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Let’s follow the example of the young American who engages atheists with courtesy and respect

On Brandon Vogt’s website the point of Catholics and secularists debating is not to win arguments, but to help each other find the Truth

By on Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Atheists gather at rally in America earlier this year (Photo: PA)

Atheists gather at rally in America earlier this year (Photo: PA)

A young American, Brandon Vogt, has recently started up a website called Strange Notions. I am drawing attention to it here because it is a very enterprising, worthwhile and courageous idea – and especially relevant in this Year of Faith. I blogged recently about a Day of Faith at St Patrick’s, Soho Square, in which the serious question discussed was “How is the Church meant to evangelise in today’s post-Christian and post-modern society?” Vogt, aged 27 and both articulate and committed to his Faith, asked himself the same question, specifically: “How do you achieve an effective dialogue with atheists?”

In a recent audio interview entitled, What Catholics should know about atheists, he described how the website came to be. He was praying and felt inspired to start an online dialogue with atheists and secularists. The title, Strange Notions, is taken from that memorable scene from the Acts of the Apostles when St Paul addresses educated pagans in the Areopagus in Athens and is met with the response, “You bring some strange notions to our ears…” Vogt hopes “to provide some clarity” about these notions.

The website is built around three things: reason, faith, dialogue. Its goal is “not to defeat anyone, embarrass them or assault their character”; it is to pursue the Truth through fruitful discussion. Unlike the many combative posts between Catholics and atheists that we see on the Herald website, the goal is not to win arguments but to help each other find the Truth. In case an atheist reading this thinks it’s just another wily strategy to convert them, Vogt is firm that even though he and his web team are not neutral about their beliefs, the arguments that crop up are meant to be reasonable, impartial and unbiased. With admirable idealism, he believes it’s possible to discuss faith and reason “with charity” on both sides. No comments are deleted merely because they disagree with the website moderators.

In the interview referred to above, Vogt points out that “the Church exists to evangelise”. He hopes the site will remove some barriers to Faith – often emotional ones connected with unhappy past experiences of Catholics. In the two years spent building the site, he has enlisted a group of scientists, artists, philosophers, theologians and other writers to create a rich reservoir of Catholic teaching in different disciplines. One of these articles, by theologian and academic, Peter Kreeft, entitled Twenty Arguments for God’s Existence, has attracted much interest from atheists. Indeed, Vogt says, 80% of the posts received by the site are from atheists rather than from Catholics.

He thinks this is because Catholics often take their Faith seriously but also for granted; they don’t question it. Atheists, on the other hand, are interested – even aggressively so – in logical and philosophical arguments about God and against him. He cites the T-shirt slogan: “I’m an atheist: debate me!” He would also like his website to reach out to the huge number of young, lapsed Catholics – “a sign of catechetical failure” – and help them to rediscover their Faith. Those who lapse have often “never been evangelised”, he comments.

Vogt speaks soberly of “a tsunami of secularism” facing people of faith today. He invites them to read the articles on his site so that they are informed about the questions debated; to share the articles with friends, especially agnostic and atheist ones; and to promote the website in the social media.

As I said, it is a very worthwhile enterprise – not least to get Catholics and atheists listening to each other courteously and responding in the same way.

  • Acleron

    There have been thousands of gods invented by humanity, your amalgam of gods is just one, or is it three, of them. Even your own bible states other gods are mentioned by your god.

  • Acleron

    It is not reasonable to believe fantastic things without evidence. All you have is a belief.

  • Acleron

    Again it is the meaning ascribed by most believers regardless of any religious teaching. They do believe their prayers are being observed. I used mere to distinguish between the known changes that take place in for example a photon interacting with moving body or even being received by a photoreceptor and the interpretation of quantum theory that observation destroys coherence of the superstate. The latter can be interpreted in different ways so we don’t know what is really happening.

    I was referring to any act of prayer, public or private, I am not aware of a distinction but willing to be educated if I’m wrong.

