Brandon Vogt apparently does not sleep very much. He is an
author, blogger, and speaker, as well as an engineer, husband, and father. His
first book was titled The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online
Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet
Sunday Visitor, 2011), and included a Foreword by Cardinal Sean O'Malley and an
Afterword by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Brandon’s most recent project is the site StrangeNotions.com, which is “designed
to be the central place of dialogue online between Catholics and atheists. Its
implicit goal is to bring non-Catholics to faith--especially followers of the
so-called New Atheism. As a 'digital Areopagus', the site will include
intelligent articles, compelling video, and rich discussion through its comment
boxes.” It is, Brandon says, “the first English apostolate dedicated solely to
reaching atheists and agnostics.” He recently answered some questions put to
him by Catholic World Report.
CWR: There are countless Catholic websites, many of them
dedicated to apologetics and evangelization. What is unique about
Brandon Vogt: Well, first the
aim. Few other sites exclusively engage atheists. Most focus on Protestant
apologetics, which is certainly needed, but the issues there are quite
different than those relevant to non-believers. For example, at Strange Notions
we don't really focus on Marian dogmas, purgatory, or the liturgy. We're
concerned with more basic questions about God's existence, cosmology, morality,
miracles, science, and the reliability of the Gospels. We must solidify these
foundational issues before the second-level issues become important.
Second, the tone. We're all familiar with the typical online religious
discussion. If not, just visit any secular newspaper site and scroll down to
the comments. They're full of snark, shallowness, and slander. But Strange Notions
is not like that. We've done several things to ensure the dialogue remains
serious and charitable, and in the site's first weeks it seems to have
worked. Our tight comment policy and several moderators have kept the
discussions fair and on point.
Third, the contributors really differentiate this site from
others. I've gathered the best-of-the-best Catholic intellects to
contribute content including Dr. Peter Kreeft, Dr. Edward
Feser, Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Robert Spitzer, Dr. Benjamin
Wiker, Dr. Christopher Kaczor, Dr. Janet Smith, Dr. Kevin Vost,
Christopher West, Jimmy
Akin, Jennifer Fulwiler, Marc Barnes, Leah Libresco, Stacy Trascanos,
Mark Shea, Tim Staples, Carl Olson, and many more. Right now we have
over thirty contributors and we're continuing to add more. The hope
is that this website becomes the definitive Catholic response to atheism--the
best of our rich theological and philosophical tradition.
Finally, we have some exciting plans in the works to set the site apart,
including interactive YouTube debates and video interviews with popular
atheists and Catholics. So stay tuned!
CWR: Why the specific focus on atheism?
Brandon Vogt: The fastest
growing religious group in America right now is the "nones"--those
who don't identify with any religious tradition. Now, a large number of those
"nones" still believe in God and pray regularly, but many identify as
atheist. In the last ten years, self-identified atheism has increased 500%
in America. We're still talking about relatively small numbers--1% to roughly
5%--but that's still an incredible shift. Much of it can be attributed to the
so-called "New Atheism", a militant movement spearheaded by Oxford
biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), neuroscientist Sam
Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation),
philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and the late essayist Christopher Hitchens (God
Is Not Great). These men and their
evangelical atheism have swept up many people, especially young people, and
it's time for us Catholics to engage the movement.
CWR: You’ve not only started and operated various sites dedicated to
evangelization, you've written a book on the topic. Since, say, the turn of the
millennium, how have Catholics done overall in using the Internet to share the
Gospel, explain the Catholic Faith, and defend the Church? In terms of
technology and strategy, what must we do better in order to be better witnesses
Brandon Vogt: I'm convinced the
Internet is one of God's great gifts, and I'm not alone: Pope John Paul II and
Pope Benedict XVI have described it the same way. Of course, the Internet comes
with dangers--pornography, shallowness, disembodiment, etc. But in my mind its
benefits far outweigh its dangers. Here's the crucial fact: thanks to the
Internet, it's never before quicker, easier, or cheaper to spread our faith.
Anyone can tweet a Beatitude quicker than Jesus said it. Anyone could start a
blog and reach more people than Fulton Sheen. Anyone could launch a free
Facebook page and connect with more people than St. Paul.
Even more, the Internet is the greatest apologetical tool
the Church has ever seen. All the catechetical and apologetical information you
could ever want is immediately available. Curious what the Church Fathers said
about the Real Presence? You'll find hundreds of articles online.
Wondering where Scripture promotes the Sacrament of Confession? A
two-second Google search will tell you. St. Thomas or St. Augustine would have
given their right arms for this sort of access.
However, despite the Internet's clear benefits, the Church has been
relatively slow to get on board. Maybe it's due to fear of the unknown,
perhaps fear of negative comments, or fear of making
mistakes. Whatever the case, fear should never drive our evangelistic
mission. We must remember and obey Pope John Paul's two favorite phrases:
"Do not be afraid" and "Put out into the deep!" We simply
can't afford to ignore these powerful tools, for if we do, as Pope Paul VI
wrote in 1975, "The Church would feel guilty before the Lord" (Evangelii
CWR: In your estimation, what are the respective benefits of
informative articles, interaction in forums or via comments, and blogging?
Brandon Vogt: The great power of
new media is also its defining mark: dialogue. The ability to ask questions
and receive personal, direct responses is a huge help to curious
seekers. It's no coincidence that dialogue was the favorite strategy
of the two greatest philosophers of all-time: Jesus and Socrates. Both knew
that man naturally gravitates toward conversation and questioning rather than
didactic lecturing. When we allow people to ask, "I understand that, but
what about this?" or "I'm not sure I see, can you explain it
more?" then the gears are turning and we progress toward truth together.
That's why the comment boxes at Strange Notions are where the real action takes
place. The main articles set the stage, but the comboxes host the play.
One more underrated aspect of online dialogue is its relative anonymity.
We all know the negative effects this can bring: people are much more likely to
say nasty things through a keyboard. On the other hand, though, commenting
privately behind a darkened screen lets you explore topics you'd
be embarrassed to examine publicly. For example, atheists who would
never knock on a church door are surprisingly comfortable talking with
priests online. Inactive Catholics who drifted from the faith long ago may not
be ready yet for Confession, but slowly and quietly read Catholic blog posts
CWR: How can people help to spread the word about StrangeNotions.com
and be more involved in online apologetic work?
Brandon Vogt: First, share the website, the video trailer, and
the articles with your friends. Post them on Facebook, share them on Twitter,
excerpt them on your blog. My hope is that thousands of atheists stumble across
the site because they see it linked on a family member’s Twitter feed or a
friend-of-a-friend posts it on Facebook and they curiously click. The more we
share these posts and comments, the more likely we'll be able to trickle them
down to the right people, especially those who would otherwise never visit a
Also, if you'd like to evangelize more directly then please join us in
the comment boxes. We desperately need charitable and serious-minded
Catholics ready to dialogue with atheists. If we want to attract the “right”
type of atheists, those interested in Truth more than vitriol, then we need the
same type of Catholics.