Why does Pope Francis reach out to atheists? If every conversation is a two-way street, then you’d think this is one dialogue that would go nowhere fast. On paper or in person, “faith-talk” + atheism doesn’t seem very fruitful. Why is it that we find evangelizing atheists so difficult and awkward?
The easy answer is that atheists have heard the Gospel and rejected it. But I don’t think that’s true. I think a deeper answer is found in how we approach dialogue with atheists.
There are two mistakes we often make when speaking to non-believers.
We often assume we have nothing to offer atheists. It’s not that we have nothing to say, but we don’t think there’s a way for it to be heard. Anybody who’s tried to share the faith with an agnostic coworker or family member has probably felt this way. Hearing “I don’t believe” or “I’m not religious” shrivels the spirit of the most evangelical among us. That non-believing “no” tempts us not just to end the conversation, but to conclude in pearls-before-swine fashion that the conversation was never possible. Why waste our time talking artificially and awkwardly about the truth when it will only be rejected?
But we may also think we have everything to offer atheists. The revelation we have from Christ gives us everything we need to be saved, and the Church really does possess the fullness of truth. But because we possess truth’s fullness there’s the temptation to get smug about evangelizing. Our having everything can make us think others have nothing, and this attitude alters how we converse with atheists about the faith.
It’s easier to have one of these mindsets than we’d like to admit. In an instant we move from talking about the faith to arguing over it. Even worse, we use a potentially evangelical moment not to clarify the faith, but to prove ourselves right. You make your case, quote some texts, list your sources, and leave the debate just as convinced as you were before, and the non-believer just as non-believing as he was before.
Why do we so often approach conversations with non-believers this way?
I think it’s because we begin with what divides us and not with what we share in common. If a dialogue is meant to draw two parties toward the same reality, then fruitful dialogue means finding shared ground. So what ground do we share with atheists?
We’re human. And this means at least two things.
We want the truth. All men seek the truth and desire to know, even if they’re coming from two separate worlds. Think of how Pilate met Christ. These men were far apart, yet the question of kingship brought them into dialogue (Jn 18:33-39). When Christ laid claim to a kingdom not of this world and said his birth brought him to bear witness to Truth itself, Pilate had the simplest question for him: What is truth?
I don’t think you could ask for a more honest conversation. Pilate may not have been in the religious circles of the scribes and Pharisees, but at least he had the honesty to speak to Jesus in a way those other groups never did. Pilate’s question reveals where he was. He’s not seeking an answer to a particular religious question – he didn’t even know how to begin asking that question. But this didn’t mean dialogue was impossible. Having a truthful dialogue with non-believers does not mean you have to get very far into faith right away either.
We also want to love. Everybody wants to love, and our desire to love at times brings us near unfamiliar faces. Think of the Good Samaritan. Here is a man on the periphery of Palestinian society, who finds himself with little incentive to act towards his neighbor. Yet charity is what drives him to act. Love allows him to see everyone as his neighbor, even if it’s easier to count the differences than to notice what’s in common. It may be easier to count the differences we have with non-believers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not called to love them.
I think we struggle to have loving conversations with atheists because we fail to have truthful ones with them. A dialogue in love presupposes a dialogue in truth, and a failure to show charity in dialogue may be rooted in our failure to speak to non-believers with any real meaning. Believers and atheists fail to have a loving dialogue because they are both too busy making up a fiction of who the other side is supposed to be. Loving someone you don’t know well is hard; loving a fiction of who they are is impossible. Real love needs something real to love.
The conversation with your coworker may have been artificial, but is your relationship with him any less so? You sincerely invited him to church or a young adult meeting or something else, but do you know how long he’s been working with you, or how long he’s been calling himself an atheist? Jumping into or forcing a faith-conversation is about as helpful as getting a fake plastic plant and expecting everyone to think it’s real.
If an atheist and a believer were honest with each other, they would see they have a common desire to love that is part of their being human. All men have a dignity and worth that we’re called to love, whether they’re inside or outside the Church. A dialogue in truth that sees this common dignity will be the fertile soil where love can grow. The Pope Francises out there who see this are the ones who have such a receptive audience, whether it’s from those with faith or those without it.
One time while I was on the streets of DC metro caroling, I saw a man listening to our singing on the sidewalk. He asked me why we were all out on a Saturday night singing together, and I told him we were Catholic brothers looking to talk or pray with those who wanted either prayers or conversation. When I tried to hand him a prayer card he looked at me strangely and said “I’m an atheist.” So I looked at him and said “And I’m a human being, so how about we start there?”