Should I read Atheist Literature?

As a faithful Catholic, am I encouraged, discouraged, or neither regarding reading Atheist literature? This question came to mind after reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”, where he had an example of someone in hell who simply followed a faith that he never really questioned (he always read literature and talks that simply agreed with his faith). Now I know this is just an opinion by Lewis, but it does bring up a good point - is it our duty to truly explore all possibilities in depth in order to strengthen our faith, or is it perfectly fine to read Catholic and only Catholic literature?

I’ve always enjoyed reading atheist vs. Catholic debates, but I’ve typically always read them from a Catholic source. Well, like we don’t like for folks to misrepresent our beliefs, I feel that you need to hear what an atheist “really says” as well instead of what someone else says that they say. However, when considering reading such stuff from Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, it still just doesn’t feel right and feels like I’m going down a dark road that may not be in my best interests. I’m not afraid of reading it or hearing the other side’s views, as the truth will set you free - just a little cautious to giving too much time and creedence to what may be meaningless propaganda. The way I see it, reading such stuff will either strengthen my faith like never before or will instead make me question it altogether. It’s a crossroads, and I welcome any and all opinions on the matter.

\This question came to mind after reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”, where he had an example of someone in hell who simply followed a faith that he never really questioned (he always read literature and talks that simply agreed with his faith).\

**I don’t recall anyone like that in THE GREAT DIVORCE.

The closest I know is the apostate clergyman who was in hell PRECISELY because he was apostate and had ceased to believe the Christian faith.

Could you be more specific, please?**

I just read that book, and the only person who comes to mind is the cleric who was so convinced he had to be open minded that he read everything uncritically and simply could not make a stand for the faith he professed. Chesterton comes to mind, who said something like: don’t be so open-minded your brains fall out.

Life is short, unless you have a lot of time on your hands, an iron-clad faith, a saintly solid prayer and sacramental life, you simply do not have time to waste on any reading that does not represent and bolster your faith.

If you already have faith, you believe it to be true, so it makes no sense to spend 5 minutes on anything that claims otherwise. If what you have accepted by faith is true, then NO truth will be contained in anything you read that takes an opposite stance, so what earthly purpose would be served?

I respectfully disagree with those who say it is a waste of time to read literature from those of a non-religious belief system. Similarly, I believe it is very important to understand as many religions from around the world as possible.

Intellectual curiosity is great. I believe it is a mistake to not take the time to try and understand those of differing religious beliefs. This is where fear and hatred can breed. You cannot ignore atheists, well, I suppose you can ignore them but they are still there! At any rate, how can you truly know what you believe if you have not learned about anything else? In my experience this sort of curiosity and education only serves to strengthen what you already believe to be true. How can it be a bad thing?

Yes, I think you should read primary sources from atheists (and pantheists, process theologians, etc). First of all, “know your enemy” is pretty much a fundamental tenet in any struggle. Second, I find Harris and Dawkins to be fairly accessible, as in, writing for a broad audience.

You will be challenged. I always am when in read this stuff. But being challenged in life is kind of a given, right? It is powerful to encounter the other side’s strongest arguments and then feel satisfied with your own responses. On the other hand, if something they say genuinely puzzles you, just bring it up here and have your cohorts help.

I think in principle it’s a great idea to read atheist literature, to help get a handle on both sides of the issue. However, unless you have a rock solid understanding of scripture and theology, or access to a fantastic spiritual director, it might be problematic. I’ve only read a little bit of “The God Delusion” and some Christopher Hitchens, and they’re not the greatest theologians in the world, but Hitchens is a a genius at creating emotionally charged rhetoric. I almost felt myself being drawn to some of his points in the “Intelligence Squared” debate he took part in on the BBC, until I shook myself and remembered what I was watching. A lot of the atheist books being written now come at the issue from an emotional, knee jerk postion that’s intended to shock you into supporting the atheist side. Ironic, because that’s what they always accuse religious people of doing.

Thanks for the advice, all!

Regarding the Great Divorce, perhaps I misunderstood it. I recently listened to it on audiobook, and also don’t remember that part the first time I read it, so I might have heard something wrong or something this time around. My print copy is currently on loan, so I can’t go dig it up at the moment. Will definitely do so when I get it back though. Either way, it was an interesting point whether it was misunderstood or not.

Annie, you make a very good point about there not being enough time in the day to do even the holy works of the day - perhaps I should start there! :slight_smile: Very valid point, and one we should all remember more.

