What can atheists and Catholics learn from each other?

What can atheists and Catholics learn from each other? February 23, 2016

A Catholic church hosting an event about what Catholics can learn from atheists?! When I heard Dr. Sam Rocha was leading such a series I was very curious to hear his perspective on religion. Below I share my enlightening interview with Sam who is a professor at The University of British Columbia and pastoral philosopher at St. Mark’s College. Sam also has a new book out as well as new music! Check out more of Sam’s work at www.samrocha.com 


Sam Rocha
Dr. Sam Rocha


In your interview with the Vancouver Courier, you state how dialog between atheists and theists can be productive as there is so much we can learn from each other. Can you provide an example of what atheists can learn from theists and vice versa?


Let me start from my own position, as a Roman Catholic. I personally have learned loads from atheists and agnostics, mainly from philosophers, but also from dear friends. There is no way, in my view, to be a serious philosopher without reading and learning from the critiques of theism and religion of modern philosophy and the pre/non-Christian ideas of the ancients. There is no way be a curious and open person and not befriend those who might disagree with you and find conversation with those one does not share a way of life. In the Catholic Church there are many atheists and agnostics, and other non-Catholics, who our faith tradition has learned a great deal from, most recently the famous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche who is quoted sympathetically by pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Catholics have contributed to the natural sciences (the discoverer of the big bang theory was Msgr. George Lemaître, a priest and scientist) but we also learn from the major discoveries made by many atheistic scientists all the same. For instance, the Vatican celebrated the 150 anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species with a conference. So in this respect I have no quarrel with the biological work of Richard Dawkins.

Now, for atheists and agnostics, it may sound presumptuous to say that they have much to learn from Catholicism writ large, but surely there is something to learn from individuals who happen or happened to be Catholic, but maybe not. If the sense is that atheists have nothing to learn from theists, then, at the very least an atheist might learn about what sorts of different theists there are and to what extent they believe different things. In other words, an atheist might at the very least learn from their opponents a deeper sense of just how much they actually disagree.

Certainly, I hope, the history of ideas cannot so easily distill the religious ideas from the secular ones, especially since both religion and secularism have evolved a great deal over time. At the very least it seems worth noting that, so long as we do not live in a vacuum, ideas and sources of wisdom and insight will always come in a mixed and often difficult bag. Anything less than that strikes me as being inauthentic of our shared human condition, atheist, agnostic, and theist alike.


I definitely agree that we can learn so much by talking to those with whom we disagree. The people on the “other side” will be quick to point out any flaws in our reasoning, while those who agree with us may be overly charitable and ignore such flaws. I definitely see atheists make some really bad arguments against theism (i.e. religious people are stupid, religion is a mental illness). Such arguments can go unchallenged if they make such remarks in an echo-chamber. I imagine it would be the same for theists (i.e. atheists have no morals, atheism is just a phase and atheists are mad at God).  So talking to those on the other side would provide checks against flawed arguments and biases.

I think interfaith dialog can be greatly facilitated when we can find some issues we all support. Personally, I find it much easier to get along with theists who are also progressive on social issues. Catholicism (and other religions) definitely complicates this with their positions on abortion, homosexuality, and other issues. It is especially complicated when religious people try to impose their beliefs onto others and I think that is one of the main complaints atheists have about religion today.

How can we resolve this problem? It seems like it will difficult for theists and atheists to get along when certain believers try to justify their bigotry by saying “God told me so.”


I’m not so sure this isn’t already happening to some extent. There are quite a few atheists who don’t have the slightest issue exploring religious and even theological questions and themes, who’s writings I find insightful. Slavoj Zizek and Camille Paglia are among the most provocative, but also Simon Critchley and many other. My main source of inspiration was William James, a 19th and 20th century psychologist and philosopher. He was not a believer in anything (he famously said “Damn the absolute!”) but his seminal Varieties of Religious Experience launched the sociology of religion.

One might say that this is all just academic, but so is science at some level. Ideas shape culture, from science to the arts and humanities. And much of this happens regardless of issues. To me, an early step in shaping meaningful dialogue between atheists, agnostics, and theists would be to talk about ideas more than issues. After all, in many cases an “issue” is too anemic a position to really understand without the ideas behind it. For instance, I am not myself a political anarchist, but I do find the ideas behind anarchism interesting and even useful for checking my own political biases and shaping what I think.

The sorts of facile arguments you mention would, for me, not even qualify as arguments. To those insults I would be more inclined to ask, “Why do you think that? When did you decide that it was the case?” I most cases my only question is, “Why are you so angry?” These are more therapeutic and psychoanalytic than anything else and I’m not sure this is the sort of conversation we should have.

For instance, yesterday I heard a lecture that proposed that religion was guided by faith and secularism was guided by reason. I objected to this for a variety of reasons (pun intended), which boiled down to the fact that we had different understandings of the term ‘reason.’ In many cases my sense is that some disagreements may not even be meaningful ones — but we can’t know that until we talk about it.


It seems like you are an advocate of the Socratic method (or dare I say a skeptical method) when dealing with such kinds of arguments. I have also found the same strategy to be effective for breaking down people’s poor reasoning. However, this cannot work when people do not even want to have that conversation or deflect every “why” question with circular arguments.

Do you have any advice on how to engage those (theists or atheists) who constantly use circular reasoning? For example, if someone replies to a “why” question with “because my priest/God/Richard Dawkins told me so” is there any way to get them to think about their position more deeply?


