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Like me, Voltaire was educated by men in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Like Voltaire, I’ll salute my Jesuit educators and do it using Voltaire’s own words in a letter to one Father Latour, 1746:

I was educated for seven years by men who took unrewarded and indefatigable pains to form the minds and morals of youth. … They inspired in me a taste for literature and sentiments that will be a consolation to me to the end of my life. Nothing will ever efface from my heart the memory of Father Poree, who is equally dear to all who have studied under him. Never did a man make study and virtue so pleasant. … I had the good fortune to be formed by more than one Jesuit of the character of Father Poree. What did I see during the seven years that I was with the Jesuits? The most industrious, frugal, regulated life; all their hours divided between the care they took for us and the exercises of their austere profession. I call to witness the thousands educated by them, as I was; there is not one who would belie my words.

I feel this way. I would only substitute Father James Keenan for Father Poree: “Nothing will ever efface from my heart the memory of Father Keenan, who is equally dear to all who have studied under him. Never did a man make study and virtue so pleasant.” (Read Father Keenan’s new book.)

Voltaire went on to become the bane of the Catholic Church (in particular) and the bane of Christianity (in general). I followed a similar path, not to the summit of Voltaire’s invective or fame, but with a few overlapping elements.

The Jesuits and I had to part ways. Why? Because they did and undid me.

The Latin phrase ex opere operato, which I was taught by Jesuits to render into English as “in the doing done,” expresses the efficacy of a sacrament. In the doing of a sacrament, that which the sacrament signifies is done to the actor who receives the sacrament. For instance, in the doing of a baptism, that which the baptism signifies (cleansing of sin), is done to the baptized person: the person is cleansed of sin in the doing of the sacrament.

I’d like to alter the phrase to ex opere inoperato (in the doing undone), by which I mean, in the doing of my Jesuit experience, I became undone by the Jesuits.

Allow me to explain why.


In my Master’s and Ph.D. programs, Jesuit professors exposed me to twentieth-century revisionist thought. They and I believed revisionism was superior to traditional religious doctrines, and together we embraced new revisionist ideas to supplant the old ideas. 

I liked revisionism—for a while. But in time I recognized that the revisionist project was intellectually dishonest. 

Revisionists were dishonest in not admitting that an original ancient idea, an idea that required revision because it no longer fit our modern context, had become incredible, and that was the real reason the original idea needed revision; the impossibility of believing the old idea was the real reason the old idea no longer fit the modern context. But this wasn’t admitted.

Let’s take the example of hell. Revisionists wouldn’t honestly say what they believed: “Hell is a sub-ethical idea that’s unbelievable to a modern mind and should be rejected outright.” No. Revisionists would say instead “Hell? Certainly I believe in hell. But let me tell you what I mean by that.” What followed by way of explanation was something you never heard before in your life. It was the revisionist hell, often recruiting allegoresis as aide-de-camp.

Revisionists did not admit this initial skepticism about the original, traditional idea of hell. That was their first dishonest act. Their second dishonest act was a claim that the new revisionist idea of hell was really just the old retold, as if there was a linear conceptual link from the old idea of hell (a place of everlasting torment) to the new idea of hell (an allegorical separation from God that’s no place at all). 

They would not have been dishonest to say that the old doctrine of hell was incredible and then reject it on its face. They would not have been dishonest to embrace a new idea of hell as a completely new idea with no conceptual connection to the idea as traditionally understood for thousands of years. These steps would not have been intellectually dishonest.

But it was intellectually dishonest to pretend that the new idea was still the old idea—only in modern garb. The new revisionist idea was nothing like the old idea. The new idea was altogether different. In pretending to assent to the old idea, revisionists could pose before all the world as orthodox in their beliefs and say, “Certainly I believe in hell.”

Revisionists took all the ancient religious terms and revised them in this way:

The devil? Certainly I believe in the devil. But let me tell you what I mean by that. The resurrection? Certainly I believe in the resurrection. But let me tell you what I mean by that. The atonement? Certainly I believe in the atonement. But let me tell you what I mean by that. God? Certainly I believe in God. But let me tell you what I mean by that.

And on and on.

The fundamental dishonesty of the whole enterprise was a refusal to admit to real change, to radical change.

