An atheist and a Catholic: Modeling a form of peaceful dialogue

September 26th, 2013

The Donahue Auditorium in the Dolan Center for Science and Technology was filled beyond capacity on Tuesday, Sept. 24 with students, faculty and community members who came to see Edward Hahnenberg, Breen chair in Catholic theology at John Carroll University, and Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University. The two men came together to discuss God, service and the meaning of life.

The evening began with people standing in doorways, sitting in the aisles and finding places on the floor just feet away from the two speakers. The night began after the audience was encouraged to move in and find spots to sit anywhere they could.

Wanda Scott from the Center for Service and Social Action, serving as moderator, began by describing the nature of the discussion.

“We normally start these events off by asking to turn your cell phones off, but tonight we are going to ask you to keep them on,” Scott said.

Audience members were encouraged to tweet their questions for the participants to the Twitter account @JCUbetter2Getha with the hashtag #BigQs, standing for, “big questions.”

Stedman started things off by asking those in attendance to find someone they did not know well in the audience and briefly introduce themselves to one another. This friendly gesture foreshadowed the non-threatening rhetoric in the dialogue to come.

Both Hahnenberg and Stedman offered their life stories to the audience as a way of familiarizing everyone with their personal contexts. Stedman explained that his belief in the Judeo-Christian God was extinguished when he went to college and learned to ask critical questions about his beliefs.

Hahnenberg had a different story to tell. In his introduction to philosophy class his freshman year of college, Hahnenberg encountered what he thought to be the smartest person he had ever met, who was a believer like himself.

As a result of meeting people like that, Hahnenberg  came to the conclusion that, “Religious faith can have as articulate and sophisticated a voice as any other in the university.”

He knew then that he wanted to become a professor of religious studies.

After hearing their stories, Scott asked both men to clarify some misconceptions about their represented groups. Hahnenberg and Stedman expressed their mutual dislike for their groups being defined by what they stood against, rather than what they stood for.

Though obvious differences were pointed out, and similarities were welcomed into the conversation, the night continued to be an opportunity to dispel misconceptions.

At one point, Hahnenberg shocked the audience by proclaiming, “If someone were to ask me if God exists, I would say no.” Just before people could react, he went on to explain that God is the source of existence itself.

Stedman, too, took the audience by surprise, dispelling false notions regarding atheism.

“I think that I find myself constantly working to counteract this idea of atheism and humanism as world views as being unconcerned with well-being and cooperation, and are solely focused on scientific progress and not on social progress,” said Stedman.

More than 100 tweets were sent in concerning the discussion during the hour-and-a-half session. Questions concerning the problem of evil, and how an atheist deals with stress and despair were asked and answered in the short amount of time allotted.

“I was quite disappointed,” said Johnathan Ruano ’13. “We barely scratched the surface. I left the event feeling hungry and wanting much more.”

In closing remarks, Hahnenberg and Stedman both had words of wisdom that defined the night.

“This whole thing scared the hell out of me, and I didn’t want to do it,” said Hahnenberg. “But as Chris said, ‘It’s a risk to open yourself up and be honest in front of over three hundred people.’ I’m glad I did it.”

Stedman agreed, and added, “I think we can continue to talk for so much longer, and I encourage you all to continue to keep talking about these issues amongst yourselves. I’ve taken away from this conversation the importance of being wrong about some things. People who disagree with you have things to teach you.”