I would say my approach is a bit different than Socratic Method in one respect: I want to know why someone might use circular reasoning out of a sense of hyper-defensiveness or fear. People are not stupid. Often circular arguments can just be pointed out, but if they repeat themselves then my sense is that we need to understand what is motivating that. It may be because someone simply doesn’t really know why they think what they think and that, to me, is a major problem. Rehearsing ideas in defense of this or that position that are not fully understood leads to bad thinking and, as a result, bad arguments. A good argument need not end in victory or defeat, it might end in more thought.

I think atheism today has embraced a sort of counter-apologetics approach that many religions have used for a long time. I am not sure what the point of this approach is beyond scoring gotchas. For me, a true conviction cannot come from a winning argument, humans are not so shallow as to have there sense of identity and worldview changed by a mere argument. I sense many atheists have an almost therapeutic relationship to their atheism and surely many religious people have the same sort of attachment. Otherwise, why would people get so angry? The anger, to me, signals that there is much more than the surface of a good or bad argument, there is probably an experience or a story that goes much deeper. And that is what I am much more interested in: sharing our stories.


Yes, I agree that too many atheists want to score “gotcha” points with theists instead of really getting at the complexity of the issues raised. You are totally right that a few zingers isn’t going to have much of an impact on changing someone’s worldview. In fact, there is a good amount of social psychological research precisely talking about the “worldview backfire effect” where people will double down and ignore conflicting information when it threatens their identity and how they see themselves.  We are all trying to grapple with reality and that requires nuanced conversations and trying to really understand where the other person is coming from.

Can you share an example of how a story changed someone’s perspective on religion?


Sure. Here is one that happened to me. I was at a conference as a young masters student in my early 20s and I met an older Hindu women who had worked at Mother Theresa’s school. At the time I was very interested in world religions and dissatisfied with my own Catholicism. I listened to her criticisms of Mother Theresa’s order, which she gave carefully but with a conviction I understood as reliable. I then asked her about Hinduism and she caught my imagination to the point at which I, sheepishly, asked her, “How does one become a Hindu?” She smiled and replied, “What is your faith heritage?” I said, “Catholic.” She told me, calmly, “Sam if you want to become a Hindu then be a better Catholic.” I was floored, she subtly broke down my colonial sense of “conversion.”

I fear that too many atheists and theists see an argument as an idol that ought to lead to a conversion of this sort. Yet when I read stories of real conversions to or from religion, they are usually not grounded in formal arguments. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre, in his intellectual autobiography, The Words, describes his loss of faith in the most beautiful and human way, built on the quiet hypocrisy of his grandparents. That is another story. Yet another story that has changed many people’s perceptions of religion is the Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. James was an agnostic, but a fierce defender of religious experience and I think his sociological approach here works well too and remains in print today for that reason.


haha that is a cool story! And it highlights the issues with reducing something as complicated as religion to a bunch of logical arguments. I would also say that listening to people’s stories about religion humanizes the person as well. Instead of a Christian, they are Sam. Instead of an atheist, they are Matthew.

Personally, I never try to “deconvert” anyone, but I do try to break down stereotypes people may have about atheists. I think when people see atheists as everyday people they lose a lot of the misconceptions they may have. The same happens with many other social groups as well. Is this also a goal of yours with your work? If you get a bunch of atheists and theists in a room together, what would you like to see happen with their interactions? What are some goals we should strive for when talking to someone of a different faith?


Losing misconceptions is a goal or a hoped-for outcome, but the main thing for me is to recognize a common set of interests surrounding what we might call our shared “the human condition.” Interests in life and death, beauty and art, wit and ideas, dignity and respect for life and love, and more. Interests in each other and our stories. The seminar I gave did have theists and atheists together, although it strongly favored theists. But I work in the secular Academy that is often composed in the opposite direction. So for me, there is nothing forced about saying that atheists or agnostics or theists are regular folks.

It is my view that the sort of apologetics we both seem to reject is at least partly to blame for this assumption that difference creates aliens. When I speak to someone of a different faith or nonfaith is almost too late to begin understanding my process since I am not always 100% sure of my own personal faith. Conversion, for Catholics, is not something that happens all at once. It is a slow, life-long process that often happens in reverse. Sometimes people lose their way to holiness. Other times it’s different. But my point is that when I meet someone who has a different worldview than I do, I can often relate to it since my own worldview isn’t hermetically sealed away. I am not at all sure that this idea that everyone has a tidy understanding of what they think and who they are in relation to large ideas and deep questions is true in any way.

Christians who profess a tight and guarded certainty betray their own tradition, they betray the fact that Christ spoke to many people outside of his worldview, they betray the fact that Christianity is a worldly, gentile tradition, composed of at least Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. In a similar way, I wish more atheists writing online would have a sense of their own shared heritage. I adore the post-Darwinian atheists and agnostics of the late 18th and early 19th century: Nietzsche, Russell, Einstein, and many others. Surely many of today’s more scientifically-minded forms of atheism are a part of that tradition, but it doesn’t always show in they way the write or think. My point here is just to say that I don’t carry almost any expectations when I meet anyone because I am not in a position myself to have a clear-cut or prepared agenda or message. My only assumption in most cases is that we are persons, with shared and equal dignity.


Well said, Sam! If only we could all embrace our shared human condition, I think the world would be a much friendlier place. I think it also requires a certain amount of humility in accepting that we don’t know all the answers and are all just trying our best to grapple with reality. Some people (both atheists and theists) seem to be better at embracing uncertainty and conflicting viewpoints than others. Constantly reminding ourselves that it’s okay to be wrong may alleviate a great deal of conflict.

Thank you for doing this interview with me!

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