Pope recasts Assisi to include atheists

There will be two major differences between the global interfaith prayer for peace which Pope Benedict has called for in Assisi on 27 October, and the two previous ones called by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and 2002


The first is that the representatives of the different faiths will not actually pray together. After speeches in the morning, there will be "a simple lunch, followed by a moment of silence for individual reflection and prayer," according to the Vatican statement April 2nd. "Later, all those present in Assisi will make a 'pilgrimage' to the Basilica of Saint Francis, in silence, leaving room for personal meditation and prayer". The final part of the Day will include "a solemn renewal of the joint commitment to peace".

It was an open secret that Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the CDF, opposed the idea of people of different faiths joining in a collective prayer in 2002, so that's one change that could have been predicted.

The other change is more interesting, and surprising. Not only will there be representatives of the world's faiths at Assisi, but also "some figures from the world of culture and science will be invited to share the journey", says the Vatican communique. These are "people who, while not professing to be religious, regard themselves as seekers of the truth and are conscious of a shared responsibility for the cause of justice and peace in this world of ours".

This announcement comes on the heels of the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative in Parish on 24-25 March, in which there was an attempt at a serious dialogue between Catholics and atheists, bringing together Christian clergy, activists and artists together with nonbelievers from the worlds of politics, economics, law and the arts. (See reports by Sandro Magister here and here.)

If you didn't catch much about it, that's because, as Magister says, it was extremely ineffectively publicised. (I was in another European city, Madrid, at the time, where it passed laregely unnoticed.)

The Courtyard initiative (background here), following news of the Vatican's new "Council for the New Evangelization" (background here), and now the announcement that nonbelievers are to be invited to Assisi, all point to Benedict XVI's papacy opening up a new dialogue front -- with "post-Christian" Europe. By recognizing it as, in effect, a faith, the Pope shows how serious he is about engaging with secularist humanism.  

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7 years 9 months ago

You bring up relevant points.  No one is perfect so no one can be completely, shall I use the word, ''honest.''  However, that does not excuse a consistent pattern which I have observed over the years of arrogant condescension by those who claim they are atheist.  They frequently claim to be free thinkers not bound by any superstitions or repugnant ideology.  Which is laughable because they are a slave to a dishonest set of beliefs that have no core set of coherent thinking.

One place to find them in droves is in the universities where they self identify as atheist in large percentages.  And these are the hallways that most of the Jesuits walk at one time or another as they control a substantial portion of higher Catholic education in this country and must employ these people if their educational program has any acceptance.  And one can comment on just who controls who in such a scenario.

It is true that if one pins an atheist in a corner, and they fight ever getting in to this corner in many ways, that they will have to admit the frailty of their beliefs.  And when they do so I imagine they will resort to a Deist explanation.  That if there was a creator, whatever the force was that did so, it has left the scene a long time ago.  The one thing they can not admit is the legitimacy of revealed religion.  That is what they detest above all and probably explains their attitudes more than anything.

So be kind to them as we should to everyone but my experience has been that most will not return the favor.  They will often treat you like slugs and something to be looked at under a micro scope as opposed to an equal to be dealt with on a rational basis.  Believers are to be mocked not treated as colleagues in a fruitful discussion.  

I have seen a friendly conversation over dinner turn into vitriol as soon as a point came up that undermined the basis for their beliefs.  What was laughing and camaraderie a few minutes before turned into a serious of insults from an atheist when one of the dinner guests innocently said he held beliefs that was contrary to the atheist belief system.  I have seen similar behavior take place often on the internet and in class rooms.  Interesting phenomena.
Stephanie Brockett
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove,
I think you've been talking with the wrong folks... Chris Stedman, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard is quite the opposite from what you describe, and in fact is quite humble and respectful of all religious folks. Check out StateofFormation.org and NonProphetStatus.com for starters. 
Bill Collier
7 years 9 months ago
For polite intellectual sparring between a Christian and a self-described agnostic on the existence of God, it's hard to beat the famous 1948 BBC radio debate between Jesuit Fr. Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell. The transcript of the debate is available here:


