For the first time, Pope Benedict has invited leading atheist intellectuals to take part in interreligious talks in Assisi.
Among the atheists that will attend are writer Julia Kristeva, Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, Mexican philosopher Guillermo Hurtado and Austrian economist Walter Baier. The meeting will take place Tuesday.
The move to invite the atheists is a sign if the pope's increasing interest in "faith and reason," according to the Agence France-Presse.
The talk will feature 300 religious leaders including Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist representatives. Sikhs, Hindus and Jains will also be represented.
The pope’s goal for the meeting is to create “a common commitment to reject the instrumentalism of religion and the use of violence in the name of God,” said a Vatican source.
Pier Luga Celata, number two on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the issues that trouble religion are immigration, cultural diversity, religious liberty and the defense of the family.
“These issues oblige faithful people from different religions to look for common solutions,” he said.
Pope Benedict has been outspoken about atheism in the past. Last year, he compared "atheist extremism" to Nazi tyranny.
However, in late 2009, the pope did express a desire to start talks with other religions to include "dialogue with those to whom God is unknown.''
Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who helped put together the first Assisi day in 1986, said the pope is careful to avoid mixing religious beliefs.
“Interreligious dialogue has spread” over the last 25 years, and the pope sees it “as a common, irrevocable heritage of Christian sensibility,” he said.
Some Vatican officials are not so enthusiastic about the idea.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi said the talks with atheists who have a benevolent interest in Christianity have its restrictions, as it ignores a "huge grey zone" of people who are indifferent towards questions about religion.