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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About Adam Lee

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

  • konrad_arflane

    [T]o use the misguided ideas of a single man as a sweeping excuse to dismiss all non-religious philosophies is a most dishonest tactic.

    To be (perhaps overly) fair, the idea that “man … is … merely the product of economic conditions, and it is … possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment” is not limited to Marxism. It seems to form the basis for a lot of modern political discourse – if not in the US, then in my own country and as far as I can make out, other European countries as well. And it has a lot of unfortunate corollaries, not the least of which is that basic research, the academic humanities, cultural pursuits get badly underprioritized, since they don’t immediately contribute to the “wealth of the nation”, so to speak.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Nice article. Not only are the Pope’s comments pathetic, blatantly untrue, and attacking a strawman, they’re ridiculously patronising. “Look how miserable and scary life can be! My imaginary friend is the only one who can help you, and if you don’t accept him you’re evil and hopeless.”

  • Becky

    With what we know of this creatures past, I hardly think he is a source of how to live and how to be saved. This link will tell the story of the charges that were being brought against this protector of priests pedophiles, for years! When he became pope he also became immune to such charges. The church protects it’s own and that should tell a sick story loud and clear. The bible does have some truthful comments and one of them asked “how can two walk together lest they agree”? His efforts is covering up these sick and heinous crimes against innoncent children only tell me he is just as quilty if not more so.

    (US says Pope immune from clergy abuse lawsuit
    Chris Buell at 4:02 PM ET

    [JURIST] The US government has argued in a court filing that Pope Benedict XVI [official profile] has immunity as the head of the Vatican state [official website] and that a lawsuit against him should be dismissed. The lawsuit pending in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas charges the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his role as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [official website; Wikipedia backgrounder] with covering up clergy sex abuse [JURIST news archive], including that of a seminarian at a Houston church in the mid-1990s. Similar lawsuits against high-ranking Catholic officials typically are unsuccessful because they are not served, but Pope Benedict XVI was in this case. Motions by the US government that such suits would interfere with the nation’s foreign policy interests have typically resulted in their dismissal. US District Judge Lee Rosenthal did not immediately rule on the government motion. Meanwhile a Catholic website reported [CWNews.com report] Monday that Pope Benedict has recently approved an internal church policy barring the ordination of gay men [Newsday report] as priests, even if they are chaste. The instruction, which is to be made public in October, is said to be part of an effort to protect the church from future sex abuse scandals. AP has more.)

    Gay men are not the problem! There is a huge difference in gay and pedophilia.

  • Javaman

    Excellent post, Ebon! I’m going to start calling you the “Atheist Laser.” You cut through all the BS and are able to find the fundamental flaw in the cognitive functioning of theists’ reality paradigm.

  • Brock

    In this particular case, a little bit of ad hominem argument may not be out of place. This man started his career in the Hitlerjugend, not out of compulsion but out of choice. He has been intimately associated with the reactionary Opus Dei society, and held the position of head of the Holy Office, which was the vestigial remnant of the Inquisition, and as such was hatchet man for his predecessor, in suppressing the liberal wing of Catholic scholarship. How can anyone think that this man has anything of value to say to us?
    That said, Adam’s comments are an excellent response to the actual content of the Bull…@#$%.

  • LindaJoy

    I say we all should mail little essays to the Vatican reminding the Pope of the body count generated by the Catholic Church. I just read some history on the estimated numbers of pagans who were slaughtered by the Church’s representatives from about 400-800 CE. Add to that the other violence perpetrated by all religions, the Crusades, Inquisitions, etc. etc. and you could make for some good reading for the historically challenged church father. Remind him too that Hitler was not an atheist… I would love to see the Vatican’s mailbox flooded with this type of information!

  • OhioAtheist

    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.

    Brilliant! And, of course, completely true.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The one I like to trot out is if the Catholic Church was the legitimate representative of the one true god on Earth, then why did god create a situation where tens of millions of native Americans would perish from smallpox that they caught from the Catholics they encountered? Think about it. We have two continents teeming with tens of millions of people who knew nothing about Jesus and the Bible, and the very people who come bearing the message of god’s truth unwittingly infect the native Americans with lethal diseases to which they have no immunity. Is that a sick joke, or what?

