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The Vatican’s Call to Atheists

July 7, 2010

I guess the thing that has been making its way around the atheist blogosphere is the Vatican’s call to engage with atheists and agnostics. There have been several comments from atheist bloggers, and many of them have the same message and tone. I’ll summarize:

“The Catholic church is obviously afraid of addressing our greatest debaters, because they only want to debate people who can be cowed into agreeing with them.”

Oh, how many places does this go wrong?

So many of these blogs either make bad faith statements about the intentions of the Vatican or make bad faith statements about the intellectual and rhetorical capacity of atheism and atheists. I don’t now if these various writers realize the extent of what they are saying, but some of it is quite damaging.

First of all are the assumptions about the Catholic church’s motives. These are somewhat more understandable…It is easy to think that the purpose of the Courtyard of the Gentiles is ultimately to make the Catholic church more appealing to nonbelievers (and hopefully to convert some). However, it is excessively paranoid to suggest that the main reason that the Vatican doesn’t want to engage Dawkins is because they want to “look better” in such a debate or because they are “afraid” of engaging the “best” debaters.

Herein we find the shocking and damaging statements that atheists seem to be making about atheism and atheists. The undertone behind many of these articles seems to be that people actually believe that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc., are the best atheist debaters. A variation of this is that people seem to believe that the stridency and vocality they exhibit (what the Vatican and others decry as “polemic” or “militant”) are part and parcel of their “great” debate skills.

So, the idea seems to be that any “noble atheist” or “noble agnostic” would be an inferior debater, more willing to “concede” critical points to the Catholic church.

On one level, I can see why people would say this. We have people talking about making (or converting to) a “new agnosticism.” I can see why this backlash to atheism (particularly “new” atheism) and theism is unpopular with atheist commenters and respondents. Nevertheless, even if there is this other group that doesn’t seem amicable to atheism, this doesn’t mean that we have a dichotomy between “Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens” on the one end and “meek, ill-informed people” on the other end.

Let me repeat that. Some people seem to believe that without people like Dawkins or Hitchens, then we only have meek and ill-informed debaters.

I don’t know about you, but one of the things that many thoughtful theists I know raise up is how particularly ill-informed they think Dawkins and Hitchens are! And I mean, this isn’t too hard to believe, considering that many of the new atheists so disdain upon theology that they don’t find it an important subject to understand, much less address accurately. (If you consider it like the study of leprechauns, then why not?)

We have this critical issue then. People believe that “meekness” is a vice that suggests a person may be trampled all over. And they have very different ideas of what it means to be informed or to craft noble, effective arguments. As a result, people seriously believe that the “best” atheist debaters are people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Oh dear.


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  1. Dawkins and Hitchens are not really debaters.

    They are entertainers. Which people often seem to mistake for actual debate skills.

    Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Dawkins/Hitchens are debaters. And that’s part of the problem. Debate is often about scoring artificial points via various tricks. Like shouting down the opposition, misdirecting the audience, and not allowing your opponent to make any of his own points. Hitchens and Dawkins do swim in this kind of water. So I guess they do qualify as debaters.

    But if it is actual dialogue that the Vatican is after, I can see why they would not want to engage Hitchens and Dawkins. Both men would be largely a waste of time.

  2. Are you sure you didn’t just describe sabre fencing there?

    But seriously, I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. Andrew, I posted about this last month at the SHAFT blog, and I agree with your take.

    I do actually think Hitchens is a fairly competent debater, though. But there is a lot of bad blood between he and the Catholic Church, so I can understand why the Catholic Church would bar him from debates.

    I am however thankful that Dawkins won’t be receiving an invite from the Vatican. I like Dawkins, but I like him as an evolutionary biologist, not the atheist interlocutor in a debate. He is pretty ignorant where the philosophy of religion is concerned. We (atheists) would be better served by atheists like Michael Martin and Shelly Kagan, both professional philosophers.

  4. Ironically, I see Hitchens as being more of a comedian of the two…(but maybe that’s because of his actual background [not saying journalists are jokes…])

    I have the same thoughts about Hitchens as you do about Dawkins…well, except instead of evolutionary biology…definitely for journalism.

  5. I went over the top a couple of days ago in a post berating these guys approach to religion. I think they’re good at selling books and themselves, but not debating. Way too overbearing, so uninformed and yet so entertaining in some respects. Except for Dawkins and especially not Harris. OK, pretty much only Hitchens is entertaining. The poor guy’s got cancer now unfortunately.

  6. It just has the ring of a desperate cry for relevance to it, I think maybe they protest to much. I’m refering to the Catholic Church here, but maybe it applies just as well to these self proclaimed vanguard of atheist writers.

  7. Nate, I can see what you’re saying here…in this way, I think that the worst thing that can happen to an organization is not opposition. (After all, even all publicity is good publicity). It’s irrelevance. It’s being ignored. The only the worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

    HOWEVER, from the vantage points of either of these groups, regardless of their public perception and acceptance, they are proclaiming messages that they feel have great social (or greater) importance.

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