Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Strange Notions of Catholic-Atheist Dialogue

Brandon Vogt, who's apparently done some writing about how Catholics can interact with the new media (internet, I'm sure), is promoting Strange Notions - a website aimed at 'debate and discussion between Catholics and atheists.' Via Leah Libresco:

As the site expands, it will have more of it’s content written by atheists (interviews, debates, etc), but right now it’s fairly Catholic heavy.  Obviously, Brandon has more contacts on the Catholic end, so feel free to use the comments to recommend bloggers and writers he should reach out to.  This is a chance to try and make disagreements a little more concrete, instead of trying to debunk Christianity broadly, and having Catholics complain, “But you’re not talking about us!
The About page of Strange Notions is definitely worth checking out - quite an impressive list of contributors are shown there. Ben Wiker, Ed Feser, Mark Shea, and many more. There's a stated intention to get atheists contributing to the site as well, since they're going for the whole 'Atheists and Catholics in dialogue' sort of approach.  Brandon seems like a driven guy, and I wish the site well.

I am also completely skeptical of the approach. The goal is laudable, but the idea of having dialogue with the Cult of Gnu - not atheists and agnostics and irreligious generally, but specifically the Cult of Gnu - is, put simply, a joke. Sincere and productive dialogue requires both sides having real mutual respect for each other, and regarding each others' views as having intellectual merit. But what makes an atheist a Gnu is, fundamentally, a commitment to the view that not only is theism or Catholicism or (etc) wrong, but that it is a view not worth taking seriously to begin with.

Hence, you have Richard Dawkins saying things like this:

I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.
Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.
Let's state the obvious: there is no possibility of productive dialogue on religion or God or any number of related topics, when someone has this attitude. But this is a hallmark, a defining trait, of the New Atheism - it's one of those things that sets them apart from the so-called 'accommodationists' they attack. It's a mentality of permanent warfare and an irrational belief, all wrapped up into one nice, simple package. To drop this belief - to say 'well, religious people aren't irrational. I disagree with with them, but theirs is a reasonable position all the same' - is to exit the Cult of Gnu. You may be an atheist still, but a New Atheist, you ain't.

Now, that doesn't mean New Atheists should be written off by guys like Brandon. Far from it. But at that point, your approach simply can't be one of dialogue. Instead, the conversation must be one sided: you talk, they listen, or you hope they listen. You remove the opportunity to mock, distract, throw out red herrings and more. You talk instead with reasonable atheists and agnostics for whom sincere respect and dialogue really is possible.

I think this is one of the weaknesses of Christians generally - this kind of woolly idea that, no matter how far gone someone is, you can still pull up a chair and sit down with a cup of coffee and have a relaxed, peaceful conversation with someone. It's not true, and it's harmful to pretend otherwise.


rmatrgu said...

I'm obviously late on this comment and this post but where would you say there were possibilities for dialogue between catholic and atheist, if at all? What are the areas in the dialogue where both parties could put up their hands and admit to having views that are contingent on further information?

Crude said...

I think there's plenty of opportunities for dialogue between an atheist and a Catholic - granting that mutual respect. The problem I'm outlining is specific to Cult of Gnu style atheists.