In order to understand the nature and forms of John Paul II's dialogue with atheism, it is necessary to take into account the circumstances in which it was conducted. Despair and discouragement ran in the „veins” of post-war mankind. It seemed that atheism would soon lead to the death of religion, as Marxist currents proclaimed with incredible certainty. Already then, the consequences of the atheistic humanism, which had been built since the Enlightenment, were clearly visible, that led not only to the closure of culture to God's issues, but also to the bloody social consequences, so visible in the victims of world wars. And yet, in this difficult landscape of the modern world, in the age of polarization of views and strength, the Church has not broken the dialogue with atheism. Also John Paul II, although he considered atheism a threat to the entire civilization, was optimistic about this dialogue based on respect and the search for truth.
In the understanding of John Paul II, atheism is a secondary phenomenon to the Christian vision of the world and of man: when this one weakens, atheism develops: atheism, which the Pope called humanistic. Therefore, it is not a natural, primary attitude: it is born of the erosion of the witness of Christians and of such a functioning of culture that makes it difficult to access God. It comes to the fore when truth disappears from human life, when it loses its religious and objective character, becoming dependent on the will of man or the circumstances of his life. The project of modern atheism essentially consists in the emancipation of man, in the gradual adaptation of God to theses acceptable to the scientific, naturalistic worldview.
A particularly telling description of phenomena related to contemporary atheism can be found in the exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, in which John Paul II pointed to the disturbing processes taking place in European culture: „forgetting God led to abandoning man” notes the Pope. It is about a kind of „silent apostasy” of a satiated man who has enough of everything and slips into an attitude of unbelief. It is also born of oblivion, „loss of memory and of Christian heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference”. Many years ago, Neusch pointed out in his diagnosis of 20th-century atheism that “unbelief is atheism in a state of peace. It is neither against nor for. People arrange their lives (...) but they do not mix God with it”.
An important thread related to agnosticism cannot be omitted in the papal dialogue with atheism. Two types of agnosticism can be distinguished - both share the belief that it is not known whether God exists, which is fundamental to this attitude. John Paul II described one of them as „practical” because it was focused on multiplying wealth, placing man at the center of everything. This one is associated with a certain form of temporary idolatry and shallow satisfaction of the openness to God inherent in man. The second was diagnosed by John Paul II as a belief in the collapse of „meta-narrative” and consent to a lowered discourse. The lowering of aspirations results from negating the meaningfulness and wholeness of the world. Condemned to fragmentation, man does not raise his head and do not ask questions about the deep (reaching to God) meaning of things.
The last years of John Paul II's pontificate were, in turn, marked by the presence of new forms of activity of atheistic circles, the so-called new atheism. The postmodern climate of the epoch led to the development of a specific model of atheism, which, in its assumptions, patiently waited for the self-destruction of religion, its eradication from human existence. In this „flat relativism” or „smiling nihilism” the issue of God and religion raises a large emotional charge, which is related to the genesis of the current – the events of September 11, 2001, when the towers of the World Trade Center in New York were attacked, led to reject religion as such, to equate all manifestations of man's religiosity that are considered dangerous or at least suspect. Atheism has been elevated to a system that exposes the compensatory nature of any religion.
Such phenomena contributed to the creation of a specific climate of social ostracism towards religiosity and questions about God, making them politically incorrect. No wonder then that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a phenomenon known as „Christophobia” developed, consisting in removing Christianity from the social space of Western civilization and blaming it for past violence. This threat of dechristianization prompted John Paul II to warn against the consequences of building a world without God, and that was particularly strong at the end of his pontificate.
The basic attitude of the pope towards atheism was the option of dialogue and honest polemics resulting from the awareness that the most important matters for a human being are touched upon. The love for the truth, which does not impose itself otherwise than by the „force of the truth itself”, has turned with him into concrete attitudes of an open dialogue that wants to reach other people in their cultural situation so that they understand the meaning of the Christian message.
The papal dialogue with atheism shows the concern to indicate the „initial conditions” in which this attitude develops in the human heart. For an atheist, faith does not make a meaningful whole, but appears as a quirk that would like to take possession of intelligence and deprive it of rationality. Meanwhile, as John Paul II emphasized in his teaching, although faith does not come from reason, it is based on it. Receiving it is an effort of reason that opens itself to a truth that exceeds its capabilities, but does not contradict it.