    But the discussion over interventionist vs non-interventionist is moot. The Catholic god is definitely interventionist by the acceptance of miracles

  • Acleron

    Point of order. The universe would expand without dark energy. Dark energy is accelerating the expansion and neatly brings the housekeeping of energy to zero. The effect of the acceleration will be the total destruction of all baryonic matter. My story seems even more plausible than yours.

  • Peter

    Ah yes, the old “trillions of years in the future” chestnut, elaborated by Krauss in Ch 7 of his book, when all of the universe has receded away except for our galaxy and that too will eventually collapse into a black hole. If your story has to rely for its plausibility on predictions about events trillions years in the future, good luck with that.

    I am concerned with the present, with a universe which is visible and which is telling us that it had a beginning, a universe which is old enough to have developed intelligent life but which is not so old as to make itself unintelligible to that life. How’s that for fine-tuning?

  • Peter

    Although Design in the universe is indeed a fantastic thing, here is plenty of evidence for it. Just look at quantum uncertainty:

    According to classical physics, stars and nucleosynthesis should not exist because the inside of stars is not hot and therefore energetic enough to cause hydrogen nuclei to join together to form helium. Being positively charged protons, the hydrogen nuclei repel each other before they can come close enough to be embraced by the strong force.

    Thanks to quantum uncertainty, the proton is spread out like a wave. When two protons approach each other their waves overlap and mingle and the protons are caught up and drawn together by the strong force.

    Quantum uncertainty, therefore, is necessary for the creation of stars, for nucleosynthesis, for the creation of helium nuclei which are the building blocks of the elements for life.

    The fine tuning of the universe is simply too great for the rational mind to ignore. Only those whose heart is hardened against belief will deny the evidence and reject reason.

  • $24570317

    I’ve never before thought of God as an “observer” in this sense, but just as something which knows all of what is going on, and all of what appears to us to be going on

    “The Catholic god is definitely interventionist by the acceptance of miracles”

    Yes, don’t I just know it! …. This is a source of great self-inflicted damage on the Church. As Lawrence Krauss recently wrote: “…….when a major institution such as the Catholic Church is willing to attribute otherwise unexplained events to miracles, it strains credulity so much as to encourage skepticism about its other claims.
    ………Ultimately the acceptance of miracles — events where the laws of nature apparently break down — are one example of a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument that ultimately ends up building tensions between science and religion. If inexplicable events are used as evidence for God, what happens when later, science comes along and provides a natural explanation? When the gap goes away, where is the room left for God?”
    “Relics”, usually grisly, are another example – though often mixed-up with miracles. It once seemed supernatural that proximity to people who were ill (or dead as a result) caused illness in others, immersed in their aura or influenced by their spirit. The acceptance of this explanation led to the belief that proximity to the remains of a holy or saintly person would bring blessings.

  • Peter

    “…….when the scientific establishment is willing to declare unproven phenomena such as multiple universes, it strains credulity so much as to encourage skepticism about its other claims”

  • Acleron

    That is a straw man. Scientists will be imprecise with their language and say that the multiverse is a theory. But if asked to define it accurately it is correctly stated as an hypothesis. There is no-one who claims it is truly the correct solution to various problems. Other scientists accept it less. No hypothesis or theory of science is taken as an absolute truth, we recognised the error made by religions a long time ago and are unlikely to make the same mistake. The multiverse is a mathematically sound explanation of the fine tuning problem. Not the anthropomorphic principle but why these constants are constant and have any particular value, a much deeper problem. It doesn’t yet give us value quantities or enable experiments to test it, but if intellects of the stature of Susskind think it worthwhile to investigate, the it probably is.

  • Peter

    It appears that the acceptance of miracles is not limited to the Church.

    The fantasy physics of the scientific establishment concerning the multiverse, eternal inflation, p-brains, multiple dimensions and many worlds, are miracles in their own right insofar as they are put forward without any evidence for their existence nor any explanation of how they could exist.

