Pope Benedict XVI has recently ordered the creation of a platform where the Catholic Church will enter into serious philosophical dialogue with serious atheists and agnostics, as an initiative both to carry the cultural conversation into the doors of the Church, and also to mobilize Catholic philosophers interested in engaging the debate in much the same way as is often done in academic philosophical communities abroad. In this way the Church hopes to take herself seriously when she calls all Catholics in the Catechism to recognize the following:
2123 “Many . . . of our contemporaries either do not at all perceive, or explicitly reject, this intimate and vital bond of man to God. Atheism must therefore be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time.”58
2124 The name “atheism” covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be “an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.”59 Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. “It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.”60
2125 Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion.61 The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.”62
2126 Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God.63 Yet, “to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God. . . . “64 “For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart.”65
2127 Agnosticism assumes a number of forms. In certain cases the agnostic refrains from denying God; instead he postulates the existence of a transcendent being which is incapable of revealing itself, and about which nothing can be said. In other cases, the agnostic makes no judgment about God’s existence, declaring it impossible to prove, or even to affirm or deny.
2128 Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God, but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience. Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.
I myself am convinced that the 20th century will be remembered in Christian history as an era of apologetics and ecumenism in such measures as have never before been experienced in Christendom. A concomitant of this has been Christianity’s interest in engaging not only itself, and not only the Jewish community and other religious communities, but also and especially its engagement with ‘Atheism’, here generally understood as secular humanism of one flavor or another. Indeed, Atheism is quite broad, as since by definition atheists can be religious (for example, an atheist might be a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Mormon, to say nothing of Wicca or any lesser known systems of belief which qualify as atheistic), it becomes difficult to know, from the fact that one is speaking to an atheist, what exactly one can safely presume about their views. However, there is a cultural and intellectual phenomenon peculiar to the western world in which one can recognize ‘atheism’ as being something like scientistic secular humanism. Of course, this definition excludes some of my favorite atheists like Nietzsche, which is a shame, but the reality is that there aren’t many who, fascinating as he was, are willing to follow his radical philosophy (which I think was perhaps the most thoroughgoing form of atheism I’ve ever seen). It is because of the great diversity among atheists that it has been so difficult in the past to know exactly how to formally speak to ‘Atheism’ or to respond to it – generally it has been left to Christian Theologians and others to respond to any particular self-identifying atheist on a case by case basis.
However, given the success of the new atheism which has generated interest in the public sphere as well as helped the cause of secular humanism understood as a force opposed to the enterprise of religion, along with the fact that so many intellectually significant figures have championed atheism toeing much the same line now for a while, it has become possible to engage atheism taken as a western phenomenon. In other words, there is something like an aggregate of views which has been recognized to characterize self-identifying atheists broadly and accurately, and which provides a target towards which one can aim a formal response.
At the head of this new initiative in the Catholic Church is one Cardinal Ravasi who has expressed much optimism about the whole project.
The name “Courtyard of the Gentiles” evokes “the image of the vast area near the Temple of Jerusalem reserved for debates between Jews and non-Jews”, the cardinal said. “It complements inter-religious dialogue which has been going on for some decades and represents a long-term commitment of the Church which will interest many people in the world, believers and non-believers alike”.
Full article here.
However, the Cardinal also seems concerned about the quality of conversation, and therefore had made a statement earlier this year about which kind of interlocutors were welcome.
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi made it clear in an interview with the National Catholic Register that they don’t want to extend an invitation to certain prominent atheists who, he claims, view the truth with “irony and sarcasm”:
The foundation, he said, would only be interested in “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind – so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins”.
Full article here.
I can’t help but think that this is a good move, as one would hope that serious conversation would not be adulterated by clumsy rhetoric, however entertaining those polemicists excluded might be. Some have suggested that this may have been a move to exclude the most popular critics of religion, and thus be in the Church’s interest, but it seems to me that the best critics of religion are rarely popular.
Though this project began earlier this year, I have yet to hear any news from any of its conferences or events. I would be very curious to find out exactly what progress in philosophical discussion has been made, and I hope that the movement hasn’t fallen flat since the foundation’s inception earlier this year (2011).