The Course of Reason

Catholic Friars: To Debate or Not to Debate

January 9, 2013

During the winter holiday, we were not expecting much activity or excitement for the GW Secular Society. However, I was surprised when I received an e-mail from a "Brother" from Catholic University, which is right across the pond from GWU. He introduced himself as a Dominican friar and explained that he and some of his fellow brethren occasionally speak at "at meetings of men's groups, Christian fellowships, freethinkers groups, secular societies etc. at local universities." He expressed an interest in doing something of a similar nature for GWSS.

This was something that GWSS members have talked about before, but only briefly and not with much detail. Originally, we had decided that we would prefer to debate a religious group on our own campus, for trust and safety reasons. However, this email opened up a new opportunity for us.

Our Facebook group was filled with different opinions and ideas about hosting these Dominican friar brothers. Some wanted to plop them on a stage and do a full-fledged debate with a moderator, prepared questions, timed responses, the whole nine yards. Others wanted a more relaxed debate setting in front of an audience, but in "armchairs" for comfort purposes.

I, personally, did not want to put these gentlemen in front of an audience on our own turf. I know if it were me, I would be deeply uncomfortable to be in front of an audience not of my peers and of people who I knew were not on my side as I debated against "the home team." I proposed to rather have just a few GWSS students sit in a small room with some snacks, and we all just have a civil religious discussion. Now do not get me wrong, I would be the first person to sign up to see a full-fledged debate and I would want front row seats and I would be screaming and yelling responses the whole way through. However, as the president of this secular group and as the host, I have a whole new role I have to adhere to.

What is the proper etiquette for such an invitation? These are two completely different groups of people with two completely different viewpoints of a highly sensitive nature. One of our missions is to always be respectful and open to all religious groups, and I stand firmly behind that, despite my personal vendettas against organized religion.

That being said, some group members were frustrated with me for not being more militant about really confronting this group and putting them on the spot. But even though many of us are angry—and rightfully so—we cannot publicize ourselves that way and we cannot act on those feelings of anger. If we really want to fight the stigmas like we so adamantly claim that we want to, then we should want those Catholic University friars to leave the campus thinking, "Wow, they were actually really respectful towards us."

That is the impression I want to leave them with because, overall, that will be more effective than putting them on the spot and having an intense, impersonal debate. If any of those men ever start to question their beliefs, like so many priests claim to have experienced, then I want them to look back at our group and remember that we were not so bad. Whereas if they leave feeling frustrated and antagonized, they will forever remember how harsh the atheist community can be. That's not what I want.

My point is that I know sometimes we want to confront religious people, slap them in the face, shake them, and say, "What on earth are you thinking?!" But that is clearly no way to go about our situation. If we want results, we need to take on the humanist perspective by taking kindness into our own hands and acting on that instead of our militant anger.


About the Author: Julie Mankowski

Julie Mankowski's photo
Julie Mankowski is the president and founder of the George Washington University Secular Society.




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