The Pope Wants to Meet Atheists on the Common Ground of our Goodness

Pope Francis today said the following:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

This strikes me as an extraordinary statement that on its face would entail a position of universalism on the question of salvation. I imagine there will be explanations as to why it does not mean that but they will be ignoring the plain meaning here–or at least eviscerating it. Hopefully Pope Francis will elaborate on whether he thinks anyone goes to hell after all.

I do appreciate Francis explicitly suggesting we atheists are redeemed too. Honestly, I reject the whole idea that I need his god’s redemption in the first place. His church really isn’t the arbiter of goodness, nor his god secretly behind all goodness. But I sincerely welcome his gracious and just acknowledgment of the good we atheists do. And I very much share his optimistic and humane suggestion that people from all faith traditions and none can find each other’s common commitments to do good to be a great basis for sincere, constructive encounters with one another. Most human beings mean well. The more we start acknowledging this in our ideological enemies and stop demonizing and mistreating them, the more progress we can make in relating to one another, persuading one another, and creating the good together. I yearn for a true “culture of encounter”, to use Pope Francis’s term, one in which we really are willing to encounter those different from us and find common ground with them.

Any Catholic readers out there who would like to engage in sincere dialogues with me, feel free to write me and I will be happy to answer as many as I can and publish the exchanges here on Camels With Hammers, as I have before. See my three part debate with Mary the Catholic graduate student on proposed exemptions from contraception mandates by the Obama administration, my follow up discussion with her about broader theological and ecclesiastical issues, and at least the second of the two videos in which I interviewed and debated my college best friend, who is now a Benedictine monk.

I was dispirited the day the new pope was being selected that many atheists just ranted that they didn’t care who the next pope would be since it would inevitably be another homophobic, misogynistic, child-rape apologist. I thought it mattered. Because I know that the Catholic Church is not monolithic. And I know that it is an institution that does have the mechanisms within itself to change. I know that it has had periods of progressiveness and periods of regressiveness. And I know that who the pope is plays a big role in whether it will evolve or devolve. In recent years the Catholic Church has been unconscionably slow in improving on numerous vital moral issues and been an infuriatingly reactive force in the world thwarting the pace of progress and tangibly hurting countless people in the process. I appreciate the new pope’s emphasis in his first few months on displays of humility, concern for the poor, and, now, respect for atheists.

Here is hoping these gestures are more than gestures. Here is hoping that they are presaging theological evolutions in the directions of greater humaneness and justice. Here is promising there will be complaining if they don’t occur.

I also should note that in some ways, the pope’s remarks today are not that striking as there have long been sophisticated Catholics who not only equate God with goodness but goodness with God and have been willing to grant that even non-Catholics can be genuine pursuers of the good and on that account, in some way, not at all alienated from their god after all! While I am not at all familiar with his views, the famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner famously developed a concept of “anonymous Christians”, good people whom God would save despite their not knowing the Gospel. Apparently the Catechism of the Catholic Church endorses a similar idea:

Those who no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.

More background on this idea’s support in Catholic tradition.

I took issue with the idea of strictly identifying God with goodness in my post against the idea that the absence of God was hell. In that dialogue, my characters had the following exchange:

Robin: Well, I just don’t think it’s consistent with God’s perfect goodness that he could physically torture people excessively and mercilessly like that. Even if they arephysically resurrected, I think it’s just that they live without God and that itself causes inherent emotional pain. That’s people’s own doing. It’s like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They had the choice to love God but when the serpent told them that they could be like God instead, they wanted that. They didn’t want Him, they wanted to be Him. So God let them have their desire—He kicked them out to rule their own lives and suffer the consequences of trying to live by their own foolish thinking rather than rely on His wise and perfect guidance. So, if we die still choosing to go our own way, God leaves us to our own way forever and that is our eternal misery if we have chosen not to love Him.

Jaime: But my life as an atheist not even believing in your god is not miserable. Why would it be any more miserable were I sent somewhere after life where I wasn’t around your god either? Why would this suddenly start eating me up insidethen, when it certainly does not now?

Robin: Well, maybe you only think you’re not miserable now but deep down you really are.

Jaime: I would think it would be impossible to be miserable and not realize it! How could I be confused that I was happy when “in reality” I was secretly miserable? If I feel like I’m experiencing pleasure—or even just indifference, or even feeling, you know, just “blasé”—then how could that be misery unbeknownst to me. What do you even mean by misery if it’s something someone could not know they were experiencing. If hell is an eternity of thinking I’m as pleased as I am here on earth but “secretly” and “unbeknownst to me” being miserable then I’ll start packing for my eternal “suffering” in hell.

