tragedies of the 20th century.

Remember that the first sign of spring is the end of winter. Before we see pink rose buds and hear twittering songbirds, we will see white snow turn to ugly brown slush. When winter loses its stranglehold on nature, that is the true beginning of spring.

We see a parallel to this in human society. This past century saw the rise and fall of Marxist Communism, Nazism and Fascism, as well as more subtle versions of ideological materialism promising an earthly paradise. For a while many put their hopes in these ideologies. One by one, however, the great secular ideologies have fallen into disrepute, after causing untold human suffering. As these social experiments have failed, people have realized that they must look elsewhere for meaning and the solution of the world's problems.

Q: Does this mean we can expect a spiritual summer to follow?

Father Williams: That depends on whether we take advantage of the opportunities of the moment. Remember that springtime is a ...

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