In my work I'm often in the position of trying to find common ground between opposing viewpoints. I've stopped being surprised by how often some common firmament is identified in good faith discussions that at first appear intractable. Even in the rare instances that no common ground can be found, the parties at least gain a better sense of what motivates and concerns their antagonists. I think it's a good move by BXVI to invite secular humanists. Even if no intellectual meeting of the minds takes place, the participants will hopefully leave Assisi with a greater sense of their shared humanity.     
Paul Kelley
7 years 9 months ago
I thought there was an editor who should have prevented JT Cosgove from conducting a running argument with other commentators. In my view an atheist is one who maintains a negative in that he (or she) is not a believer in the God proposed by the proponent of the formal established religions. Perhps an atheist when pushed will fall back to be more accurately classified as an agnostic. It is really the proponents of a faith or estabished religion who have the burden of proof. Pope Benedict in this year's World Day of Peace message on freedom of religion stated that the freedom of reliion included the freedom not to have a faith. I agree that it is a good idea to include atheists inthe upcoming seessin at Assissi. However I deplor the position that the Pope or Catholics shouldnot pray together withmembersof other faiths and I wonder what is the logic or reason forsuch a  position.
7 years 9 months ago
If one is a seeker of the truth, then one cannot be an atheist.  Atheism has no intellectual underpinning.  That is not saying that it is obvious one should believe in Catholicism or some form of Christianity, but one cannot be honest intellectually and be an atheist.  

Certainly people doubt all sorts of things but all the science and logic point to the intervention of some form of a power with an immense intelligence.  To deny that is to place one faith on an incredible amount of luck happening and that in no way is logical or scientific.

Conventional wisdom has it that the scientists and atheists are logical and base their beliefs on science.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Atheism is a fashion and currently it is in vogue but like all fashions it will fade with time and reason.
ed gleason
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove, I believe an invitation to atheists to join at Assisi is a good idea. Your post,' Atheism has no intellectual underpinning.'  would not be a help to me if I was an atheist. BXVI knows Faith is a gift that usually occurs after an 'encounter' with the sacred/holy, person, place or thing. . Assisi maybe such an encounter.
7 years 9 months ago
''would not be a help to me if I was an atheist''

It would if you were honest.  But then again, anyone who is honest would not be an atheist. 

By all means invite them but know that anyone who claims to be an atheist can not be honest intellectually.  You do not have to tell them that directly or challenge them but there is no reason that they should not know that is your position.  Treat them with respect and you don't have to give any ground on who is more reasonable. 

I have debated atheists for years, not on religion per se, but on the presence of a God and have not found one yet who was reasonable.  They are extremely condescending and just assume you are an idiot if you believe in God,  But question them on their beliefs and they throw all sorts of obstacles at you.  In the end they all resort to blind faith that everything just happened.  But know they do not have science on their side.

So maybe the best approach is to emphasize that both sides use faith to back their beliefs and that those who believe in God have more than blind faith on their side.  The believers in God actually have science on their side but that does not rule out the power of grace to be able to see it that way.  As you said, Assisi maybe is the place to see it.
7 years 9 months ago
I think extending the invitation to athiests to the gathering is very Christlike:  Jesus said, ''Come and see.''  He met people where they were.....respected them as they were and listened to them with compassionate, understanding, accepting and open heart. He was never judgmental.  Because of this friendly approach, people who came to him were transformed, and conversion followed!  Remember the woman at the well!?!   She felt respected, and accepted as an equal, that the encounter with Jesus transformed her so completely!  She became a convert!..... that in her enthusiasm she started ''evangelizing'' the whole village where she lived.

I think #l is looking at the athiest from his own perspective.  You cannot possibly know for sure what is in the mind of the athiest. It is presumptious to claim so. You have to let him express himself first, listen with an open heart with no judgment and try to see his point of view.  Once you are both on the same page,  you can start the conversation....clarifying terms/words and the concepts/ideas behind those words, contexts, cultural background, etc.etc.etc.... then debate whatever issue comes up.
7 years 9 months ago
''You cannot possibly know for sure what is in the mind of the athiest. It is presumptious to claim so.''