As for me, at the time, all the ancient ideas were becoming difficult to assent to, and though I giddily received the newly revised versions at first, I ultimately saw revisionist ideas as dishonest chimeras of orthodox belief—just as incredible as the old ideas they sought to replace.

It seems I wasn’t simple enough to embrace traditional ideas literally like the average pew sitter. And apparently I wasn’t smart enough to enfold revisionist ideas in loving arms like Karl Rahner and David Tracy—two prominent twentieth-century Catholic thinkers who I could almost uncharitably charge with intellectual dishonesty.

One of my earliest academic articles in this period—published in a peer-reviewed Irish journal—was entitled something like “Dishonesty in Theology.” But I have a faint memory that the editor asked me to soften the title with a question mark at the end, to suggest the matter was debatable. That article was offered from the stance of a loyal insider.

This is the first reason Jesuits and I parted. I perceived that some of them were intellectually dishonest.

(I exclude Jesuit historians and ethicists from a charge of intellectual dishonesty. They did not participate overtly in the above-mentioned theological sleight of hand. Hence my reference to ethicist Father James Keenan above, and below.)


Another cause for estrangement from Jesuits was that, under Jesuit tutelage, I was completely unexposed to a very large literature of religious skepticism dating from 2600 years ago and continuing through to our times. 

I must have read two hundred books on religion in the roughly ten years through a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and a Ph.D., and I was aware of many more titles than that. But I never had any professor present me with a bibliography on religious skepticism. I only stumbled upon the sizeable literature of unbelief by accident when I was a young, newly minted Ph.D. and visiting assistant professor at a Jesuit university, and I was told to teach a class on belief and unbelief to first-year students. But I didn’t know anything about unbelief. So I had to study, and I thereby uncovered a trove of skeptical writings, and after decades of reading I still haven’t gotten through all of this literature.

Almost no one gets introduced to the literature of unbelief in all their years of formal education—from kindergarten through the Ph.D. Not even a Ph.D. student in religion gets exposed to it. My professors didn’t knowingly omit this vast literature. I don’t think they know it existed. The course I was asked to teach on belief and unbelief must have been rare.

You and I were exposed to some of these authors in our school days because some of these writers are famous in the Western canon. But we were not assigned their skeptical writings. We read Percy Shelly’s poems Ozymandias and To a Skylark but not Queen Mab or his essay “A Refutation of Deism.” We read multiple Mark Twain titles but not his mercilessly funny essay “Thoughts of God” or his darkly faithless last novel The Mysterious Stranger. We read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd but not his lengthy poem God’s Funeral. And it’s odds against arithmetic that any of us were ever exposed to the skeptical writings of nineteenth-century American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton or British platform orator Annie Besant.

It is not as if the literature of unbelief is inferior to the best writing in the Western canon. It is not inferior. In terms of literary art, this literature is exquisitely tooled and often aphoristically jolting. And the ideas are powerful. Ancient Greek and Roman authors in this catalog are among the top stylists of their eras (Epicurus and Lucretius). In English alone, some of these skeptical writers had complete mastery of our language (Shelly). Skeptical literature is also amply and artfully represented in Italian, German, French, and other European languages. (By the way: skeptical literature from 230 years ago, 240 years ago, 300 years ago, 400 years ago, is strikingly superior to the offerings of the ‘new’ atheists in the early twenty-first century.)

Why does almost no one get exposed to this literature in all their years of formal education?

So there I was thirty years ago—a new Ph.D. in my 30s and a popular visiting assistant professor at a Jesuit university (but not the Jesuit university I got my Ph.D. from). Thirty-five students and I, in a class on unbelief, were reading primary sources from antiquity to the present and discussing these writings three times a week in a fifteen-week term. The writings were new to professor and students alike. Professor and students were believers in God.

What happened was worthy of a Tom Schulman screenplay (Dead Poet’s Society). I myself am writing it up as an article with the working title, “Convey Thy Deity Aboard Our Dancing Boat: Thirty-Five Students and Their Young Professor Ride the Violent Crest of Freethought.”

(In Shakespeare’s play Pericles, Prince of Tyre, “convey thy deity upon our dancing boat” is a prayer uttered to a goddess by Pericles from a wave-tossed ship in a violent storm at sea.)

