Can Atheists and Theists Get Along?

05/09/2013 05:24 EDT | Updated 07/09/2013 05:12 EDT

The Vatican, according to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, will hold a dialogue with non-believers (atheists) in Mexico next month. This follows up on a 2009 comment by Pope Benedict XVI that "the Roman Catholic Church should hold such meetings so non-believers could get to know God."

That the RC Church still thinks this is a good idea confirms two things: first, the RC Church suffers from the same misconception as many believers: that atheists are ignorant of God(s); second, the dialogue will likely be a monologue with the church reiterating its beliefs.

I think if fair to assume that the RC Church thinks it is doing a service to atheists. Many well-meaning believers think we atheists could correct our deficiency in belief if we got to know God-or Jesus, or Allah, or Krishna, or, well, the list goes on. While their suggestion, assuming it is made politely and without too much persistence, is not all that egregious, it just is a waste of their time and ours.

Most atheists are explicit atheists-people who have been involved in religion, but no longer share the faith of its adherents. Indeed, many implicit atheists, even though they never belonged to a religion, have read religious literature and have remained atheists.

In short, most atheists have read much more of the holy books than theists think. They are surprised when an atheist is able to quote a passage from holy scripture. So, atheists thank them very much for their concern, already know about the gods, but just don't share their faith in those gods.

Can atheists have a dialogue with theists, then? Yes, if theists can agree to remove two hurdles.

First, theists must abandon the notion that they can or should reveal their "truths" to atheists. Most atheists have read their holy scriptures (O.K. I am still struggling through the Quran and I use the King James Bible as a reference). But, atheists have also read a wider range of philosophical ideas-Thales, Epicurus, Huxley, Russell to mention a few.

Second, they must accept that the dialogue will founder if it concentrates on belief differences. It must focus on common goals. Humanists, atheists who accept total responsibility for their actions and the results of those actions, are committed to reason, ethics, dignity and equality. Given the chance, Humanists do work with believers on social projects. Their efforts often go unnoticed because Humanist organizations are relatively small and because Humanists tend to contribute as individuals rather than as a bloc.

If the RC Church thinks that atheists are going to come to the discussion to "get to know god" it will be disappointed. Atheists know already, just as they know about many other deities: they are just not in the market. If a dialogue ensues, that will be a good thing if it moves people to a common purpose of ameliorating common problems.