Monday, May 31, 2010

Where has all the vitriol gone?

The Vatican is planning to open a "Court of the Gentiles" ministry to reach out to atheists -- but not, apparently, to atheists of the Dawkins/Hitchins stripe. (See article here)
The question that this raises, why are polemical atheists being excluded from the dialogue?
On the one hand, this makes a great deal of sense: there is the caution against casting your pearls before swine to consider, and Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has good reasons for refusing to give a platform to atheists who don't argue so much as sling abuse. (See the Intelligence Squared debate for an example of what happens when you put a polite, mild-mannered Churchman of good will up against Hitchins...we're talking a pretty literal "lambs to the slaughter" type scenario.) Basically what happens is that the nice Archbishop, or Monsignor, or other Vatican representative gets up and makes a pleasant speech in civilized Vaticanese, and Hitchins steps on their face. So far as the "Court of the Gentiles" idea goes, I assume that the Vatican is excluding the polemicists in order that their dialogue will remain a dialogue, and not turn into a three-ring mud-slinging tournament.
Yet there is undoubtedly a need for men like Dawkins and Hitchins to be addressed -- and to be addressed in terms that are appropriate to the way that they debate. The Vatican can't do it, because the Vatican must always be civil and rational in her discourse. The Church, however, has not generally lacked polemicists of its own. From St. Jerome roaring at Helvidius, to G. K. Chesterton's finely tuned lambasting of George Bernard Shaw, we have a strong record of high-class vitriol. And it is certainly high-class vitriol that is needed against the polemical atheists. The problem is that, for some reason, our apologists argue either with kid-gloves or with protractors. Straight, boring, rational apologetics are worse than useless against buck-shot polemics and false analogies. The logician will always lose against the rhetorician -- not because his arguments are worse, but because they take too long to deliver, and they are relatively dry and uninteresting.

1 comment:

  1. Good timing for such an article, as I think Patrick Madrid has offered just this kind of challenge with his recent release of 'The Godless Delusion'. Haven't read it yet, but apparently it's making quite the headlines with the Dawkins crowd. ;)


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