So very true.  But you can judge them by how they approach you and others, what kind of arguments they use to justify their position and how rational they are.  That is all we can do.  And as I said, I have never met one who was honest in the sense that he or she evaluated their position with reason.  After all an atheist cannot use grace as an explanation but must depend only upon reason.  And reason does not support their position.  Which is embarrassing for them since many pride themselves on their intelligence.
David Nickol
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove,

You talk about atheists the way racists talk about black people or anti-Semites talk about Jews.

Why would Benedict want to engage with such horrid creatures as you describe? 
7 years 9 months ago
Mr. Nickol,

Thank you for the kind words.  I am just relaying my experiences and you associate me with racism.  Nice.  When you can find an atheist who can defend their incoherent belief system let me know.  There is a large vocal group of them that are anything but friendly to religion or anyone who believes in God.  You should listen to PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett etc.  They can be quite polite sometiime and obviously have intelligence but always use a bait and switch.  They never defend their position by logic. And they are quite often on the attack, frequently mocking those who do not agree with them.

I am sure you can find very nice and intelligent people who claim they are atheists.  I have met many that fit that description.  What you can not find is one who can defend their position even though they are adamant they have the high ground.

And a chaplain who is an atheist.  An odd oxymoron. 

I am certainly not against having a dialogue with atheists.  As Mr. Collier said there is often common ground on lots of things.  I taught in universities and worked with atheists and I have worked with atheists in business with little problem.  In both these setting, religion as a topic of belief rarely came up even at the Jesuit university.

Fr. Martin had a post a few weeks ago about the road to God through atheism.  The post was one of a series about the various ways to a belief in God.  It also brought out a lot of atheist defenders and I made the comment that if the atheist is honest they will come to a belief in some type of creator, not necessarily the Christian God, but a creator.  The basis for this comment.  Because their belief system is not based on any evidence or reason so when pressed they must admit it.  So Benedict should definitely have the dialogue but everyone who believes in God should know that science and reason supports their point of view and not that of the atheist.  Few realize that.  They think that science undermines it.
David Nickol
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove,

I didn't meant to associate your position with racism per se but rather with prejudice, and prejudice of the very normal and not necessary malign sort exhibited by those who are certain they are right and others are wrong. I have no doubt that the atheists you have argued with perceive your position to be as irrational and ungrounded as you perceive theirs to be. This is the nature of being utterly convinced of one's own views. I feel the same way a lot of the time. In fact, I am sometimes amazed at how right I am! Aside from making an occasional verifiable factual mistake, I am as close to infallible as a human can be. When I mentally run through all of my views, I agree with myself 100% and wonder how anyone could possibly imagine I could be wrong about anything. 
James Morrison
7 years 9 months ago
I am excited about this courtyard of the gentiles project!  Oddly enough, my friend and I have started a bit of our own courtyard project.  


We have taken up the challenge of creating a book club for seekers to enter into the search for truth.  He is an atheist philosopher and I'm a catholic priest.  We are just getting started and we alternate each week between his proposed book and my proposed book  The hope is to embrace this courtyard of the gentiles and allow for a greater understanding.  Perhaps some of you might be interested in contributing to our project.
Kathy Berken
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove, especially, perhaps we need to simply define our terms. What do YOU mean by ''atheist''? I have read the Four Horsemen, have seen them on videos with each other, with religious folks, and giving lectures. I agree that some of the most vocal atheists tend to be defensive, but I understand that. I would imagine they have been attacked so much in their lives, that is a natural reaction now. 

But I do not think that it helps the discussion to say that if they were honest, they would not be atheists. I would find that insulting if I were an atheist. But then, can we define our terms?

The atheists I know reject traditional notions of God. They reject traditional religions. They reject all that has been done in the name of religion to hurt others. I have found that many atheists have come from strict evangelical backgrounds, so it seems to me that many are reacting to their tightly-wound beliefs. I enjoy Sam Harris the most. He does not seem to be defensive at all, and seems to be able to carry on an intelligent and rational discussion.

The book by Michael Shermer, How We Believe, shows us his understanding of people of faith.

So, if you can please define your terms, perhaps we can continue this discussion.
J Sylvia
7 years 9 months ago
@David (#17),

Thanks for the feedback. The main page was closed to comments, but if you click Posts on the bottom of the page, all of them allow comments. I've gone ahead and opened up the main page for comments as well so it's not confusing.