Robin: Sin has its own inherent consequences, even if you don’t realize it. Sin separates you from God because sin is the bad and God is the good. So when you sin it naturally takes you away from the good (G0d) and towards the bad. You will inevitably be empty and frustrated without the good, without God.

Jaime: Did you hear anything I just said—I don’t feel empty and I don’t feel frustrated.

Robin: That’s because you don’t know how full you could feel if you had God in your life or how much easier your life could be if you followed God’s ways rather than your own.

Jaime: I don’t know, I feel pretty damned fulfilled. And I feel like there is plenty of good in my life without your god. In fact, I would say I know there is plenty of good in my life without your god. Saying your god is identical with goodness and that all badness is identical with being separated from your god is meaningless. Sex is good—is your god sex? Food is good, is your god food? Power, respect, fame,  accomplishments, friendship, romantic love, and all the people themselves whom I love—they’re all good; are they your god too? What about all the virtues I have that lead to good things in my life without any need for your god’s intervention and which are themselves delightful to have? Is my generosity your god? Is my sense of humor your god? Are my powers to investigate truths your god? All these things are good and I can have them without your god because they are totally distinct and independent from your god.

And then later on:

Jamie: I have plenty of goodness in my life without your god and know plenty of good deeds carried out by atheists and members of other religions than the ones that worship your god. So, no, I don’t need a personal relationship with a fictitious deity in order to have goodness and you can’t go around rationally conflating an impersonal abstract universal like “goodness” with a personal being like “Yahweh” or “Jesus”. Abstract universals are no more personal than numbers are. And goodness and beauty and truth and love, and all other such things, are concepts which do not entail personhood in any way whatsoever. And the things in which these universals are manifest are entirely acquirable without any belief in your weird superstitions, your implausible supernatural metaphysics, or your bronze age myths and confusions.

Robin: But what if I’m right and Goodness is a personal being called Yahweh, who intervened in history and sent his Son Jesus to die for your sins. And what if He is also Truth and Beauty. Would it be irrational to say we should rightly love Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and that without them we would be in a hell of our own making—a hell which was not the fault of Goodness, Truth, or Beauty, but which just resulted by default when we chose to be without them—that is, without He who is these things.

In reply to this Broken Whole, a Catholic commenter, wrote an informative post about various ambivalences in Catholicism about the concept of hell. At the end of her comment (which is worth reading in full), she answered my article directly:

Obviously your life as an atheist is not miserable without a concept of god, but it is fulfilling in part because of a relationship to Truth, Goodness, etc. (at least from what I’ve garnered from your posts and from your interest in questions of ethics) and your life is possibile because of a participation in Being (at least if we think “Being” in something like Heideggerian terms, which perhaps you don’t). If these transcendent things were God (I’ll leave aside your reasonable objection that we need not think these things in personal terms and I’ll ask you to just briefly stick with the “if”), then the absence of these things would seem to result in either (1) misery or (2) non-being.

Where I think your characterization of the argument most strongly goes awry is your assumption (or the assumption of your imagined interlocutor) that the only way to be “saved” is to develop a personal relationship to Jesus Christ that is articulated as such. Returning to the points raised above, it seems to me that relating yourself to goodness, justice, etc. is a relating of yourself to God, if we follow the assumption (again, not going to wander into justifying that assumption here) that God is these things and not merely another being in the world possessed of these things. Catholicism would certainly hold that Jesus plays an important mediating role in reconciling us to God, but the explicitly understood and articulated “personal relationship to Jesus Christ” demand of your interlocutor sounds out of keeping with a lot of Catholic thought (though it’s certainly present in conservative Protestantism). I’d argue that the demand that one must love—or orient oneself towards—Justice or Truth or Goodness (or even the demand that one must simply desire Being over non-being) is less immediately ethically fraught than the demand that one must arbitrarily love a particular supreme being (often depicted more as “the biggest baddest being among beings” than as a more scholastically understood concept of the divine as Being) about which one can never be certain of one’s knowledge.

For my part, it seems rather superflous (to the point of silliness, honestly) to say one needs Jesus to save us if not even knowing about Jesus but just pursuing the good we can be good. Saying we sin because Adam sinned and had us all condemned with him, but now we can do good only because Jesus is secretly redeeming us and helping us even if we do not know it, and in the end we all may wind up in heaven anyway, seems rather roundabout and unjustified and pointless. Why not just be simpler. Humans are imperfect. Not because of a sin of our ancestors but simply because natural selection is an imperfect process of creation. And sometimes people do good. And not because Jesus is secretly redeeming and helping them but because natural selection favored giving us brains that enticed us towards doing what was good for us, including what was socially necessary through morality, a fair bit of the time.

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