A major Vatican conference on atheism could help stem the tide of people leaving the Church, a leading Catholic number-cruncher has said.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic ahead of the Vatican’s first conference on atheism in 50 years, Prof. Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London, said the Church has long realised that atheism needs to be understood properly.
“We recognise that very sincere moral people are all striving to reach the truth and we need to understand that better. Part of the reason for dialogue is on the one hand for us to understand them but it’s also for them to understand us,” he said.
Noting that there are several major strands within atheism, he added that while they are all worthy of study in their own right, “part of the Catholic Church’s interest in studying them is to better equip itself to engage and to evangelise”.
Prof. Bullivant, who is the author of the forthcoming Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, added that understanding atheism will help explain factors drawing Catholics out of the Church.
“If you look at the statistics, who are these non-religious people who have suddenly appeared in America over the past 20 years? Well, a good chunk of them are baptised Catholics,” he said.
“There’s a sense in which the Church wants to find out how to produce fewer atheists, but also these people don’t stop being members of the Church – they obviously don’t feel like it, they may not want to be although they may often feel various forms of connection because religious identity is very complex and rich, but it’s not as though you stop believing and you’re suddenly off the books sacramentally. It’s absolutely an internal issue for the Church,” he said.