    There is no evidence, for example, of a multiverse, none whatsoever, but there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is designed.

    The one remaining objection that an atheist can have is that the designer of a universe tuned to creating human life cannot exist, because he would have to be more complex than the universe he designed, and there could be no explanation for that complexity.

    However, the evidence of a designed universe is so overwhelming
    that a designer must exist. If he were complex, he could not exist, according to atheist reasoning, because there would be no explanation for his complexity. But he does exist, therefore he cannot be complex.

    The notion of a simple designer is arrived at through evidence and reason, in direct contrast to the pseudo-science of multiple universes, spacetimes, worlds and dimensions which is arrived at despite the lack of evidence and the absence of reason.

  • Acleron

    The interventionist/non-interventionist problem is a real one for all religions.

    Your explanation of the evolution of saintly powers is interesting as I’ve never considered it before. When looking at the response to the black death epidemics, it is quite apparent that people associated evil with the plague and the corpses. It is only a slight extension to see how behavioural systems such as driving out the devil developed and now you have mentioned it, that further extends to saintly powers. It demonstrates how our ignorance allows the development of theories to explain our observations. What is less easy to explain, is the refusal to change those theories in the face of conflicting evidence.

  • Peter

    As late as the early 20th century intellects like Svante Arrhenius passionately believed that the universe was eternal. Even Fred Hoyle, discoverer of carbon resonance, held onto a steady state universe.

  • Acleron

    No, I’m not talking about Krauss’ point that we are uniquely positioned in time to observe both the origin and predict the end of the universe as we know it. I’m talking about a time when the dark energy expansion of spacetime will affect and destroy visible and dark matter. All that will be left will be energy. In fact, from the moment the importance and direction of entropy was discovered, all theories have predicted changes to the universe inimical to life. It rather makes a mockery of any proposal that the universe was defined for life, we are but a transient emergent phenomena and unless we grow up to cooperate and start using the colossal energies of stars and even galaxies, a rather unimportant and insignificant phenomena at that.

    To suggest there is fine-tuning involved because we exist at the only time we exist is straight puddle theory.

  • Acleron

    So? You are describing the power of science and the reason why it is the only paradigm that has allowed us to extend our knowledge. Faced with conflicting evidence scientists will change their mind. Some more readily than others. That inertia is also useful, it means the young Turks with radical new ideas have to fully prove them before they are accepted.

  • Peter

    On the contrary, the timing of our existence is far from puddle theory.

    As space expands, its energy density remains constant while the energy density of matter declines. At the time of our existence, the energy density of empty space is roughly equal to the energy density of matter, therefore going forward into the future, the energy density of empty space will exceed that of matter.

    The evidence shows that the energy density of empty space is at a level which is anthropically selected for our existence. Were it any greater, it would have exceeded the energy density of matter far earlier than when we came on the scene, perhaps even when the first galaxies were formed.

    If that were the case, its repulsive power, being greater than the attractive power of matter, would have prevented the galaxies from forming.. There would have been no stars and no life.

    The energy density of empty space, cosmological constant, dark energy, call it what you like, is fine tuned for our existence.

  • Peter

    The evidence for M-theory, p-brains, superstrings, multiple dimensions and the holographic principle is not conflicting; it is non-existent. It all stems from a refusal to accept design in the universe. That these hypotheses are pushed as theories is a reflection of the sheer frustration of physicists who make vain attempts to run away from the realisation that the universe is designed for intelligent life.

    What is worse for them is that as scientific discovery advances – as technology gives us more effective instruments of observation and measurement – the fact that the universe is designed will become even more apparent. Of that I am certain.

    The clincher, I think, will be when we discover the process which converts the building blocks of life into life itself, the point where physics, chemistry and biology combine. This will open a whole new chapter of awareness of design in the universe.

  • Acleron

    You have a conclusion, you firmly believe the universe is designed. When you expand on the reasons for that conclusion then flaws contradicting it by logic and observation become apparent. You have never addressed those problems but just repeated your belief. To accuse scientists, genuinely trying to explore reality, of your behaviour is just projection.