Here’s what happened in that classroom all those decades ago:

Under the impact of reading 2600 years of very potent skeptical writers, those thirty-five students and their young professor—incrementally, week by week, day by day, chapter by chapter, author by author, idea by idea, in petty pace—lost their faith.

It took a mere fifteen weeks to do it. 

I was traumatized—at first. I slipped into a yearlong depression. But then I began to see the event as a higher liberation, and some of the pupils did too. A few of those students wrote me years afterwards (even as recently as three years ago) to say they were still unbelievers, and glad of it.

If the Jesuits had exposed me to this skeptical literature years earlier, and sought to answer it, maybe this event would not have occurred.

(Actually, I’ve come to believe this skeptical literature is not easily answered, except with the ricketiest theodicy and wobbliest fideism.)


The last reason I parted with the Jesuits was practical: I couldn’t find a good job in the Catholic world, especially in the Jesuit Catholic world. (Jesuit universities were the best universities in the Catholic arena then, and they still are.)

In my memory, thirty years ago a person with a new Ph.D. from a Jesuit university could not easily get work at a Jesuit university. (Come to think of it, many of my own Jesuit professors, erudite to a man, earned their Ph.D. degrees from Ivy League and European schools.)

As I recall, Jesuit universities of that period utilized the following hierarchy for new jobs: the first candidates to be hired were Catholics with Ph.D.s from Ivy League universities; the second candidates to be hired were non-Catholics with Ph.D.s from Ivy League universities; the third candidates to be hired were Catholics with Ph.D.s from Catholic universities. 

But really, it seemed like the first two types of folks were the ones getting hired. That was a Jesuit decision thirty years ago. Jesuits wanted the better diploma, and they suspected their own diplomas were not the best.

A tenure-track position opened up at the Jesuit university where I was teaching in a visiting position. I applied for that tenure track, of course. But I lost out to a competitor Catholic with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, a non-Catholic institution. (Chicago is de facto Ivy, if not literally.) He went on to get tenure at this Jesuit university. I was set to leave after a two-year visiting contract. But, tellingly, I was asked to return for another year and teach, because I was featured in the student newspaper as a popular professor and my teaching evaluations were exceptionally good. (I was a good teacher. I was published. I was an amiable colleague. So, those weren’t the reasons I wasn’t hired to the tenure-track position.)

Jesuit rejection of their own (me) propelled me to other depressing job options at non-Jesuit Catholic colleges in the whisker weeds of the American landscape. I have harrowing stories about my interviews at these places—from one side of the country to the other. 

At one college, the President took me aside to say, “We don’t want any novel thinking here.” At another college, seven men in black, crisp in white Roman collars, sat without smiles at an impossibly large conference table and questioned me in a somber timbre not unlike the examination of Susannah Martin at her Salem witch trial. At yet another college, tucked near a gorgeous gorge in the Smoky Mountains, the interviewing professor asked me what I would do if I came out of class one day to find students had set fire to my car. He annotated that query by saying undergraduates were rubes and bucolic yokels and might do a thing like that. At yet another college, every person who interviewed me over an entire day—there were many people, from the Academic V.P. to rank and file professors— asked me the same question: “What is your opinion of the magisterium?” (The magisterium is the authoritative teaching office of the Catholic Church, composed of the Pope and bishops.) I was obviously supposed to voice a favorable estimation of the magisterium. I answered their recurring mischievous question with a recurring mischievous answer: “I don’t expect to be troubled by the magisterium.” Going back to hotels after all these interviews, I wept briny tears. Is this what awaited me in the Catholic world for all the intellectual toil I had done? If so, thank you, no. I’d seek my fortunes elsewhere.


There is good news. I already mentioned my higher liberation, and I can say further that I found a truer faith anchored in my authentic self. I discovered a new calling. Let’s name it the call of the critique (with painful apologies to Jack London for marring his deathless words). In short, I did not lose my interest in religion. And I found meaningful work elsewhere in higher education. And I learned how to teach about religion, expertly so.

Backing up a bit—I was an English major in college who became a double major after taking a few religion classes. I began graduate classes in English literature at Oxford University (the one in England) but I switched to religion after some madcap told me I’d never get a job in America with a Ph.D. in English. Probably this was a true prediction, because eventually there were too many Ph.D.s in English in America to hire them all. So I moved to religion for graduate degrees. 

