Whatever you think about the Vatican, whatever you think about atheists for that matter, one thing that Church leaders are engaged in today is something about which all can be proud: public dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. I take this sort of move to reflect a sincere interest in discussing matters of ultimate importance for the human family among people who do not hold the same worldviews. That such an initiative happens to be started and supported by the Church is yet another positive sign at a time when it can be difficult to see edifying actions and statements from Church leaders amid clergy abuse and other things.
I am convinced that such a move could really only begin with the Church and not the other way around. The more I read the work of people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and others, the more I realize that public atheists such as them have absolutely no interest in discussing the human condition with people of faith. The hostility of someone like Harris toward institutional religion can at times cross the boundaries of offensive and even border on the obscene (just read or listen too some of his more recent interviews about his latest book).
Nevertheless, leaders in the Catholic Church, in part spurred on by Pope Benedict XVI’s personal interest in revitalizing the Christian faith in Europe, sees dialogue as essential to moving forward as a more tolerant and peaceable society.
I seriously doubt that obstinate atheists like Harris and others will readily come to the dialogue, but I’m not entirely sure that is who the Vatican wishes to speak with in this case. Paris is the first site of the multi-year, transnational endeavor, which will include several spots in Europe and North America. It is no accident that France is the launching pad for this sort of effort. For one, France, a formerly and historically Catholic country, has become one of the most “secular” nations in Europe. For Benedict XVI, this is precisely the place such initiatives should begin and take root. Secondly, France has produced some of the most intellectually astute atheists and philosophers (religious and political) that have challenged the metanarratives of Christianity.
It is this second group of thinkers, the real scholars, that I believe the Vatican has in mind for a dialogue partner. Harris, Hitchens and the rest garner a lot of attention and publicity through the publication of their books and rather provocative speaking tours, but it is the realm of the real scholars at places like the Sorbonne that believers seek to enter and engage. It could prove quite interesting.
The Religion News Service included the following in its report of the first installment of the dialogue:
A new Vatican initiative to promote dialogue between believers and atheists debuted with a two-day event on Thursday and Friday (March 24-25) in Paris.
“Religion, Light and Common Reason” was the theme of seminars sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture at various locations in the French capital, including Paris-Sorbonne University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“The church does not see itself as an island cut off from the world … Dialogue is thus a question of principle for her,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the French newspaper La Croix. “We are aware that the great challenge is not atheism but indifference, which is much more dangerous.”
This is definitely a sign that those in ecclesiastical leadership recognize their responsibility to live out the call of the Second Vatican Council, which says that the Church is to engage the world because it is indeed part of it. Furthermore, the notion of atheism versus indifference as the real problem is precisely on-target. Even the most offensive atheists are better off, in my opinion, than the apathetic. At least they care about something.
I have several friends who are avowed nonbelievers and I know several colleagues in the world of theology, philosophy and religious studies that, publicly or otherwise, align themselves quite closely with figures such as those with whom the Church seeks to dialogue. I think all of us, believers and nonbelievers, are curious to see how this will unfold. It will be interesting indeed.