Catholics and atheists
Pope Benedict XVI surprised many in 2011 when he invited atheists to participate in his interfaith peace gathering in Assisi. Likewise, Pope Francis is comfortable talking about matters of faith with atheists, as he did in two interviews with Italian veteran journalist Eugenio Scalfari.
The Catholic Church seeks dialogue with atheists, provided it is sincere and respectful, with a view to creating mutual understanding.
Lately, the climate for such dialogue has improved. Many atheists now express embarrassment at the methods of atheist preachers such as Richard Dawkins. There is also a sense of unease that the atheist argument is pronounced by TV comedians such as Ricky Gervais and Bill Maher, both of whom are prone to deliberately distorting the positions of religions and ground their criticisms on the false premises they have created.
Christians certainly do not recognise the god which these atheist preachers refer to. As Cardinal Cardinal Cormac Murphy, now retired of Westminster, once put it: “I usually find that the god that is being rejected by them is a god I don’t believe in either.”
While the Dawkins school of atheism knocks down strawmen in order to invalidate the Church, others might simply fail to understand the faith — and faith itself.
Atheists tend to incorrectly assume that the God Catholics believe in is effectively “one more object” in the universe, rather than the basis of and condition for its existence.
A common error resides in the demand by atheists that Christians offer scientific proof of the existence of God, which would be a reasonable demand if God was “an object”.
Christian faith, however, is just that: a confidence that God does exist which requires no proof and can provide none. Faith does not claim to be scientific. It is impossible to explain the source of that confidence in the terms demanded by atheists; faith in God is not expressible in scientific calculations.
Moreover, the demand for scientific proof is unreasonable when science itself does not hold all the answers. The notion that one day science will hold all answers, as some atheists propose, is in itself an act of faith.
To illustrate: the Catholic Church’s stringent process in reviewing reported miracles is often lumped together with the excitable claims of miracles in faith-healing churches.
The Catholic Church holds that miracles are inexplicable events for which there are no scientific explanations. Atheists tend to reject that inexplicability by anticipating with certainty that one day science will provide such answers. Perhaps it will, but stating one’s faith in that prospect is in itself “unscientific”.
Christian and atheist philosophies are embedded in such contradictory premises that it is unlikely that one side will “win” the argument, though individuals may be persuaded one way or another.
With that in mind, dialogue should not be hostile or combative, but instead seek to clarify misconceptions so as to foster a genuine understanding of one another’s perspectives, unclouded by distorted assumptions.
This means also that Catholics understand that atheists don’t by definition “hate” God (how can one hate something one doesn’t believe to exist?).
Reaching such an understanding can have practical application. Most reasonable atheists now hold that the perceived excesses of religion are best counteracted by secularism, not by polemic about the existence of God.
So when the Church states its position on bioethical issues such as embryonic stem cell research or abortion, it will not persuade atheists by reference to God’s law, because to the atheist there is no God and therefore no such law. The case must be stated on merits both sides can understand. (Not all atheists, it must be noted, are intrinsically supporters of abortion; morality can exist without belief in God.)
At the same time, atheists have a tendency to interpret the Church’s position on issues such as abortion in cynically secular terms, usually equating the Church’s pro-life philosophy with its perceived suppression of women. Such views need correction.
Sincere and open dialogue can do much to ease suspicion, even hostility, between those who believe in God and those who reject the notion of a higher power. For that alone, it must be pursued.