Catholics, Atheists, and the “Digital Areopagus”

An interview with author and blogger Brandon Vogt about

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 (Our 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, 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 online?

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 Nuntiandi, 45).

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 online.

CWR: How can people help to spread the word about 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 religious website.

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.

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