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.

Your Thoughts?

Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Broken Whole

    Dan, glad to find that you deemed my post substantive enough to warrant quoting! [BTW: I'm a "she," not a "he"—not that you'd have anyway of knowing that!]

    In response to your response: I would (unsurprisingly) take issue with your position that this more “open” line of theological argument renders Christ “superflous.” Leaving aside the question of the validity of Christianity per se, here’s why I don’t think that this type of theology would be any more vulnerable to critique than a more restrictive one: Christ remains central in this “open” theology, in short, because sin remains central in it. The point of this “open” position is not, ultimately, that we can do good because of Christ (and I think that the Pope’s claim would be more along the lines that we can do good because we’re made in the imago Dei). Rather, the point is that in seeking the good we are actually—if subconsciously—seeking God and relationship with Him. However, because sin has—by the Christian accounting—gotten in the way of our relationship with God, we need some way to reestablish that connection. For Christians, this is the whole point of the incarnation. The divine comes to us because we’re unable to reach the divine—even if we wanted to. The crucifixion stands as the apotheosis of divine self-gift. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the question of precisely how this works—since that seems tangential to the question of whether the “open” theology is still Christocentric). Whether this reconnection requires our explicit acknowledgement of it for it to “take” in our individual case seems a different question from whether the reconnection is established. Furthermore, I don’t think that it would necessarily follow that simply removing the requirement of that explicit acknowledgement suddenly brings down the whole house of cards. Admitting that we are all capable of good does not diminish the fact that we are also all capable of evil and, thus, any claim for our ability to commune with absolute Goodness would have to resolve the incommensurability between it and us.

    It seems like there’s a second point implicitly suggested by your response; namely, if we might all end up in heaven, what’s the point of religion anyway? [Of course I might just be reading this into it, if so mea culpa]. I’d argue that some things are goods in themselves. It is of no practical use to me to know that we’re all made, essentially, of stardust—but I still think that knowledge is of value to me. I can’t claim that any practical benefit came from the first—or hundredth—time I heard Mozart’s Requiem, but I still believe that my life was richer for it. Similarly, if there’s a God—and if there’s even the possibility that I might know or experience that God—then pursuing that experience seems worthwhile. I’m not a Catholic out of fear of going to hell—a terror-ridden conservative Evangelical childhood made me swear off ever clinging to religion out of fear ever again—I’m a Catholic because I believe (and, yes, at the end of the day this does involve belief) that in the sacraments of the Church I have a type of experience—a type of relationship—that I couldn’t have anywhere else. One that is a good in itself, regardless of whether it has anything to do with my eternal fate.

    All of this, of course, probably seems moot if one takes God out of the equation entirely. All I mean to suggest is that the “open” theology brings us no closer to putting God out of the equation than a more restrictive one does.

  • Shira Coffee

    I was impressed, not just that the Pope acknowledged that atheists can be good people, but that he said unequivocally that killing in the name of God is blasphemy. (Some of his predecessors would have been surprised to hear it.) These are both important steps in the direction of creating a shared community of caring. Goodness knows there is enough work of caring for each other and for the world to absorb all the energies we can bring to that work; now, maybe we can argue less and work together more.

  • Chris

    It certainly does appear universalist. I wonder about such positions, but I at least take up the notion of inclusivism, and the material I have written on the subject has been some of my most popular work thus far. Some highlights…

    “The reason the conservative position is so uncomfortable for people (other than conservatives, themselves) is that it makes it look as though God has turned propositional belief into morality. A Christian philosopher might argue that it is necessary but not sufficient to believe in this statement, that Christ died for us. Yet that still faces the same problem: God has seemingly turned something which cannot possibly moral in nature into an integral part of the defining aspect of Christian morality: whether or not you go to Heaven.”


    “Inclusivism frees us from the problem of turning beliefs into moral imperatives. The self-proclaimed atheist living in a manipulative, abusive community may reject that which he believes Christ represents, but by rejecting abuse and hatred, he may also turn toward what Christ truly is. The language is different, but the different words (Christianity for some, potentially even atheism for others) may point to the same sorts of realities — namely the reality of Christ.”

    Obviously I do not expect you to adopt my positions as an atheist =) But inclusivism has become very important to me in realizing exactly what Christianity and really goodness in general is supposed to be: something existential and fundamental to our composition. It is not a particular list of things to which we must adhere.

    More on topic, I am very much looking forward to what else this Pope will do. If he overturns the Catholic position on homosexuality, I may even convert.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I find myself pleasantly surprised by these statements from the new Pope. I can just hear the backlash now from some conservative Protestants. I’m sure at some point in my past I would have seen this as a sign of the end times, I’m sure some will see it that way today.

  • Geena PsyStudent

    Hello! Nice article! I am reading a book on buddhism and what the dalai lama says is very similar to your last point about “goodness being socially necessary” And part of natural selection. Essentially he argues that moderm society has lost sight of the fact that we are all interconnected and that its in our own “selfish” interests to be kind to others. It was more apparent in rural communities when we clearly needed others to survive. Nowadays you could survive without a community.

    The other thought that came to mind was about compassion and goodness … They are meant to be at the heart of Jesus’s teachings and in some twisted way, I think Christian’s have misinterpreted the quote in the bible where he says something along the lines of “my way is the only way” to mean you have to believe in christ, when he (jesus = historical figure) may have meant compassion and kindess were the way. Maybe we missed the point?

  • Irenist

    As a Catholic, I was grateful to read this gracious post. I hope more capable Catholic interlocutors than I take you up on your invitation to dialogue. Although, if Pope Francis is to be believed, richer friendships across the divide of our worldviews are more likely to come from, e.g., working alongside each other in social justice efforts than from online apologetics. But you never know.

    FWIW, I don’t think Pope Francis’ salutary statement breaks any new theological ground. In this context, all are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, but not all are necessarily saved. The theological-jargon distinction is that Christ offers himself for all (“redemption”), but we don’t know if all take Him up on the offer (“salvation”).

    BTW: A Calvinist would disagree with the “redemption for all” assertion, since “Limited Atonement” is the “L” in their doctrinal “TULIP.” Since American atheists are, AFAIK, most often exposed to Calvinist-inspired Evangelical forms of Christianity (through news reporting about conservative politics and through battles with creationists), that might understandably make Francis’ statement seem more novel than it is, too.

  • Rosie

    This is tangential to the post, but unlike your Jamie, I can imagine being miserable and not knowing it. Unfortunately for Robin, my experience of this was largely bound up with me being a Christian. When I walked away from the church and learned what joy was, I looked back on those years with wonder that I never noticed at the time how miserable I was trying to be a good Christian.

  • Kristofer Rhodes

    Hi Daniel, I think this is a really excellent post. (In fact I’ve only just discovered your blog and am pretty thrilled with it despite the fact that I’m some kind of theist, albeit of the wishy washy liberal protestant kind that gets accused of crypto-atheism…)

    I want to note though that what Francis said really isn’t Universalist. It takes no particular evisceration of his words to see this–one just has to understand that in Catholic doctrine, redemption and salvation are different. Everyone is redeemed, but not everyone will be saved. Redemption, in Catholic doctrine, is what frees everyone from the necessity of sinning. (This is why Francis, in the quoted paragraph, implies that Atheists and everyone else do good because they are redeemed.) But that no one _has_ to sin does not mean that everyone is _actually_ sinless, or even that that everyone engages in the kinds of activities that lead to salvation.

    I wrote a little more about this on my own blog here: