Vatican wishes to debate atheists. Only “respectful” atheists need apply
Benedict wants debate, but only from non-critical atheists.
Imagine this scenario: Christopher Hitchens, one of the most well-known champions of freethought and atheism, battling debate style with a top Vatican theologian in an expansive, but packed auditorium. For nonbelievers and, perhaps, some Catholics, this would be an event worth tuning in for.
Pope Benedict XVI has just ordered the creation of a new group which will be available to meet and debate atheists called “The Courtyard of the Gentiles.” They hope to host a series of debates in Paris next year.
The Vatican will limit which atheists may participate, however, ruling certain figures out by name. The president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 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”.
Ravasi is also concerned that certain atheists “read religious texts like fundamentalists”; that is, these atheists expect people who claim the Bible is the perfect Word of God to actually believe what it says.
The move could be an attempt to improve the image of the Catholic Church among atheists and other nonbelievers, while at the same time attempting to avoid embarrassment at the hands of their most well-known critics. Pope Benedict XVI may have foreshadowed his intentions a bit back in December, during a speech to the Roman Curia.
“We, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists,” he said. “When we speak of a New Evangelization, these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.”
As exciting as the possibility of seeing top Vatican officials embarrassed onstage by atheist debaters is, if the Pope really wants to improve the Catholic Church’s image with non-believers, he should start somewhere else.
His first move should be to resign.
There’s no getting around it. If there is one thing hurting the Catholic Church’s image among nonbelievers right now, it’s the child abuse scandal which has plagued the church in recent years. With the Pope’s recent connection to the scandal, and the absurd lack of responsive action to this problem, no one action would likely improve the church’s relationship with informed atheists and agnostics, as well as members of other faiths, than Benedict XVI stepping aside.
Debating with atheists will only serve as a distraction to the real issue. At this point, the Catholic Church can’t really hope to improve its relationship with nonbelievers unless they take some sort of action on child abuse. But, since Pope Benedict XVI would apparently prefer to redirect the church’s critics towards the spectacle of a debate, rather than take any real action, perhaps he should step aside so someone else can do it for him.