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Kerry WeberJuly 28, 2010

Geoffrey Berg, author of The Six Ways of Atheism, recently challenged Pope Benedict XVI to a public debate about the existence of God, which Berg hopes will take place during Benedict’s upcoming visit to the U.K. In an open letter to the pope (a copy of which also was sent directly to the Vatican with the salutation “Dear Personal Secretary to the Pope,” according to the press release) Berg names several reasons he believes he deserves some face time with Benedict, including:

a) Atheists have lived, and currently live, in the U.K.

b) Berg is the author a popular book with some new arguments for Atheism.

c) “It is known that the Pope may adjust his timetable to meet victims of sex abuse by priests during his visit to Britain. So he can adjust his timetable to accommodate doing a public debate about the existence of God.”

d) Berg has not called for Benedict's arrest upon arrival in the U.K., as other prominent, British atheists have done.

e) And, by the way, Berg is the author a popular book with some new arguments for Atheism.

Berg’s challenge to Benedict seems like such an obvious P.R. ploy that I hesitated to mention it at all. But his letter did make me think, in general terms, about the question of God’s existence, something with which many people struggle each day; and it brought to mind some of Benedict’s writing on that very subject. If the pope ever sent a letter in reply to Berg, I like to think it might contain a version of the following passage from his book “Introduction to Christianity,” written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger:

It may be appropriate at this point to cite a Jewish story told by Martin Buber; it presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma of being a man.  

An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him too and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, wrapped in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly and said, “But perhaps it is true after all”. The scholar tried in vain to collect himself—his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Jizchak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps,” which echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.  

Here we have, I believe—in however strange a guise—a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words, “Yet perhaps it is true.” The “perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation which it cannot elude, the temptation in which it too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide away from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt, for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.

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Brendan McGrath
13 years 11 months ago
The Pope should not be debating people, at least not in official capacity as Pope - though I guess he could debate him as "Joseph Ratzinger."  It puts me in mind of the funny but serious suggestion from my Dad that he thinks Benedict and other bishops should have to go on Meet the Press like politicians do.  (Perhaps they should have to, but a thoughtful scholar like Ratzinger would probably want more than just a second to respond to questions.  A better format would be a back-and-forth of essays with the Meet the Press moderator, if it was to be done at all.)

However, the people I WOULD like to see debate atheists are my many excellent Theolgoy professors at Georgetown and Notre Dame - it's often disappointed me that the people who appear on TV or newspapers as the counterpoint to atheists, skeptics, etc. are often not really great theologians; they're more popular writers, etc.  For example, I heard there was a debate at Notre Dame several months ago between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza, with D'Souza seeming to lean towards intelligent design theory, etc.  Certainly D'Souza performs a great service to the Catholic faith in many ways, but why, oh why, could Hitchens not have debated some of the excellent theologians at Notre Dame, people who at the very least could show that Hitchens has not the slightest idea of the richness of Catholic theology?  E.g., Cyril O'Regan, Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP,  Robert Krieg, Fr. Brian Daley, SJ, Randall Zachman, Maura Ryan, Mary Rose D'Angelo, John Haught, Fr. Stephen Fields, SJ, Fr. Otto Hentz, SJ, Fr. Peter Phan, Fr. Brian McDermott, SJ - these are just a few names that come to mind; there are others just as good, but the ones I listed are the ones whose "style" I think would most effectively "neutralize" the "new atheism."  For Hitchens or Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to try arguing with theologians like the ones I've listed would be like trying to argue with gravity, or with the beauty of a sunrise or sunset.

If this Geoffrey Berg wants to debate someone, these are the people he should debate.

Often I think the best counter to Hitchens-style atheism isn't so much addressing his arguments, as just showing someone, say, the opening pages of the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna's "God For Us" - just SEEING theology like that says more than a back-and-forth could ever do.
Wim Vandenberghe
13 years 11 months ago
Are you serious? The pope could do no better than presenting an anecdotal version of Pascal's Wager? That thing has been debunked up the hill. What if it's true about Ganesha and all those other gods? What if it's true that there is a god who only rewards non-belief. Etc. etc.
What if...? Really? That's the best he could do?
13 years 11 months ago
Hello Wim, the text above is not a concerted effort by the pope to counter athiest ideology, it was simply something selected from a book of his by the editors of this blog for quick reference.

As for dialogue between humanists and the current pope, if you are interested in such then all you need to do is pick up a copy of the transcripts of the discussion between Ratzinger and Habermas: "Dialects of Secularization."
Wim Vandenberghe
13 years 11 months ago
Hi Brett,

I just realised I have to use my full name when commenting. Sorry about that.

