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Non-believers and the search for God

· After Benedict XVI's historic invitation to Assisi ·

We are publishing the translation of an article from the journal “Palabra” by the Director of the Institute of Philosophical Investigation at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

On 27 October 2011, together with Walter Baier, Remo Bodei and Julia Kristeva, I was invited to the ecumenical and interreligious meeting organized by the Catholic Church in Assisi. As out-and-out non-believers all four of us were invited in a historic gesture made by Pope Benedict XVI to take part in the dialogue between believers and non-believers. It seems to me that the importance of this dialogue cannot be ignored.

Nevertheless, I believe that to improve its structure it is necessary to make several distinctions. Just as believers are not all the same — they have different beliefs and different approaches — the same applies to non-believers. We could say that non-believers are usually somewhere between the two extremes: at one end are the rabid atheists, enemies of God and of religion; at the other, the spiritual agnostics who are on the point of converting to some specific religion. Between these two extremes, so far from one another, there are many kinds of non-believers — the tolerant, the indifferent, those seeking God, those who resist believing in him, etc. There are also atheists who in actual fact are not such at all, who believe in God in the depths of their soul but are angry with him and hence deny him.

There are agnostics, as well, who are not really such, who believe in divinity but do not know its face and therefore do not adopt any specific religion. The range of positions is very broad, hence to speak of “non-believers” in the abstract gives rise to a whole series of problems. The four of us non-believers invited to Assisi perceived this immediately. Our attitudes to religion and to the divine were very different. It would seem that I was the only one of the four who felt I could identify with the Pope's Message to agnostics.

In his Assisi Discourse, Benedict XVI distinguished between atheists and agnostics. He described the former as anti-religious and the latter as people who suffer from their lack of faith and who, in their search for truth and goodness, are also seeking God. I was moved to hear this definition of the agnostic. Indeed, in my humble quest for the truth I have asked myself about the existence of a God who could provide an answer to my questions.

Moreover in discovering myself to be without faith and without anyone to stand up for me, I also desired the existence of a God who would give me support on the darkest days.

However, I do not always think and feel the same way. Sometimes the same search for truth, that is to say, for objective truth — what else could it be? — leads me to think that God does not exist, that we have to seek the answers on our own. At other times, when I am suffering from my solitude, from my finiteness, something within me makes me rebel against the idea that only a magnanimous God could rescue me from this state. And then I rediscover in my condition enough dignity and courage to go on. The agnostic who suffers from being without God and seeks him, is, to my mind, a very special kind of non-believer who cannot be held up as a paradigmatic example of the agnostic. If the Catholic Church truly wishes to enter into dialogue with all non-believers, she will have to recognize that they are of many kinds, that they are not all seeking God or suffering from being without him and that many of them are nonetheless disposed to opening their minds and hearts to begin a constructive dialogue with Catholics. If we could take something from what we might call “the new spirit of Assisi”, it is precisely this.

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