I also tend to agree with the “know your enemy” camp because we are also all called to be ready to defend our faith at all times, and in order to do that we must be aware of what the charges against it will be. I’m also an engineer by trade, and as such I delight on logical arguments for proofs and such as that. Magnaminity - you also make a great point in that there are plenty of people who can help shed light on a puzzling subject… thanks for bringing that up (should’ve been obvious, but I tend to try and tackle things on my own a bit too much). I’ve also got Dinesh D’Souza’s “What’s So Great About Christianity?” to follow them up with as counterarguments. I’ve already read it once, and ironically this book is one that peaked my curiosity about the atheists arguments in the first place.

Anyway, thanks to you all for the feedback. Should I decide to go down that road, I’ll definitely be back with any and all puzzling questions!

Father Corapi and Ravi Zacharius have both spoken to this issue. To better discuss intelligently with individuals of different Faiths - or lack of - it helps to have an understanding of their particular beliefs. Father Corapi speaks of “knowing your ‘enemy’.” Both speakers have talked of opportunities to speak with those who practice Islam, Atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses - been there!! - various Protestant denominations - been there, too! , etc. It is hard to dialog well without understanding the point of view of others.

Having spent all but the last 2 1/2 years of my life as a Protestant, I KNOW that I am truly Home in the Catholic Church. Anything I read from any perspective further convinces me of that. I read the Watchtower when the JW’s come by to better try to understand where they are coming from, and to better present my ‘case’, proceeding from what they believe, the next time they drop by - and there WILL be a next time!

I learned about Martin Luther in the Lutheran Church. As you would expect, the Catholic perspective is quite different. To understand both sides, you need to read the literature from both perspectives. Some Catholic writings are biased, too, and need to be researched to determine their accuracy.

“It’s a crossroads” I wasn’t sure what you meant by that statement. If you are well-grounded in your Catholic Faith, reading other literature should broaden your understanding of other theologies while confirming you in your Faith. If you aren’t standing on solid rock, it might NOT be in your best interest. Perhaps you should head back to the CCC, or the early Church Fathers, or lives of the Saints before you venture onward and outward. I would trust my instinct/conscience - * “…it still just doesn’t feel right and feels like I’m going down a dark road that may not be in my best interests.”* Pray about it. God may already be answering your question.

I hope this is helpful and is not intended to sound judgmental. I question what I watch on TV and listen to on the radio - programming that is labeled as ‘Christian’. I think it is always necessary to be discerning. My poor priest! I ask him many questions!! It might be good to speak with your priest. He could probably direct you to literature that might be informative without being propaganda in nature.

God bless you in your quest.

There’s nothing wrong with reading atheistic literature, especally if you’re well-grounded. If you’re concerned about a fair representation of atheism, you might consider reading books that defend both positions. William Lane Craig co-authored a book with atheist philosopher, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, called God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist. amazon.com/God-between-Christian-Atheist-Counterpoint/dp/0195166000/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1262293606&sr=1-1-spell

I think this is good advice. Also, if you’re really interested in the atheist world-view I recommend reading an actual atheist philosopher like Daniel Dennett rather than propagandists and polemicists like Hitchens and the like.

Hi, mm356,

I’m probably older than you. At my stage in life, I’m interested in reading things that reinforce my Catholic faith. And, that encourage Christianity in general. Jesus knows our enemy. He’s my protection. I think young Catholics and other Christians should make sure that they are grounded and set in the faith, hope and love of our Savior. Then, you can look around, to understand others. But, keep always your Catholic perspective. imho.

Don

Speaking as an atheist myself, I would not recommend anything by Dawkins or Hitchens. That’s just anti-theist rhetoric.

If you wish to understand what atheism is all about, read something by an atheist philosopher actually writing about atheism. For example, Julian Baggini’s Atheism: A Very Short Introduction is aimed at exactly that purpose. That is the book I would recommend, and you can get it used for $9 shipped from amazon.

At all times, take care of your focus. Your mind is limited and can lead your heart into temptation.

If you wish to convert or converse with others, certainly learn their heart and mind before attempting it. But if that requires losing your focus on the hope so as to clearly see the hopeless, then don’t attempt such discourse and leave it to those with more clear sight of the hope, those with clear understanding, not mere faith.

Would you enter a brothel (download porn) just to see the other side of life for accurate comparison?

I’ll be writing this post from the perspective of an atheist. But I’m not going to say “yes, you should only read atheist literature and all that” you know. I think a good reading of other literatures is good too. Like for instance I have read the Quran and the Bible as well. It will broaden your perspective and outlook on various aspects of faith too.

It also serves as some sort of qualification so you can formulate your reason to choose the faith you are in. I am an atheist for example because many religions have some strange things about them. If you are asked why you are a Catholic for example, you can probably say something about the fact that you have read other literatures and Catholicism somehow seems better.