I appreciate that it wasn't an exhaustive argumentation, but the fact that Kerry Weber picked this particular "argument" seems to imply that he considers it a particularly strong one. The fact that the pope even uses Pascal's Wager makes me wonder.

But thank you for the reference, which I'll be sure to check out. :-)

Wim Vandenberghe
13 years 11 months ago
A specific comment regarding your use of the term "athiest (sic) ideology".
What exactly do you mean by atheism being an ideology? Atheism is merely a response of non-belief to the particular claims of theism. Nothing else follows from it.

Pearce Shea
13 years 11 months ago

This isn't Pascal's Wager at all. It's a bit poorly excerpted but the basic point is that both the unbeliever and the believer (and it's worth pointing out that the unbeliever need not be an atheist, just someone who doesn't believe in the Catholic faith) are each in a state of conflicting faith and doubt. The unbeliever cannot prove the belief wrong, but the believer cannot prove their belief correct. What is "terrible" about "perhaps" isn't that we would just be better off to pretend that x religion is right because the consequences of misplaces belief are less than the consequences of misplaced doubt (Pascal's Wager) but that it acknowledges the basic appeal of religious belief for Ratzinger (and every other thinking religious person): we believe not because we are sure we are right, but because we think we are. Ratzinger says elsewhere (several times, at least once in Jesus of Nazareth) that faith does not exist in spite of doubt but because of it (and vice versa).

The fundamental point is that the Rabbi does not try to persuade with certitude but with the honest fact that "perhaps it is true" (and thus the last bit about finding a rapport between the believer and unbeliever via doubt). 
13 years 11 months ago
If atheism is a mere non-belief, then the debate between this atheist and the Pope would be like the argument clinic skit by Monty Python (If you've never seen it, check it out on Youtube for a good laugh).  In that skit, the "argument" consisted of one person making a reasoned point and the respondent replying reflexively with mere contradiction with no reasoning to back it up.

Once you get beyond mere contradiction and enter the realm of thinking and reasoning to support your point, you are expressing an ideology: you believe something else.
13 years 11 months ago
Great quote, Kerry - thanks for sharing!

There is a new book by Marilynne Robinson taken from her Terry Lectures at Yale and it sounds like a great, new antidote to the reductionists/materialists such as Hitch or Dawkins etc.

In fact here is a great review of the book by the very talented apologist (evangelical) David B. Hart on the new Templeton blog:

Dale Rodrigue
13 years 11 months ago
Exactly right Brendan McGrath, it seems that the so called ''new'' atheists want to debate only when it casts them in the most favorable light.  Let's bring out the good stuff and put their atheism to rest (in a very public way).

Kerry, lets not forget a small stumbling block for atheists, something called miracles.
For Christians, miracles present tangible proof. 
Miracles change the debate, turns the table because miracles present tangible proof whereas atheists then have to argue or reason based on doubt or lack of proof that miracles are just nebulous ''spontaneous remissions'' without any tangible etiology or reason for this ''spontaneous remission''. 

When I hear ''spontaneous remission'' I like to say, ''oh, you must also believe in ''spontaneous generation'' too!  
13 years 11 months ago
Atheism is a morally and intellectually bankrupt point of view.  So anyone espousing it is really espousing an ideology about the world.  It is not an expression of non belief.  If that were so then there would not be so much contention about the belief system underpinning it.

Yes, atheism is an ideology and a toxic one. 
Wim Vandenberghe
13 years 11 months ago
To Peter Shore & Kerry Weber:
Thank you for claryifing the above story and I appreciate the fact that a reasonable and tolerant dialogue is important, but even if it is not exactly Pascal's Wager it presents the same type of false dichotomy between one particular religion/god-concept versus non-belief in that religion/god-concept. Peter rightly points out that a nonbeliever could just as well be a believer in another religion, but an atheist is skeptical of every religion because they are based on the same type of appeal to revelation or appeal to authority in the form of individuals or scriptures containing alleged pronouncements by or stories about those individuals. These are not reliable ways of "knowing" and the fact that religions make mutually exclusive claims about reality show that. "Perhaps [Judaism] is true" therefore becomes a very "limited" proposition to present to an atheist, because I'd also have to take into account every other religion or fantastical claim (gnomes, elves, etc.).

To Dale Rodrigue:
You present "miracles" as "tangible proof", and present cancer remissions as a case in point. Why are miracles in the medical field always things that can also be explained in other ways? As soon as the prayers of Presbyterian war veterans (as opposed to Jewish, Catholic, etc.) result in them regrowing blown off limbs, we'll have something tangible to chew on. ;)

To JR Cosgrove:
I still don't get how atheism is an ideology. Let's see: I don't believe in a god. Now how would you derive an ideology from that? I also don't believe in fairies. Can you also derive a separate ideology from that non-belief?

Thank you for your past and future replies. :)


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