THR Web Features   /   January 12, 2022

An Atheist and a Cardinal Walk into a Bar

On the difficult art of disagreeing civilly.

Joseph Tulloch

( Umberto Eco in his home library.)

There’s been a lot of talk, recently, about “good-faith dialogue.” Not, of course, because we’re getting any better at it—quite the opposite. It’s precisely because our culture is so polarized, our discussions about important issues so confrontational and unproductive, that there’s an increasing interest in the alternatives. What might it look like to have constructive, good-natured disagreements? I’d like to consider a case when profound disagreement did not foreclose conversation but led to extended and productive dialogue—namely, a series of open letters exchanged between a prominent Italian atheist and the Archbishop of Milan.

This is, I admit, a bit of a surprising choice. Debates between religious believers and skeptics are, after all, not generally renowned for being conducted in a spirit of intellectual camaraderie and mutual enlightenment. There is, though, an exception to every rule, and in this case it’s In cosa crede chi non crede? (Belief or Nonbelief?), an extraordinary collection of letters exchanged in the mid-1990s between Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher and outspoken nonbeliever, and Carlo Maria Martini, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and Archbishop of Milan. Both were well-known public figures in Italy, and, to a lesser extent, abroad—Eco was a public intellectual and author of the wildly successful novel The Name of The Rose, and Martini one of the country’s most prominent and respected religious figures, considered at the time a leading candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II.

Their exchange, which ranges over topics from the apocalypse to the role of women in the church to the foundations of secular ethics, is remarkable for many reasons, but I want here to focus on what it tells us about disagreeing well. In this respect, four things in particular struck me about the exchange, and suggest four key lessons about constructive, good-faith dialogue with those with whom we profoundly disagree.

Firstly: Be nice. If this sounds trite, think of how often we fail to put this into practice, how often debates are derailed by snideness, passive aggression, and blatant rudeness. And then consider how Eco begins his letter to Martini—with an extravagant, almost ridiculous apology for addressing him by his real name rather than by his title. “Dear Carlo Maria Martini,” he writes, “do not consider me disrespectful for referring to you by the name you carry, and without any reference to the robe you wear. Understand it as an act of homage.” Martini then replies by enthusiastically endorsing Eco’s decision, and the stage is set for an amiable, constructive exchange of ideas. I’m not, of course, suggesting that we should all mimic this elaborate ritual greeting; the point is just that the quality of any debate can almost always be improved by engaging in as friendly a way as possible with your opponent. It is, at the risk of sounding saccharine, amazing the difference a smile can make.

A second, crucial lesson is the importance of trying to understand, and being interested in, your opponent’s position. So often one finds people arguing against ideas they do not fully, or even partly comprehend, and, what is worse, showing little desire to learn. The consequences are unsurprising: It lowers the quality of the discussion, since it’s difficult to accurately criticize what you don’t even understand; and it often angers the other party, who understandably dislikes having her views misrepresented. We surely all stand to learn something from Martini, who, when asked to select a topic for the next exchange of letters, chooses not to present a case for his own view, but rather to ask Eco to explain the reasons for his. Or from Eco himself, who, when the topic of the female priesthood comes up, demonstrates such a knowledge of Roman Catholic doctrine that he is able to argue—quite persuasively—against church teaching on the subject from the inside, suggesting a number of theological reasons against the ban on women’s ordination.

Another insight from the conversation—and perhaps the most difficult to put into practice—is this: Admit when you’re wrong. We are in general so bad at this that often the mere fact of acknowledging a mistake can change the entire tone of a conversation—when your interlocutor feels heard and taken seriously, her demeaor normally changes and she becomes more open to your perspective. (Of course, admitting a mistake can sometimes have the opposite effect, giving your conversation partner an inflated sense of the superiority of their own position; such, alas, is human nature).

This does not actually happen in the Martini-Eco exchange—the closest we get is the cardinal agreeing with the philosopher’s point that some of the arguments against women priests are based on outdated biological ideas about differences between the sexes. Even here, however, it’s noteworthy that Martini’s acknowledgement makes a significant contribution to the discussion, showing that he is able to reflect critically on the claims made by his own side and recognize the strength of points made by the opposition. Think how much more powerful it can be to admit errors that you’ve made yourself!

I want, finally, to reflect on why Eco and Martini were able to have such a productive discussion. What was it that opened them up to dialogue in this way? The answer, I think, has at least something to do with their recognition of the value of each other’s perspective. Eco, though an outspoken atheist, was known for his friendly stance toward Roman Catholicism. He remained fond of the church he had been a devout member of as a teenager, and he was an expert in medieval thought. Martini, for his part, would regularly engage with secular critics, often agreeing, in a qualified way, with their arguments, and famously remarking, in an interview shortly before his death, that the church was two hundred years behind the times.

This suggests a fourth and final lesson from the conversation: the importance of recognizing that, generally, there is some merit in what your opponent has to say. Eco and Martini, of course, were very sympathetic to one another’s positions, but I want to suggest that their example can be extended even to discussions between those who share very little common ground. The world is rarely black and white, and even the worst arguments normally have some amount of truth mixed in—otherwise, their adherents wouldn’t find them so attractive! (This isn’t, of course, always the case—some positions, like Holocaust denial, shouldn’t be taken in good faith. But these, I’d argue, are extreme cases, exceptions to a general rule). And this, really, is a wonderful thing—once you see that even those you disagree with most strongly normally desire the truth and have something important to say, debates become dialogues, and disagreements opportunities not for confrontation but for learning and growth.