I personally think that it is a good idea to read atheist literature, but also strongly recommend reading literature of other religions too. If strengthening your faith is what you are after, the more on other faiths (as well as atheist literature) you read, the stronger your faith is. If you are questioning your faith then you may find at least some of those questions answered. So yeah, you should read atheist literature but read literatures from religions other than Catholicism as well.

Personally I don’t do Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens because the moment I do then I get accused of “copying” them. If you find other atheist literature it might be useful. I’m not saying not to read Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens, but if you do, do not make those your only source of atheist literature. In fact do not make atheist literature your only source of comparisons with X vs Y as mentioned above.

I have chatted to one Christian (online) who makes dumb statements like “the quran is stupid” and when asked if she has actually read it she says “no I haven’t” and to be honest, I doubt you would want to end up in a similar situation.

It sounds like your conscience is well-formed and is giving a good warning. It is, indeed, a dark road. Faith is a divine gift – we have the serious duty of strengthing it every day, and helping it to grow to be more fruitful. Wasting time with atheistic opinions is very dangerous for many reasons – the benefits are minimal at best.

I’m not afraid of reading it or hearing the other side’s views, as the truth will set you free - just a little cautious to giving too much time and creedence to what may be meaningless propaganda.

Exactly. Depending on your situation in life – you will have more or less time for reading. For most of us, it’s closer to “less”. What do we do with that time? Have we read the best Catholic literature out there today already? Have we absorbed the Catholic classics (are we even familiar with them)? If the answer is “no” – then we should see the path of light - learning about the Holy Faith, nurturing it and defending it against evil.

Now the other matter is that time spent reading must be measured in proportion to time spent in prayer. If we’re spending far more time reading than in prayer – then we’ll drift onto the dark road eventually. This has happened to many, otherwise faithful, Catholics – usually the most brilliant sorts. They fall into a kind of intellectual gluttony. Without prayer, they get lost in their own confusion. This is the profile of the Catholic dissenters and of theologians who have been disciplined by the Holy See.

We can take it even farther. What are atheists saying at the very root? How much more do we need to know about that? They are claiming that God does not exist, there is no supernatural, and there is no spiritual life for humanity. The reasons for this are quite childish, at best. After that – they spend a lot of time attacking God and attacking religion. The attacks are not original – these have been repeated for a long time.

The way I see it, reading such stuff will either strengthen my faith like never before or will instead make me question it altogether. It’s a crossroads, and I welcome any and all opinions on the matter.

It will not strengthen your faith like never before. Faith is strengthened by our own good efforts – intellectually, yes. Being victorious over challenges – that is important. But we also need prayer to go beyond our efforts. Atheism is inspired by Satan and is thus a path of evil. We should be extremely wary of that path – as St. Peter warns us, “The devil goes about seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith.”

All of that said – **if **you have been working with a spiritual director and if you’ve developed some solid spiritual and intellectual foundations in the pure, 100% orthodox Catholic teaching (which is rare to find these days) **and **you think it’s your calling to refute atheists (adding to the excellent refutations already out there) … then there might be a reason to spend time with Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc.

I’m sorry to sound so dogmatic about this, but I see this as a temptation for many Catholics lately and I also see it as a very dangerous consideration.

If I might add another point. Atheist ideas are old but they are brought back in new packages under new names. Richard Dawkins likes the word Bright. So, when people see free thinker or humanist or secularist, they might miss the atheist connotation. On an atheist web site, a poster encouraged others not to use the word since it tends to scare off those those who might become interested.

This is especially a problem for the young as well as those who are older but lacking in experience. And finally, anti-God or ‘replacement for God’ books are out there, usually using terms like ‘transformative,’ ‘enlightenment,’ ‘spiritual self-awareness,’ or simply offering a new way to ‘tap the power within you.’ Without a solid grounding in the faith, such books can cause spiritual problems, since they sometimes claim to offer ‘another path’ to becoming you - or God - or personal happiness, and so on.

Hope this helps,
Ed

ReggieM,

Not sure how comfortable I am with the spirit of your post. You seem to acknowledge at the end of it a bit of your own discomfort as well-that you may be coming across as dogmatic… First, I frankly think the kinds of statements you make in your post are indicative of the need for Catholics to have first-hand interaction with strongly argued views that are alternative to your own.

You practically belittle atheism and suggest the appropriate response is some sort of insular approach where we read the ‘Catholic classics’ and make sure our praying is in a 1 to 1 correspondence to our reading. (What are those Catholic classics, btw? Did you mean Newman, Congar, Rahner, Von Balthasar and the like?)

