On September 21, 2013 an event was held at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Hamilton entitled “Christianity and Secularism: A Conversation for the Year of Faith among Christians, Atheists, Non-Believers and Free Thinkers in the Diocese of Hamilton.” It was organized by the Communio Circle of the Diocese of Hamilton and was based upon the format of the Courtyard of the Gentiles held in Paris, France in 2011. Students from MACSA (McMaster Catholic Students Association) voluteered to help run the event. It began with a discussion among a group of panellists on the topic of Christianity and Secularism in Nicholas Mancini Centre, after which all in attendance were invited to visit the Cathedral Church to look around, pray, and meditate while our Diocesan choir provides music for believers and non-believers as they explored the sacred space together. When the event was held at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a choir came from Taize. We had Canadian composer/musician Peter-Anthony Togni play the organ and accompany the choir. An informal social gathering with light refreshments in the Cathedral Auditorium was held concurrent with visiting the sacred space. The idea was to provide an opportunity for believers and non-believers to engage one another through discussion, art and conversation over lunch. However, when the discussion was opened up to the audience, it became apparent that there weren’t as many non-believers present as we had hoped. Thankfully, one of the non-believers who attended later posted a comment at our blog.
In response to his suggestion that atheists be involved in planning another event, representatives from Communio and the Hamilton Atheists meet several times, including attending one of the Hamilton Atheists meetups. Out of our discussions we agreed that the next event should not be a showdown “God debate” but rather a conversation among friends based upon questions provided to each organization prior to the event.
I’m pleased to report that this approach to dialogue is very much in line with the example Pope Francis has set in his own discussions with non-Catholics, including his friendship with Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who published an interview in the Italian magazine that he founded. In the preface of a book containing transcripts of his conversations with a Jewish rabbi, Pope Francis wrote: “Dialogue is born from respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth.” (On Heaven and Earth, p. XIV)
In his recent exhortation, Pope Francis wrote: “As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation. A special place of encounter is offered by new Areopagi such as the Court of the Gentiles, where believers and non-believers are able to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence. This too is a path to peace in our troubled world.” (The Joy of the Gospel, 257.)
On February 7, 2014, Fr. Philip Cleevely, C.O. (Catholic priest and philosophy professor) and Justin Trottier (Centre for Inquiry Canada) argued the question, “Is There a God?” at a sold out Isabel Bader Theatre. The debate was sponsored by the Office of Catholic Youth and the Archdiocese of Toronto (Chesterton Debate Series: Is There a God?).
Although events like this one certainly have their place, the dialogue we are proposing would be more like the event at which Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams (then Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury) discussed the “Nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin” by fielding questions presented by the moderator, agnostic philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, at the Sheldonian Theatre, University of Oxford, on February 23rd 2012.
To this end, representatives from the Communio Circle of the Diocese of Hamilton and the Hamilton Atheists met and agreed in principle to co-host a similar event at the Jean and Ross Fischer Gallery and Lounge in the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Friday, October 3rd from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. There are still some details to work out. However, the basic idea is that a moderated panel discussion will take place between two Catholics and two atheists.
The choice of venue reflects roles of the arts in the promotion of dialogue.
Prior to the event, both groups will need to generate lists of questions for each other. Here is a sample of the kinds of questions we are planning to submit from Communio:
1. Do we live in a secular or religious society?
2. How did you personally come to adopt an atheist stance?
3. Do you think there is a metaphysical reality of some kind?
Having presented this proposal at our Web site, I now invite members of Communio and the Hamilton Atheists alike to respond and offer feedback. I propose that title for promoting this event might be “Catholics and Atheists: A Conversation among Friends.” Any comments?
Rev. Mark Morley for the Communio Circle of the Diocese of Hamilton
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