The word dialogue comes to us from the Greek “dialogos” (dia- “across” + legein “speak”). This etymology points out the aim, but also inherent difficulty, in conversation. It shows that to truly have meaningful, constructive dialogue, we have to speak beyond ourselves; go across from ourselves.
Two groups that are fundamentally and historically “across” from each other are believers and non-believers. Dialogue has always been labored and difficult between the two; notoriously terse and divisive, with both sides entrenched in their views, and the tenor vociferous and adversarial. But with the recent development of the “New Atheist” mindset and the amorphous structure of the internet hosting the talks, civil and intelligent conversation has moved away from any meaningful search for truth and towards an ever more stagnant and hostile stance that prevents us from truly “speaking across”.
Author, Blogger, and New Media expert Brandon Vogt is aiming to break the stalemate and foster an environment of rational, civilized discourse. To create what Pope Benedict famously referred to as a “Digital Areopagus”, Brandon has created www.StrangeNotions.com, what he hopes will become the “central place of dialogue online between Catholics and Atheists”. In tis imterview, Brandon answers some questions on Atheism, Dialogue, and Strange Notions.
Q. What is StrangeNotions.com?
At StrangeNotions.com, atheists and Catholics discuss the Big Questions of life. Every day visitors find articles, videos, and high-level comment box discussion about many topics like God, morality, science, culture, and more.
Q. Why “Strange Notions”? What is the significance of the name?
The name comes from Acts 17. There we read about the great Christian missionary, Paul, sailing to Athens, Greece. Upon arriving, he debates in the synagogue with the Jews, and then the public square, and then is invited to the Areopagus, a prestigious hill where Athenian philosophers gathered “for nothing else but telling or hearing something new.” Paul stands among the circle of pagan philosophers and appeals to what they all hold in common—devotion, philosophy, poetry—and then announces Jesus, resurrected from the dead. His message intrigues the Athenian elite. They say, “you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean” (Acts 17:20).
StrangeNotions.com is designed to mimic that first meeting of Christians and atheists, allowing both sides to discover intriguing “strange notions.”
Q. Who are some of the people you worked with for StrangeNotions?
The effort was definitely collaborative. I knew from the beginning that I couldn’t write all the articles myself. Besides not having time, I’m not an expert in every relevant area. So I reached out to many friends—philosophers, scientists, theologians, artists—and composed a dream-team of Catholic contributors. It includes people like Dr. Peter Kreeft, Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Robert Spitzer, Dr. Christopher Kaczor, Dr. Chris Baglow, Dr. Edward Feser, Jen Fulwiler, Mark Shea, Marc Barnes, and many more. We currently have over 30 main contributors, along with guest contributors every now and then.
I’d be remiss not to mention the wonderful design help, too. The uber-talented John Flynn at Kickstart Media created the website, and Cory Heimann, a gifted video producer at Likable Art, put together the stirring video trailer.
Q. How have Atheists and Agnostics responded to the site?
The response has been surprisingly positive. I thought initially we’d see a lot of Catholic comments and that my struggle would be to draw in and engage atheists. But just the opposite has been true. In the first couple months, we’ve had over 21,000 comments and about 80% of them have come from charitable, serious-minded atheists and agnostics.
Q. What incentive does a non-believer have to visit StrangeNotions.com?
Most flock to StrangeNotions.com because of the high level of discussion. The Internet tends to be a hot and dreary desert when it comes to fruitful dialogue, especially when it concerns these contentious religious questions. But our site aims to be an oasis, a place where serious seekers can discuss them in a safe and respectful atmosphere.
It also helps that we’ve featured guest posts and interviews with well-known atheist bloggers, whom atheists consider “our own people.”
Q. What common thread(s), if any, do you find in non-believers?
Well besides “not believing in God”, I’m not sure I’ve detected one. One of the greatest insights for me since launching has been the vast diversity of atheists. Some deny God for intellectual reasons, some have emotional barriers. Many had bad religious experiences growing up that color their view of God. This presents a great lesson for Catholics. While we may see common patterns of “de-conversion”, there’s no single, typical atheist. Therefore each atheist should be engaged and listened to individually.
Q. What are the most common arguments provided by Non-Believers? Which is hardest to counter?
Probably the most common line I hear is, “There’s simply no evidence [for God]” (or the Jerry Maguire-inspired version, “Show me the evidence!!”) It’s not hard to counter, since there is in fact an overwhelming amount of evidence for God, but the difficulty comes when the word “evidence” is used as shorthand for “empirical evidence.” Catholics don’t necessarily believe empirical evidence—that which you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch—can prove God, since God is, by definition, beyond space and time; he’s non-empirical. But we do believe there is plenty of philosophical and metaphysical evidence to establish his existence. Visitors to Strange Notions will find much of this on the main page under the graphic titled “20 Arguments for God’s Existence.”
Another similar, yet distinct claim is that, “Unless God can be scientifically verified, he doesn’t exist.” Popularly known as Scientisim, this position presupposes that science is the only real source of knowledge. It assumes that truth can only be determined through science—and by “science” the person usually means, “empirical science,” excluding philosophy and theology unlike the medievals did. Though common, this belief is easy to refute, too, by simply noting that the original claim of Scientism—science is the only real source of knowledge—cannot be scientifically verified. You cannot verify that scientific assertion through science. Thus Scientism is self-defeating, as is any argument which presupposes it.
Q. What is harder to address in non-believers: indifference or opposition?
Certainly indifference. In Revelation 3:16, God condemns the church in Laodicea, saying:
“I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot.I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
That’s a very important insight. Even God prefers active opposition to bland indifference. Why? Well, when someone aggressively opposes you, they at least care about you. They at least agree that the issue under consideration matters. But when someone responds with indifference, they not only fail to arrive at the truth, they never begin to pursue it.
Dr. Peter Kreeft recently published a book called Jacob’s Ladder: Ten Steps to Truth. Notably, the first step on his ladder—well before you reach the rungs of meaning, principles, or God—is passion. If you don’t have passion, you’ll simply never reach for those other rungs. You’ll just stay in one spot, at the bottom. But if you have passion, even if it’s misguided passage, then you begin moving. That’s why I’m much happier to see passionate atheists at Strange Notions than disinterested agnostics. Many times, the atheists are far closer to God.
Q. What must the Church do, in your opinion, to reach out to New Atheists?
Simple: she needs to uncover the full depth of her intellectual patrimony. Catholicism is the smartest thing around. It’s thoroughly rational; it birthed the scientific method; it created the university system; it’s responsible for Western culture as we know it (see Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.)
We Catholics must revive this smart tradition. We need to re-present the philosophical arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, the anthropological insights of St. Augustine, and the otherworldly radiance of our holiest saints. We need to show the world that Catholicism is simple, but not simplistic; built on faith but not fideistic. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, “The truths of Catholicism have not been tried and found wanting. They’ve been ignored, misunderstood, and dismissed and left untried.” We need to help atheists try them.
Brandon Vogt is a 27-year old blogger, writer, and speaker. In 2011 he wrote his first book, The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor), and was invited to the Vatican to discuss social media. In May 2013, he launched StrangeNotions.com, the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists. He also blogs at BrandonVogt.com and you can find him on Twitter at @BrandonVogt1.