Let’s follow the example of the young American who engages atheists with courtesy and respect

Atheists gather at rally in America earlier this year (Photo: PA)

A young American, Brandon Vogt, has recently started up a website called Strange Notions. I am drawing attention to it here because it is a very enterprising, worthwhile and courageous idea – and especially relevant in this Year of Faith. I blogged recently about a Day of Faith at St Patrick’s, Soho Square, in which the serious question discussed was “How is the Church meant to evangelise in today’s post-Christian and post-modern society?” Vogt, aged 27 and both articulate and committed to his Faith, asked himself the same question, specifically: “How do you achieve an effective dialogue with atheists?”

In a recent audio interview entitled, What Catholics should know about atheists, he described how the website came to be. He was praying and felt inspired to start an online dialogue with atheists and secularists. The title, Strange Notions, is taken from that memorable scene from the Acts of the Apostles when St Paul addresses educated pagans in the Areopagus in Athens and is met with the response, “You bring some strange notions to our ears…” Vogt hopes “to provide some clarity” about these notions.

The website is built around three things: reason, faith, dialogue. Its goal is “not to defeat anyone, embarrass them or assault their character”; it is to pursue the Truth through fruitful discussion. Unlike the many combative posts between Catholics and atheists that we see on the Herald website, the goal is not to win arguments but to help each other find the Truth. In case an atheist reading this thinks it’s just another wily strategy to convert them, Vogt is firm that even though he and his web team are not neutral about their beliefs, the arguments that crop up are meant to be reasonable, impartial and unbiased. With admirable idealism, he believes it’s possible to discuss faith and reason “with charity” on both sides. No comments are deleted merely because they disagree with the website moderators.

In the interview referred to above, Vogt points out that “the Church exists to evangelise”. He hopes the site will remove some barriers to Faith – often emotional ones connected with unhappy past experiences of Catholics. In the two years spent building the site, he has enlisted a group of scientists, artists, philosophers, theologians and other writers to create a rich reservoir of Catholic teaching in different disciplines. One of these articles, by theologian and academic, Peter Kreeft, entitled Twenty Arguments for God’s Existence, has attracted much interest from atheists. Indeed, Vogt says, 80% of the posts received by the site are from atheists rather than from Catholics.

He thinks this is because Catholics often take their Faith seriously but also for granted; they don’t question it. Atheists, on the other hand, are interested – even aggressively so – in logical and philosophical arguments about God and against him. He cites the T-shirt slogan: “I’m an atheist: debate me!” He would also like his website to reach out to the huge number of young, lapsed Catholics – “a sign of catechetical failure” – and help them to rediscover their Faith. Those who lapse have often “never been evangelised”, he comments.

Vogt speaks soberly of “a tsunami of secularism” facing people of faith today. He invites them to read the articles on his site so that they are informed about the questions debated; to share the articles with friends, especially agnostic and atheist ones; and to promote the website in the social media.

As I said, it is a very worthwhile enterprise – not least to get Catholics and atheists listening to each other courteously and responding in the same way.