Religion was weighty to me. I was aware that religion permeated the atmosphere of human existence. I thought, if any part of religion is ‘correct’ that would be exceedingly interesting. And if any part of religion is ‘incorrect,’ or indeed if the whole of religion is ‘incorrect,’ that too would be exceedingly interesting.

After giving up on Catholic universities, I taught for a couple years at public universities in departments of religious studies or comparative religion. In the last twenty-five years I’ve been at the University of California Irvine (forty miles south of Los Angeles and fourteen minutes from a stunningly beautiful Orange County coastline). UC Irvine has a ‘program’ in religious studies, not a ‘department,’ and up to sixty professors in many different fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences offer courses in religion. I’m located in the History department.

My classes in religion at a public university are not chapel hour. There is a place for the devotional study of religion but a public university is not the place. The Ph.D. at a public university is not really called to be a caretaker of the religions under review. That’s not the professional ethic of the Ph.D. at a public university. The professional ethic is to be a critic of religion, like literary, film, and art critics. (The word ‘critic’ is an unfortunate word in this occupation because it connotes fault-finding. And though fault-finding is a feature of all criticism, criticism also entails the identification of value and beauty in the objects under consideration.)

I’ve published. I’ve won a teaching awards. I’ve created numerous courses over the decades. I’ve taught thousands of students in popular classes. I’ve done survey courses of the monotheistic religions, enrolling 200 students each year, and inviting students to ponder the apparent supersessionism of these religions. I’ve done an inter-religious dialogue class addressing many provocative issues facing all religions, enrolling 200 students each year. I’ve taught the history of God, by which I mean the evolution of how God has been viewed over the millennia. I’ve taught the history of the devil, by which I mean the origin, evolution, and real-world effects of the devil mythos in Western religions. (In the last weeks of the term I include segments on the devil in art: 1500 years of iconography visibly changing from horrific to heroic to hilarious; the devil in film for every decade of film-making, including the first decade in the late 19th century; and the devil in Scandinavian Death Metal music). I’ve taught God and violence (with ample material to draw upon). I’ve taught about secular Western Europe and the civility of irreligious Scandanavian countries. And each year I’ve taught the history of Western atheism, using the same book of primary sources I used thirty years ago when I first taught that class on belief and unbelief at the Jesuit university. The book is Varieties of Unbelief From Epicurus to Sartre edited by J. C. A. Gaskin, and it’s excellent; and though it has a wonderful selection of authors, it could not possibly represent anything but a fraction of the huge literature of unbelief, which, as I said, I have not gotten through in thirty years of reading.

And there were more courses of course, because I created many of them.

I’ve had a fulfilling thirty-year professional life, augmented and garnished by marriage to a fellow professor, a brilliant woman with a Ph.D. in medieval Japanese theater who received her Ph.D. (from an Ivy League school no less) the same year I received mine. We’ve two lovely daughters. I’ve troops of friends, many with Ph.D.s. Most are not religious.

The Jesuits are behind it all. Ex opere inoperato: in the doing undone. The Jesuits did me and they undid me. 

Allow me to end this little apologia pro vita sua with a short letter to the Society of Jesus:

Dear Fathers, Gentlemen, Jesuits all:

My appreciation for you is not tainted by the story I just told. Paragraph two above expresses my feelings about Jesuits and paragraph three speaks of my long commitment to James F. Keenan, S.J.—ethicist extraordinaire, whom I hope to read for half a hundred years. Given that I still feel friendly to the Jesuits, perhaps the Jesuits can endure the following advice and marching orders: Mend the things that undid me. Abandon revisionist dishonesty and bravely embrace your radicalism and admit it as so. Correct the omission of the history of unbelief in your curriculum and employ people who can teach (and answer?) that history to undergraduates and graduate students alike. Trust the fruit of your own labor and take on Ph.D.s from Jesuit universities instead of privileging Ivy League degrees in your hiring. In a roundabout way, you liberated me thirty years ago and set me upon loftier, grander terrain. You might take this amiss, but I wish you similar fortune.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religius ideas since 1992 at various colleges and since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic...