Dialogue with Atheists

The Vatican is starting a series of dialogues with secularism and atheism. The goal is not apologetic or to refute skeptic rather to place the concerns of faith, revelation, and tradition into secular discourse. This grows out of the dialogue between Cardinal Ratzinger and social theorist Jurgen Habermas which enriched both sides. Habermas formulated his theories of post-secularization and Cardinal Ratzinger learned how to write for a secular social science audience.

Let’s imagine a Orthodox Jewish equivalent. Let’s say their would be a dialogue of Orthodoxy with secular thought at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Berkeley. Who would represent Orthodoxy if Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was not available? (And Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is not of debating age.) What would be the topic? Could any of this be possible? Who would debate non-Jewish scholars like Habermas or Sen? I think we would be sunk.
Would this dialogue be different than with another faith? Would both sides make theological compromises?
What would Orthodoxy have to gain in dignity? in honor? in credibility?

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A new Vatican initiative to promote dialogue between believers and atheists debuted with a two-day event on Thursday and Friday (March 24-25) in Paris.

“Religion, Light and Common Reason” was the theme of seminars sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture at various locations in the French capital, including Paris-Sorbonne University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“The church does not see itself as an island cut off from the world … Dialogue is thus a question of principle for her,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the French newspaper La Croix. “We are aware that the great challenge is not atheism but indifference, which is much more dangerous.”

The events were scheduled to conclude with a party for youth in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Friday evening (March 25), featuring an appearance via video by Pope Benedict XVI, followed by prayer and meditation inside the cathedral.

The initiative, called “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” takes its name from a section of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem accessible to non-Jews, which Benedict has used as a metaphor for dialogue between Catholics and non-believers.

12 responses to “Dialogue with Atheists

  1. Rav Glickman at YU would be a good candidate.

  2. R. Shalom Carmy and Dr. David Berger come to mind since they both already have a history of doing scholarly dialogue with Christians.

  3. RAL cannot debate but Mori veRabi Dick Bernstein can?

  4. I think we tried this once already. Shmuley Boteach debated Christopher Hitchens at the 92nd St. Y and had his head handed to him on a platter. If we had to do it again, I’d nominate Rabbi David Rosen.

  5. It would be really funny to watch Shalom Carmy quote police philosopher and stories about baseball in the 1950s as a response in this debate.

  6. You sliently jump from dialigue to debate, but they are not identical. Dialogue is not confrontational, or need not be, and is not about winning hearts away from the opponent’s team; it’s about finding common ground to act together, and about making each other aware of what irks them about the other, so that tensions can be reduced.

    The Vatican seems to enter a dialogue, not a debate. If that’s correct, I think we should follow their lead to distinguish between the two.

  7. A Catholic cardinal has a lot more leeway in what he is allowed to espouse than an American orthodox rabbi or academic today. The MO intellectual has to operate under the pretense that any theological position emerges organically from tradition – whether Biblical, Talmudic, or a clever hasidic story (Lord Sacks gets a lot of mileage from the latter.) I am much more interested in a dialogue with a representative who thinks that dialogue itself can result in a constructive theology.

  8. In Judaism some theists aren’t exactly theists as we learn from your next post, and some atheists be they Zionists or Jewish nationalists are closer to Jewish ideals than many a pro forma theist. In my opinion, theist -atheist debates whether of the philosophical theology or or the Hitchens-Dennet-Dawkins variety are not central to the core divide in Jewish life. Nor am I convinced that placing ” the concerns of faith, revelation, and tradition into secular discourse” is the best way to formulate the issue. Since being a Jew has more than one aspect, most everyone has learnt how to feel comfortable using only a secular language in many contexts and conversely in adapting religious traditions and language within a not-particularly religious way of life. The core divide in Jewish life seems to me to be over the issue of modernity understood as autonomy and self determination. Do each of us have the freedom, the right to live the life we choose to live, constrained only by moral and legal considerations, or must we also limit our freedom by the constraints imposed by torah and mitzvots, however understood? And since we all know or should know there are no knockdown, bang-bang-your-dead arguments for either side of this issue, the discussion turns on weighing a variety of considerations, some emotional, some practical with the result that different people can in all good conscience arrive at very different conclusions. How to create some unity in such a world becomes a problem for most every Jew.

  9. Starting with a broad definition of Orthodoxy, some people who can enter participate would be:

    Suzanne Stone (Human rights and Law)
    Moshe Halbertal (numerous topics including just war & ineffability of God)
    Richard Cohen (Phen. of religion/ethics)
    R. Marc-Alain Ouakin (Religion/post-modernity)
    Rav Cherlow
    R. Benny Lau (social critique)
    Yehudah Mirsky

    If I thought about a bit more, I’m sure 10 more names would come to mind –

    • AD-
      i think that you are mixing two categories. The thinker who is of a faith and a thinker who represents a faith. Charles Taylor and Alister MacIntyre are Catholic but do not represent the Church. Your list starts with academics who fit in the Taylor category and ends with those in the clerical category.

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