Cardinal Martini of Milan was really the one who got the ball rolling. Calling the project a ‘chair for non-believers,’ he created a wildly popular Italian academic forum for atheists in Italy to offer their criticisms of Roman Catholic teaching in the context of a serious intellectual exchange. Pope Benedict recently expanded the idea by calling it ‘the Courtyard of the Gentiles’—and the new venture had its first formal meeting at the Sorbonne in Paris just last month. It isn’t going to stop there:
After the debut in Paris, the public exchange already has more appointments scheduled in various places of the world: in Tirana, in Stockholm, in the United States, in Canada, and also in Asia, where Western-style atheism is less present but various forms of religiosity no less far from the Christian God are widespread.
Appropriating the insights and questions of those who do not share our Catholic faith has played an important role in the church becoming what it is today. Perhaps the greatest Christian intellectual of them all, Thomas Aquinas, basically borrowed his philosophical framework from the pagan philosopher Aristotle, for instance.
In some ways, the modern church is simply continuing this tradition of engaging the broader culture at large (I’m a part of a new venture of Roman Catholic academics doing similar exhanges at catholicmoraltheology.com)—and even the very best thinkers who do not share their faith. The intellectuals recently engaged in Paris, for instance, included impressive people including “top-tier secular French thinkers such as Julia Kristeva, a feminist psychoanalyst and expert in semiotics; scientist and geneticist Axel Kahn; and philosopher Bernard Bourgeois.”
But what of important thinkers who not only do not share the Christian faith, but who think that it is a terrible mistake? Such a one is a man generally agreed to be the most influential living philosopher: Princeton’s Peter Singer. He describes a Christian sanctity of life ethic as “paradoxical, incoherent and dependent on pretense” and argues that we need another “Copernican revolution” to wipe out the nefarious influence that Christianity has had on the Western world. Indeed, while the Church is arguing that human embryos should be treated as persons, Singer is arguing that, because newly born human infants are not yet more rational or self-aware than is a chicken, we should be pro-choice for infanticide.
But a Christian commitment to intellectual engagement with non-believers means engaging even with people like Singer. And next month at the University of Oxford the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life will be host an important conference called ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer’ in which Singer himself, along with several other important utilitarians like Julian Savulescu and Tody Ord, will exchange with influential Christian ethicists like John Hare and Eric Gregory.
It is my view that when we move away from isolating polarization and intellectual laziness, and instead engage with intellectual curiosity and solidarity, we will find that Christians and non-believers have much more in common that either ‘side’ currently supposes. Indeed, what I found during my research for my current book on Singer startled me.
Despite having radically different ultimate conclusions about embryos and fetuses, for instance, I found that the entire disagreement between the two about the wildly complex and multifaceted issue of abortion came down to a very narrow philosophical argument related to the moral value of potential in the human organism. I also found much explicit agreement about everything from the value of non-human animals, to the role of happiness in the moral life, to—perhaps especially—our duties to the vulnerable global poor. Singer famously argues that failing to aid those poor who will die without our help is something close to “the moral equivalent of murder,” while the Catechism of the Catholic Church also claims that if our greed leads to the death of the poor then we are guilty of “indirect homicide.”
And given these high stakes it becomes imperative that we work together to attack the complicated problems which keep millions and millions impoverished. This means working even with those with whom we disagree about other fundamental questions and issues. As Pope Benedict recently said in Caritas in Veritate:
Fruitful dialogue between faith and reason cannot but render the work of charity more effective within society, and it constitutes the most appropriate framework for promoting fraternal collaboration between believers and non-believers in their shared commitment to working for justice and the peace of the human family.
Charles C. Camosy is assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City. His current book project, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His first book, Too Expensive to Treat?, was published this past December.