Already in the first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II paid attention to the belief prevailing in many countries (especially behind the „Iron Curtain”) that only atheism can exist in the state. The papal dialogue conducted on this level was to make people aware that a true social order can be built only on the basis of a complete anthropology, full humanity, not devoid of transcendental dimensions: „The negation of God deprives a person of their foundation, and consequently leads to a shaping of a social order in which the dignity and responsibility of the person is ignored”.
The systemic atheism of the mid-twentieth century was heading towards relativism and indifference to God, spiritual apathy, which over the years shifted the emphasis of dialogue, making one of the interlocutors no longer „non-believers” but a culture. Significant in this regard was the change of the name of the Secretariat for Dialogue with non-believers to the Pontifical Council for Culture, made at the beginning of the pontificate. It expressed more than a change in the ecclesiastical nomenclature – it made people realize that very often the atheistic attitude is built somewhat in the back room of a certain culture.
The basic form of dialogue on the part of believers is steadfast testimony, which is matured through the examination of conscience in fidelity to the Gospel. The Pope's proposal was therefore to show the richness of Christian humanism, which is related to the program of the "new man" rooted in Christ, who is the measure of true humanity. This does not mean giving up the rational premises for faith (present in the theological tradition), but it must not be forgotten that „these reasons are often obscured by factors related to sin and various cultural circumstances. Therefore, the most effective way is to preach the Gospel enriched with the witness of rational love, so that people can see God's goodness and gradually get to know His merciful face”.
For John Paul II, there are two basic types of testimony: one is about the world of „thought” and the other is about „life”. The latter is often mentioned as living according to gospel criteria. The first one seemed to be equally important for the Pope – a call to cultivate a culture of thinking that would pave the way for faith. „The Apostle cannot stop thinking”, emphasizes the pope, because on it also depends how other people live their faith. This ethos, important for people of science and culture, was understood by John Paul II as „the service of thinking”, which is one of the most important forms of service to man.
John Paul II understood the great need to shape specific „dialogical imagination”, in which mutual knowledge and critical reflection on the reasons of each party will take place, and the attitude of openness to new solutions will prevail. It is built thanks to the ability to listen to (or rather „listen into”) another human being, but also through a healthy curiosity that encourages people to search for truth deep under superficial shots. Above all, he emphasized where the dialogue get strength from: not from the fear of the conquests made by atheism, but from the conviction that serving man translates into commitment to search for authentic values: „The Church must know man with this knowledge rooted in love, which inclines to a sincere and trust-based dialogue, a dialogue of people separated by their convictions, but who come closer to each other thanks to the same human love”.
Behind such a dialogue between Christianity and atheism, lies a project of humanism in its „full” version, not yielding to the temptations to adapt to the needs of the moment and systems, but leading to a meeting – authentic and demanding – with another person who does not always think according to the patterns of believers. On the part of the followers of Christ, there must be respect, perhaps even greater than that with which believers will meet, and also the extremely important readiness to translate the statements of faith into the language of everyday experience.
The cultural situation in the last years of John Paul II's pontificate definitely differed from that in the first years of his office. Postmodern thought had an impact on this new face of the dialogue between the world of faith and unbelief. Postmodern culture has begun a disorderly pursuit for otherness, for what is marginal, renouncing the concept of „center”. The modern focus on the phenomenon was so profound that the search for the foundations of the phenomena was no longer important, it was enough to describe them. Grand themes and narratives have become a shady creation of man. In the eyes of John Paul II, atheism became an experience of a deep closing of culture to the horizon of infinity – it could be overcome in the evangelical opening to God, for whom „nothing is impossible”.
Dialogue with atheism is part of the tasks of every believer. It is a type of discerning dialogue, not blind to the differences between interlocutors, but engaging in the ethos of seeking the truth, without which it is difficult to find true humanism. It’s about the effort of understanding that is not stereotyped, but is able to perceive and discern the „signs of the times” in faith. For John Paul II, this dialogue with contemporary atheism also had another side: it is a disagreement with an overly superficial understanding of faith and its moral imperatives or anthropological message. In this context, new varieties of atheism, whether silent or loud, dormant or active, are always for Christ's disciples a „provocation” (in the sense: pro-vocare, a call) to find a deep „source of renewal” that remains available in the Incarnation.
fr. dr hab. Piotr Roszak, NCU prof.
Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń
The text presents in short form the research problems discussed in more detail in the article: P. Roszak, Jan Paweł II i dialog Kościoła z ateizmem w XX w., in: Ocalić dziedzictwo, pod red. J. Bagrowicza, W. Karaszewskiego, Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK, Toruń 2015, p. 133‒151.