Church

Atheism & Catholicism: An Interview With Brandon Vogt

1. I thought about giving a brief description of you before the interview. I have plenty of flattering things to say, but I also wanted to let folks hear who you are from the horse’s mouth himself. Who is Brandon Vogt? Where did you come from? What do you do? What is your passion?

I suppose I can hardly do better than echo Pope Francis: Brandon Vogt is a sinner, saved by grace. But in addition, I'm a 27-year old husband and father of four, and I'm a convert to Catholicism (five years ago!). I work as the Content Director for Fr. Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and our family lives in Orlando where I blog, write, and speak on evangelization and new media.

My passion is to spread the beauty and brilliance of Catholicism and to help people encounter Jesus Christ in a real and personal way.

2. Who  do you look to for inspiration and best practices?

Oh boy, that's a tough one. My heroes span the living and the dead:

·Pope Francis - He embodies the New Evangelization and has taught me to "lead with mercy" and to "heal the wounds, heal the wounds."
·Ven. Fulton Sheen - Decades before the internet, he showed how to harness the power of the new media. I still drink deeply from his writings and talks.
·Pope Benedict XVI - He showed the world that Christianity is reasonable and helped me love the Lord not just with my heart, soul, and strength, but also my mind.
·Dr. Peter Kreeft - The wisest, wittiest, and most imaginative Catholic thinker today. He's our generation's C.S. Lewis.
·J.R.R. Tolkien - Perhaps the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century. Through The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, he subtly spread the Catholic worldview to millions of people, preempting the "new methods" and "new expressions" the New Evangelization calls for.
·C.S. Lewis - Hands down my favorite author. Whenever I research a particular topic, one of my first questions is, "What did Lewis say about that?" His non-fiction is remarkably clear and cogent, and his Narnian chronicles baptized my imagination.

3. I love your new website, StrangeNotions.com and highly recommend it to those in FOCUS. What caused you to create the site?

The fastest growing religious group in our country is the "nones"--those who don't identify with any religious tradition. A large number of those "nones" still believe in God, and pray regularly, but many identify as atheist.

Also, in the last ten years self-identified atheism has increased 500% in America. Now, we're talking about relatively small numbers--roughly 1% to 5%--but that's still an incredible shift. Much of it can be attributed to the so-called "New Atheism", a militant movement spearheaded by Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), neuroscientist Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), and the late essayist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great). These men and their evangelical atheism have swept up many people--especially young people.

It's time we Catholics respond. So I created StrangeNotions.com. Strange Notions is now the central place of dialogue between Catholic and atheists.

The site's name comes from a colorful story in the book of Acts. In chapter seventeen, we read about St. Paul landing at Athens, Greece.  He stands among the pagan philosophers and announces Jesus, risen from the dead, which annoys most of the Athenian elite. But a few respond positively, saying "you bring some strange notions to our ears; we should like to know what these things mean" (Acts 17:20).

I designed StrangeNotions.com to mimic that first meeting of Christians and atheists, allowing both groups to discover intriguing "strange notions" on either side.

I've gathered the best-of-the-best Catholic intellects to contribute content including Dr. Peter Kreeft, Dr. Edward Feser, Fr. Robert Barron, Fr. Robert Spitzer, Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Dr. Christopher Kaczor, Dr. Janet Smith, Dr. Kevin Vost, Christopher West, Jimmy Akin, Jennifer Fulwiler, Marc Barnes, Leah Libresco, Stacy Trascanos, Mark Shea, Tim Staples, Carl Olson, and many more.

The hope is that this website becomes the definitive Catholic response to atheism, unveiling the best of our brilliant tradition.

4. How has the site gone so far? Where have you seen challenges? Where have you seen success?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We've drawn over 190,000 unique visitors from around the world and 32,000 comments. The large majority of visitors and comments are atheists, which really surprised me. I thought initially we’d see lots of Catholic commentators, and that my struggle would be to attract atheists. But just the opposite has happened. Roughly 70% of the comments so far have come from charitable, serious-minded atheists and agnostics.

In terms of success, the difficulty with online evangelization is that it's a lot like Jesus' parable of the sower. You scatter your seeds left and right, forward and backward, and you're not really sure where they'll land. But you scatter them anyways, confident that some will produce fruit. You've just got to trust the Lord will act, when and where He wills.

That said, we've seen some great fruit from our many seeds. Nobody has yet said, "OMG I was an atheist, but after that article, I believe in God!! Sign me up for RCIA!" But we've had several people take a few steps close to God. They arrived harboring serious roadblocks to faith, but over time have seen those barriers fall one by one.

5. Recently you authored the study guide that accompanies Fr. Robert Barron’s new series, CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization. If you had a paragraph or two to pitch the series to our audience, what would you say?

The New Evangelization has become a buzz-phrase within the Church. Everyone's talking about it, but few understand it; few can explain precisely what the New Evangelization is. The purpose of Fr. Barron's new film is to unpack this movement, to show where it came from, what it is, and, most importantly, how you can carry it out.

He travels from England, to Australia, and all over America, unveiling examples of the New Evangelization in action. He also interviews experts like George Weigel, Dr. Brad Gregory, and Ross Douthat. The result is a stunning, high-quality film packed with practical insights.

6. What do you think of Pope Francis so far? Specifically, what do you think of his dialogue with the modern world and his controversial interviews?

Well so far the most surprising thing has been how this simple, soft-spoken priest could capture the world's heart so quickly and universally. Who could have predicted that?

I'm also struck by his unwavering emphasis on mercy. So many people, in and out of the Church, desperately need spiritual healing, and Pope Francis has placed them front and center in the Church's focus. He's reminded us that they need mercy first, and then only later catechesis, evangelization, and discipleship.

Also, I've been impressed and pleased with, as you mention, his dialogue with non-believers. The Second Vatican Council was designed to “Christify” the world, but that only happens if you're in constant contact with the culture. Battering down and huddling within the Church has never been an effective missionary strategy, and it's not a good one today. Pope Francis knows this, which is why he's constantly opened the Church's doors as wide as possible. The point of dialoguing with the world is not to modernize the Church but to infuse the culture with Christ.

His example demands we each ask ourselves: How often do I dialogue with non-believers about faith? How zealous am I to win back those who have drifted the Church? Do I spend more of my time with the ninety-nine sheep in the fold or by searching for the one who left? How often do I lead with mercy?

7. Is there anything else you would like to share with our FOCUS audience or anyone else reading this interview?

Sure. One message that I think the Church has not proclaimed loud enough, especially on college campuses, is that Catholicism is smart. More and more, the culture paints Christians as ritualistic simpletons who believe in God because their parents did, because it makes them feel good or because it provides a warm and welcoming community. All of these things may be true--and I think they mostly are--but the fundamental reason we believe in God is because He exists. And the most basic reason we're Catholic is because Jesus Christ is God and He established the Catholic Church. As G.K. Chesterton explained, "The difficulty of explaining 'why I am a Catholic' is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true."

Over the centuries, brilliant men and women have proposed good reasons to believe in God, therefore we shouldn't accept the tired storyline that Catholicism is based solely on faith. That's part of it, sure, but it's also reasonable to believe in God.

Next time someone challenges you to prove God exists, or to provide evidence, be confident that our tradition is filled with answers. Don't evade their challenge. Instead, familiarize yourself with a few of the most powerful arguments for God and then respond by saying, "Sure! I'd love to. There are at least twenty rock-solid proofs for God's existence. Which one would you like to discuss first?

Catholicism is true. Catholicism is beautiful. Catholicism is the smartest thing around. We need to recapture that brilliance and re-offer it to the world.