The OP was about engagement with atheism, but if pantheism were the flavor of ice cream preferred today, we could just as easily be discussing engagement with that. What I’m getting at is that Catholics need to be proactively engaging in today’s culture, and that includes major schools of thought and religious movements. There is no way to deny that today atheism is a major school of thought in the academy (and is somewhat growing in popularity in the US and especially in Europe.)

It seems to me that the writer ofthe OP here is trying to do little more than be responsible in angaging with primary source materials of one of the major alternatives to theism today.

Bingo. I don’t wish to study atheism in depth or anything and do not plan to be an active apologist who calls out atheists for conversion (only to be prepared if the topic comes up). I just wish to read the atheist viewpoint straight from the horse’s mouth simply because I just don’t understand the line of thinking. I’ve heard the atheist arguments, and I’ve heard the theist responses. To me, the theist responses always win out. But I do know that there are many intelligent atheists, and I’m always curious as to why people think the way they do and how two intelligent people can have two totally opposite views on matters. My curiousity is leading me to the atheist literature simply to see if the atheist arguments I’ve heard up until now have been accurate, and if so, the rationale that accompanies these arguments that would lead one to continue this line of thinking.

In saying this, a story from Dr. Peter Kreeft comes to mind: he said he always does a class experiment in which the theists have to defend the atheist viewpoint, and the atheists have to defend the theist viewpoint, and he said without fail that the theists can represent the atheists viewpoint much, much better than vice versa. Perhaps that’s where I am now, and I’m just mislead into thinking it really should be more complicated than that. Perhaps it is as simple and cut and dry as I think it is right now. But there’s only one way to find out. When I used the term “crossroads” earlier, it wasn’t meant as a “crisis of faith” moment, but instead a point in life where a decision has to be made. You either take that path or you don’t (or you just stand there doing nothing indefinitely!). But if you don’t, you wanna be sure you’re not always going to look back and wish you had. That’s what I meant by a crossroads.

And ReggieM, I appreciate the point you made about prayer - it’s a very valid point indeed, and I didn’t take your post as coming across as too dogmatic. Prayer is the tie that binds, and I think it could be dangerous treading down a potentially slippery slope without some security. Sometimes I am very guilty of getting too carried away in the logic and arguments for faith instead of the actual practice and spirituality of the faith, and I took your post as a good reminder to not get too out of balance in this regard.

I also agree with the previous poster who encouraged me to not only explore atheism, but also other non-Catholic religions as well. I was born and raised Baptist, and converted to Catholocism 8 years ago at the age of 27. That process of conversion ignited a thirst for knowledge and truth that continues to this day. For the last 8 years I have devoured anything and everything in regards to Catholocism and know that it is home for me. However, having been on the other side and seen the beauty and truth that was contained in something that had been so foreign to me before, I feel that there is a need to become educated in other religions at least on a basic level so that no stone may be left unturned. I’m just led to start with atheism simply because the existence of God is perhaps the biggest question that there is. Once that question is tackled, the different theist belief systems then follow thereafter.

Thank you all so much for your welcome input and advice. These forums are definitely an excellent resource for interesting thought and discussion!

While I think this is more of a Moral Theology issue than a Philisophical one it appears to me that you are allowed to do so, but as others said you should be doing so as a person very well versed in your faith.
Someone reccomended Dennet. Keep in mind he has said, perhaps tounge and cheek something along the lines of christian leaders deliberately intraping people knowing it is false. I disagree with that statement, and remember he is a former christian. I get the impression he is bitter, just as we see here some stories of christians that are bitter over previous experiences in other denominations before converting to the catholic church or the other way around.
No one athiest represents all athiests. No one agnostic represents all agnostics. So, getting their “side” of things, will be hit and miss. Bits here and there may hold true for most, not all. Bits here and there may not for many.
Someone mentioned knowing other religions. I agree with that. That is a safer bet to start with before looking at non believers. At least with believers, you will gain a better understanding of how others view God with eyes of belief.
With non believers, you will very likely feel hurt by the things said about the God you love.
You could even end up really angry with them for feeling that way.

If you are as you said, not doing this to prepare yourself to evangelize them, you may be best off getting the cliff notes on various loud mouths that get into print. Remember, you are supporting them finacially if you buy their books. That could be a moral dillemma, I don’t know. But, to be on the safe side- you can google up some forums… You can get stuff from the library, and you can even start a thread “calling all athiests, I have some questions” type of thing. Here in the safe environment where you can find others to help out.

My 2 cents

I disagree. However you have to be prepared for those two, as they don’t pull any punches.

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