  • Acleron

    So we exist at the only time when we can exist. Exactly.

    If the universe was designed for life then the designer was pretty stupid. The vast majority of the universe is totally inimical to us. Surely this designer could have chosen a different set of constants? After all, as we explore the dimensional space of all these constants we are finding points which are close to the emergent properties of this universe.

  • Peter

    That the universe is designed for life is obvious from the evidence, because even a slight variation of virtually any variable will result in no life. The onus is on you to demonstrate otherwise, with evidence of your own, that is, not with hypotheses.

    It took 3 billion years of single-celled life in the oceans before enough oxygen built up through photosynthesis to spill into the atmosphere and eventually generate an ozone layer, allowing multi-celled organisms to flourish at the surface and later on land.

    If the bulk of life’s existence on earth has been in the form of simple oceanic organisms, away from harmful ultraviolet and other cosmic rays, protected from extreme climatic and temperature changes and violent tidal movements, the mind boggles at the likelihood of such life around the universe, let alone our own solar system.

    My contention, based on the ubiquitous presence of hydrogen oxygen and carbon, is that the universe is positively teeming with such life which, where it exists, will be the foundation for the future development of intelligent life such as ourselves.

    Therefore the potential for intelligent life around the universe must be enormous, and reason tells us that a universe with the vast potential to create intelligence which can understand it, can only be designed.

    For intelligent life to understand the universe, the universe must be capable of being understood in the first place. It must be intelligible. This means that the universe must be rational, where its laws apply constantly and equally in all places at all times. It cannot be chaotic, where laws change from one moment the next or from one place to the next, because then of course it would be unintelligible.

    Why are these laws maintained at constant values and in constant operation at all times and in every place, instead of varying in their strengths and operation at different times or in different places? There is almost infinite potential for variety in these laws, yet some fundamental principle says they should be constant instead of variable, and maintains them as such.

    Why are the laws of the universe kept in constant operation at constant values, when at every moment in 13.7 billion years, and at every point within up to 4 x 10>32 cubic light years, there are and have been 10>500 possible variations of those laws?

    There can only be one answer to this amazing reality. The laws are kept constant so that the universe can evolve naturally in
    accordance with those laws, and the universe’s natural evolution is towards galactic and stellar formation, nucleosynthesis and the creation of the elements and building blocks of life. The laws are
    kept constant for the creation of life and ultimately for the creation of intelligent life.

    Intelligent life is the product of the laws of the universe being constantly maintained at constant values. It is the product of a universe rationally ordered to create it. Another word for rationally ordered is designed.

  • Peter

    On the contrary, the universe has been incredibly benign because it created the elements we are made of and what the earth and sun are made of, and maintained the conditions for billions of years under which our ancestors evolved into us. We owe the universe our existence. I don’t call that inimical, do you?

  • username999

    [This is Tim, using a different ID]

    In which “reality”? Obviously, you have NOT read any of The God Delusion, for RD does not employ “pseudo-philosophical claptrap” at all. He uses facts, and ties them together with a thing called “compelling argument“. You need to click on the word argument. Many high school graduates have difficulty with the concept, unfortunately.

    Aristotle? Plato? Would it bother you if I read modern pillars of reasoning instead? Silly question; of course it would bother you! It already bothers you.

    FYI: Aristotle is the a-hole who had the temerity to write down the wrong fact that heavier objects fall faster than light ones – without bothering to test his hypothesis first. Galileo had to do it for him 2,000 years later, and the Catholic Church… (guess where I’m going with this…!) jailed him for noticing the obvious.

    No wonder you think I should be reading Aristotle! He’s just about your speed, isn’t he?

  • Penelope

    Might I suggest that people actually take the time to check out the website before writing it off… I have visited it several times. I think it is an excellent initiative. There are some very interesting and well-informed articles – and the comments certainly lack the disrespect and stereo-typing one finds on other sites.