Letter to an Atheist about Religion & Dialogue

For the Head…

Dear Greta,

I read your article ‘Why should atheists have to show respect for religion?[i] [here]. [Warning to reader: Greta’s article contains vulgar language.]

As a Catholic priest who has often reflected on questions such as atheism, agnosticism, and the multiplicity of religions, I felt compelled to reply. I want to affirm the importance of religious truth; encourage serious religious dialogue, and, argue for the unity of faith and reason.

I actually agree with a key point in your article: truth about God matters. I much prefer the honest atheist who says, ‘I think you’re off your rocker,’ to those who insist that we should not fret over the silly little details about God and religion. While the former may be confrontational, the latter is condescending, and, as you put it, ‘shows a callous disregard for the truth.’ Any serious thinker about the matter of God and religion, regardless of his or her position, will not treat the subject superficially. I found your indignation at such an irrational approach very similar to my own, and refreshingly honest.

I also agree with you that we can respect another person’s freedom of speech, while disagreeing with his or her ideas. Ideas only have value to the degree that they are true, and to discover the truth should be the very purpose of dialogue. Ironically, it is often the desire to be polite at all costs that has eroded real dialogue in our culture. We are afraid to have meaningful conversations with those who differ with us due to our fear of confrontation, so we merely talk about ‘the other side’ rather than to them. I too have been guilty of this.

I disagree, however, that the only two types of religious believers are either: a) intolerant theocrats who shun, outlaw and brutalize those who think differently from them; or, b) uncritical ecumenicalists, who reduce religion to personal preference with no reference to the truth. I believe there is a third category of religious believer: one who takes faith seriously while continuing to deepen his or her understanding of perennial issues such as good, evil, life, death, and the afterlife. Furthermore, struggling with difficult questions and insufficient answers is not exclusive to religious believers; that includes atheists, agnostics and all people. I would also argue that the same applies to the temptation of shunning, outlawing or brutalizing those who think otherwise. Atheistic regimes in the 20th Century were quite brutal. The capacity for cruelty is something against which we must all be on guard.

The Catholic understanding of faith and reason is that the two need not be at odds. At its root, the problem of both a fundamentalist approach to religion and the intellectually vapid ecumenicalism is a negation of the role of reason in matters regarding faith. Pope John Paul II wrote that a faith deprived of reason and stressing feelings and experience, ‘runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition.’[ii] Faith does not preclude thought; faith requires it. While certain questions do not allow for easy answers, the Catholic Church has developed a very rich intellectual patrimony showing that it does not shy away from tough questions. Inversely, reason needs faith, otherwise it risks ‘losing sight of its final goal.’ That is, if we cut off a priori the possibility of man’s transcendence, could we not risk missing that which is most important?[iii]

Finally, where are the believers and non-believers to meet? We should meet on the common ground of our reason, or philosophy, which seeks after the deeper truths that empirical science alone cannot answer. They key, as you rightly said, is truth, truth and respect in an ongoing dialogue. In the process, perhaps we can learn something from each other.


Fr. John Bullock, LC


Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Originally Sent to Greta Christina: Sunday, March 29, 2015 11:58 AM. Current post contains changes.

[i] “Why should atheists have to show respect for religion?’

23 Mar 2015; Greta Christina; http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/03/why-should-atheists-have-to-show-respect-for-religion/

[ii] cf. Encyclical, Fides et Ratio [Faith & Reason], n. 48. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html

[iii] [iii] cf. Encyclical, Fides et Ratio [Faith & Reason], n. 47. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html

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