On Atheism and Hope

Pope Benedict has released the second encyclical of his papacy, a 75-page missive titled “Spe Salvi” (Latin for “in hope we are saved”). As was widely reported, this statement attacks atheism and calls people to convert to Roman Catholicism as the only hope for humankind. (Here’s the text of the statement itself, if anyone’s interested.) In this post, I’m going to offer some comments in response.

The major theme of the encyclical is that only belief in a god – actually, in the Roman Catholic god – can give human beings reason to hope. (About ancient religions, he says that “their gods… proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths”. I’ll leave my readers to respond to that one.) It also says that doctrines that claim to offer hope and progress without belief in a god, by which it means communism, will inevitably fail:

[Marx] thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

…It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.

Surprisingly, I actually agree with Pope Benedict about this. His essay rightly points out that Marx never offered anything like a blueprint for a just society, assuming that problem would resolve itself once the overthrow of the upper class was complete.

That said, to use the misguided ideas of a single man as a sweeping excuse to dismiss all non-religious philosophies is a most dishonest tactic. Communist regimes undoubtedly committed terrible crimes, but for the pope to attack communism as if it constituted the entire spectrum of atheist thought is irresponsible and deceptive. Like many religious apologists, Pope Benedict is stuck in the past, repeatedly attacking an obsolete historical doctrine rather than address the views held by the majority of atheists today.

The encyclical addresses, obliquely, the atheist argument from evil:

To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope… Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so.

It should be obvious that this statement is factually false. Human beings can create justice, and we do. By moving away from superstitious concepts like trial by ordeal, by establishing legal systems where guilt or innocence is judged based on evidence, by creating free societies where increasingly greater spheres of moral obligation can be put forth and enacted into law, we have created a far more just society than formerly existed, although of course we have much work left to do.

By contrast, no god of any description is active in the world creating justice. All the work that has been done, has been done by human beings. The pope’s argument would encourage us to give up on establishing justice as a hopeless quest, and instead blindly hope that someday, if we bear our suffering with enough patience and subjection, we will be magically rescued from our troubles. This is an abhorrent idea.

The major theme of the essay is that belief in God is a necessary precondition of having hope: “anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life.” Two reasons are offered to believe this. First, unless we believe in a future resurrection of the dead to paradise, we can never undo the evils of the past:

A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering.

If Catholicism was a universalist religion, this might have been a more convincing point. As it is, the argument is considerably undermined by the Catholic belief in Hell – where, according to the Bible, the majority of humankind will end up (Matthew 7:13). If the idea of millions of people suffering in past ages should be an intolerable thought, how could we possibly condone the idea of millions suffering for eternity? If anything, Catholicism is a far worse proposition than atheism by the pope’s own argument.

How should an atheist respond to the suffering of those who are now deceased? One way, as the pope suggests, is to remain stuck in the past, endlessly grieving evils that are not in our power to alter. Another, better option is to look toward to the future and ensure that similar things do not happen again. That is a far more laudable and humanist response.

The pope’s second reason is that, unless we believe in God, we must run the risk of all our hopes being dashed:

It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love… can then give the courage to act and to persevere.

It’s true that atheism does not promise magical hope. It does not promise that everything will turn out all right in the end, no matter what. But at the same time, this makes it all the more urgent – all the more vastly and terribly important – that we work to do good, that we work to defend goodness and establish justice. It is up to us, for if we do not do it, no one will. The freedom to succeed or to fail is ours. Inevitably, that means the responsibility is ours as well.

Despite all the flowery theological language, the pope’s lament is at heart the cry of a frightened child, pleading with Mommy and Daddy to make the bad things all better. This desperate craving for reassurance belongs to the infancy of our species. In reality, there are no messiahs who will swoop in at the last moment to save us from ourselves, no gods who will descend to magically alleviate our problems.

These fantasies will not deliver us from the troubles we face. If anything, they may trip us up at a crucial moment by encouraging complacency. When one truly believes, as Pope Benedict does, that a good outcome is guaranteed regardless of human action, the natural and dangerous inference is that we don’t have to do anything. For all their soothing language, these ancient and outdated dogmas endanger us and hold us back. What we need instead is reason, clear-eyed acceptance, and the intellectual maturity of atheism.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.