As far as the screen size, you can actually dynamically resize it within the page. In the header there's a small button on the top right that you can click to resize the content. That should help so that you don't have to scroll it. Let me know if that helps. We are considering changing the theme if things are too confusing as they are.

@JR Cosgrove,

Have you read Hawking's The Grand Design? It has a well-reasoned, logical, and scientific discussion/explanation of how the universe could have began without the need for a creator. And please, don't write off an entire group because those you have run into so far act in a certain way. I've met a lot of theists who are argumentative and arrogant, but I don't write off the entire group.
7 years 9 months ago
''JR Cosgrove, especially, perhaps we need to simply define our terms.''

The atheist I have run into do not think any intelligence is responsible for the universe or anything in it.  I did not know there were other ones.  They say it somehow all happened by chance and the laws which govern these chance occurrences also arose by some other chance process out of nothing.  I have no problem with debating this proposition but there usually is no acceptance of any alternative.  It is an apriori assumption that they insist must be held.  If they were honest they would look at both sides of the issue and which is best supported by evidence but they don't.  They tend to mock and attack sometimes very politely but when they are pushed they can often be bullies and try to shut down debate.

Rejecting traditional notions of God is not atheism.  So did the Deists.  Deism is an honest position but not atheism.  I would not call someone who claiimed to be deist, dishonest.  I have just never seen anyone present any evidence supporting atheism but one could make a strong argument for deism.  I have seen Michael Shermer several times and I would not say he is a reasonable person.  He is often very polite in his condescension but not reasonable with the evidence.  Very often politeness is mistake for reasonable.

''I thought there was an editor who should have prevented JT Cosgove from conducting a running argument with other commentators.''

Are you suggesting that people be censored if you do not like their posts.  I made a post at the top and each time I posted again it was in response to someone who questioned or challenged me.  I am now responding again because there have been more challenges and if I didn't respond would that mean that I have no reply to the critical remarks.  There have been running comments on other posts and as long as they are polite, why not.  That is how one learns.

''Have you read Hawking's The Grand Design? It has a well-reasoned, logical, and scientific discussion/explanation of how the universe could have began without the need for a creator. ''

No I have not read it.  I have seen many other discussions on ways how something could have happened in terms of the universe but not one that it was inevitable to have happened this way.  Science has done a great job in many areas but it has done a lousy job in understanding the origins of many complex phenomena.  Once the clock has been built it runs by it self pretty well but building the clock is the real mystery.  And of course there is always the biggest mystery of all, why does anything exist?  And as we have seen the universe exists and with great precision.

''And please, don't write off an entire group because those you have run into so far act in a certain way.''

My point is and always has been is that atheists constantly attack people who believe in God as stupid and superstitious.  Not everyone but a great many of them and yet they, and here I am characterizing an entire group, cannot provide coherent support for their own position except faith that it happened this way.  I find such behavior dishonest and hypocritical and as Catholics we should never be afraid that anything they say about God is based on reason and science.  They can be perfectly fine people in many ways but it would be interesting to find one that could defend their position.  I do not know the people the Pope plans on meeting but there is nothing wrong with such a meeting.  If as Fr. Martin says there are many paths to God, this may be one of them.
Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
"What was laughing and camaraderie a few minutes before turned into a serious of insults from an atheist when one of the dinner guests innocently said he held beliefs that was contrary to the atheist belief system."

This is far from unique with dealing with some atheists.  Try having a similar conversation with a fundamentalist Christian of any stripe.  Try having one with a Highly Orthodox Holy Roman Catholic of the One True and Only Church Established by Christ.  **

Rigidity is rigidity and, when challenged, resorts to vitriol (on a good day) and other forms of verbal and physical violence on others.

** and, no, I don't believe that for one moment!
7 years 9 months ago
For those who are interested.  Sam Harris is debating William Lane Craig tonight, Thursday April 7th 7-9PM Easern time.  It will be carried on

www.ndtv.net which is Notre Dame Television.

Topic: Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?

Craig recently debated atheist physicist, Lawrence Krauss, on ''Is There Evidence for God'' on March 30th at North Carolina State.

Craig is considered an extremely formidable debater who Richard Dawkins refuses to face alone.
David Nickol
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove,

Thanks for the information on the Harris-Craig debate at Notre Dame last night. I was able to catch most of it. I don't know whether it is true that Dawkins refuses to face Craig alone, but Harris did not seem to be at all intimidated. I am sure those who agreed with Craig to begin with were not swayed by Harris, but I though Harris did extremely well by appealing to the heart and to common sense while Craig relied more on technical philosophical arguments.  
7 years 9 months ago
''Thanks for the information on the Harris-Craig debate at Notre Dame last night''

I didn't watch it.  I downloaded the mp3 file this morning and will listen to it on my Ipod.  For those who want to get the mp3 file, they can go here


There are already complete youtube segments up.  Go here for the first one and the others will be available at the same link.


Harris claims to be a scientist and a seeker of truth but is a prime example of the dishonest atheist.  Science overwhelming favors a massive intelligence some time in the past as the origin of the complexity and precision we observe but he will not acknowledge that conclusion is even reasonable let alone very likely.  Yes, that is the essence of the atheist's dishonesty.  No only do they cook the books in their favor but deny even an inch that the opposite conclusion has some merit.  I have never met one that doesn't do it to some extent and people like Harris go all in.  And they get defended for doing it.  Interesting.
David Nickol
7 years 9 months ago
JR Cosgrove:

I gather for you the only honest atheist would be one who admits he or she actually believes in God!  

You say: ''Science overwhelming favors a massive intelligence some time in the past as the origin of the complexity and precision we observe . . . .''

You may feel that science does, but in general, scientists don't. 
7 years 9 months ago

''I gather for you the only honest atheist would be one who admits he or she actually believes in God! ''
I already said that an atheist cannot be honest on the position whether a creator is likely.  That does not mean they cannot be honest on a lot of other things.  If a person is honest about the topic, they will say they do not know much about it, and if they do know something about it, then the minimal position is acceptance of some form of deism.  So beliefs about the origin of the universe and subsequent events that is well informed requires at a minimum that position.  Oh, one could still say they are an atheist but they must admit the evidence indicating a creator is strong.  But then their declaration as an atheist is peculiar and one based solely on faith and not one based on science.  That is why someone like Harris is so ludicrous.  He espouses science yet science undermines everything he believes in.  But he will deny it.  People often mistake affable and pleasant with one who is also logical and there is no relationship.
''You may feel that science does, but in general, scientists don't. ''
I am well aware what most scientiest say on this topic.  The science definitely points to a creator whether scientist say they believe in it or not.  I am not particularly enamored with scientists or believe they have any special integrity or worth.  I debated some in the past and have seen how others present information and found them just as dishonest as any when discussing findings in science.  Certainly not all. You can judge someone real quick on how they react to disconfirming information about their scientific beliefs.  If they are willing to discuss the pros and cons on a reasonable basis and they see the implications of what they might not have known, then you probably have an honest one.  But if they immediately brush aside the information or attack the person or the source of the data then essentially you have a dishonest one.  Most fit the latter pattern.  It is always fascinating to see how they phrase their points of view on certain subjects which are controversial and belief in God is one of them. 

Let me give you an example.  I once pushed a defender of Darwinian evolution who had a degree in evolutionary biology to provide any evidence that would show that this theory is true.  His response more than once was that the evidence was so overwhelming that he could not present it all.  I said to present even small confirming evidence.  He would always refuse saying that this wasn't the proper place to do it or he didn't have time.  Then one time he presented something about fruit flies in Hawaii and how new speices arose.  I pointed out that this was normal micro evolution and no one questioned it but that the debate was over macro evolution and how complex capabilities arose and that even the young earth creationists would agree with his fruit fly example.  He then reverted back to the fact that everyone believes it is true as the basis for why it should be believed.  But this man is not the only man who couldn't answer the question and deflected in some fashion as many biologists also did the same.  Even Richard Dawkins evades the question and when a biologist said that was stupid, I asked where in his latest book (Evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth) he answered the question.  I never heard back from the person.  So I have no special admiration for scientists. 


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