The mere presence of atheists at this gathering is reflective of Courtyard of the Gentiles, an ongoing series of dialogues between believers and nonbelievers sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture.
If the Vatican can be that cutting edge in terms of engagement with atheists, this blog can be too.
Last Tuesday, the Washington Post's On Faith blog featured a piece by the head of an atheist organization that, according to its website, seeks to create a "secular society based on science, reason," etc. While I naturally took issue with the author's anti-religious sentiments, I found myself nodding along to a couple of his points, specifically:
1. Presidential candidates should not be forced to field questions about their religion.
2. The nonreligious should not be considered un-American.
3. Our policy discussions should be framed in secular terms (as opposed to theological ones).
As an American, I value concepts like religious freedom and the notion of our government not sponsoring any particular religion. As a Catholic, my thoughts immediately go to examples like John F. Kennedy's 1960 bid for the White House and the broader experience of discrimination faced by Catholics over the years.
But on the third point, the author got a little more elaborate about what he meant, stating:
Moreover, our policy discussions should be framed in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based on secular considerations. Whether it’s abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, or stem cell research, we should keep matters of faith out of the discussion.
The biggest problem with this assertion is that it presumes that people of faith are only capable of expressing positions on issues of public concern that are explicitly grounded in their religion. i.e. "I believe [insert issue position here] because the Bible says so..." or "...the pope says so..." or "...it's God's will."
And that simply isn't the case. The Catholic Church in particular believes that faith and reason are highly compatible and that someone imbued with the values of his or her faith is perfectly capable of making arguments -- privately and publicly -- based on reason, or secular terms.
A great example is the recent statement by the U.S. bishops on physician-assisted suicide, "To Live Each Day With Dignity." While this document includes a smattering of quotes from Church teaching to spell out its underlying values, the actual arguments it makes are firmly rooted in the practical realities of the issue: Legalized physician-assisted suicide creates the expectation that some lives are less valued and should be ended; countries who've legalized the practice have had thousands of people killed against their will; the practice creates an erosion in quality of end-of-life care because assisted suicide ultimately becomes the most cost-efficient option.
There is nothing to distinguish these arguments as religious. They reflect a certain perspective, one informed by a certain set of values, but they could easily come from the mouth of a secular humanist or a member of any faith.
If people of faith are capable of making arguments grounded in reason, one would hope that we continue to have a place at the table in public debate and participation in public life. For the Catholic Church, this became less of a certainty with the recent action by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to mandate coverage of contraceptives in all private health plans and then failed to provide an adequate exemption for religious employers. Similarly, HHS recently moved to disqualify USCCB'S Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) from a contract to help victims of human trafficking, likely because MRS does not refer clients for contraceptives, abortions and sterilizations. These and other alarming developments have prompted the U.S. bishops to make religious liberty the focus of a new ad hoc committee, in part to give a greater voice to the long-standing, widely-held, reasoned arguments for robust protection of religious liberty in law.
It's one thing to say that the language and arguments in our public discourse shouldn't be explicitly religious. It's another thing to say that people whose values are informed by their faith have no role in that discourse. That would echo the concerns put forward by the author of the On Faith piece, that anyone, because of belief or unbelief, be regarded as less than fully American.