  • http://transsurvivalist.blogspot.com Mark Plus

    A god doesn’t necessarily have to give any of its creatures “hope.” It could, without logical contradiction, have created humanity without any basis for hope whatsoever. (This should seem obvious to people who’ve read H.P. Lovecraft portrayals of “higher beings,” for example.)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Oh, I don’t know, I think H.P. Lovecraft’s gods do offer us one important thing to hope for. :)

  • http://www.cogspace.com/ Katie Molnar

    To answer the unanswered point… His Holy Irrelevance discards other religions as “myths” and that they are contradictory. Well, the bible is well known for being just about the most self-contradictory document in existence. Spending five minutes slogging through the self-confused Genesis babble is like reading the Official Rules for McDonalds’ Monopoly.

    “And then God made lights in the sky, valid only at participating locations, Amen.”

    Point is, antiquity has occasionally offered up immortals who are far more difficult to argue against than sad, little Yahweh. The Phallic Compensation Hat Man doesn’t seem to realize his imaginary friend is plagued by existential inconsistencies that even Norse mythology managed to avoid.

    Methinks this silly old man needs to find something more useful to do for society than sit on a gilded throne preaching about hope while people starve and die of horrible diseases in our species’ homeland. Like, for instance, he could renounce this crock of poo and melt down the Vatican to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and educate the world’s children.

    But hey, I’m not expecting any miracles. =P

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Catholicism gives hope? For what? Overpopulation, famine and starvation? Crimes performed under the rubric of their god’s authority? The building of lavish $34 million cathedrals while millions suffer want and deprivation? Sanctuary, if one is a drug-dealing autocrat?

    No, the hope proferred by Catholicism, and all other religions, is the hope that one may live one’s life without having to think for onesself, that one may become a sheep in the herd.

    “From the sublime to the ridiculous” should now be regarded as obselete; the transformation is complete.

  • Jim Coufal

    Coufler News DeRuyters

    Chef Bouy-rd Dyscyclical attacks Catholicism, lauds hope

    Chef Bouy-rd, Grand Boohoo of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, in a dyscyclical released on Saturday, said Catholicism was responsible for some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” in history. Speaking al dante, that is “hard,” when his words are directly from His Noodlesness; the Chef is infallible in most anything, especially things related to Rachael Ray.

    The two page dyscyclical, “”Ittsa no Bull,” takes its name from a quote by Bullwinkle, which is pretty clear in translation, and is an appeal to a deluded world to find strength in humanistic/atheistic hope.

    In the first dyscyclical of his Chefacy, the Grand Boohoo urges their hope for the future be in human abilities and not in technology, wealth, political ideologies, or delusions of supernatural beings.

    Catholicism could be regarded by some as a “type of mind control,” particularly for the last 20 centuries, to protect those in power against the working poor, using fear and guilt rather than science or critical thought.

    Quoting Catholic Pope Benedict, who said, “A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a God, the Grand Boohoo said, “Exactly! We’ve been saying just that for centuries.” He added, this is one reason why the “argument from evil” had never been refuted, and why pastafarians (members of the Church of the Flying spaghetti Monster), reject the Christian god.

    History has proven wrong religions like Catholicism, which says humans had to establish social justice because God and his chosen interpreters said to, said the Chef, singling out the Catholic notion that only they could be saved.

    “It is no accident that Catholicism led to the greatest forms of cruelty, corruption, violations of justice, and discrimination, the Chef said. Such a concept was grounded in “intrinsic falsity.”

    Catholicism, the Chef wrote, had left behind “a trail of appalling destruction” because it failed to realize that humans could not be “merely the product of fear, guilt, and uncritical thinking.”

    Catholics React

    The dyscyclical is the highest form of Grand boohoo writing and addresses all humans. This document is written in a highly articulate, professional style in which the Grand boohoo quotes scientists, philosophers, free thinkers, skeptics, humanists, and atheists to make his point.

    Catholicism has been a hot topic recently thanks to news and best-selling books on priestly pedophilia, diocesan cover-up, Catholic church collaboration with Nazism, opposition to abortion and contraception, and more open disclosure of the Church’s history of violence.

    The Grand Boohoo seems to be addressing the waning interest in Catholicism in the developed world with phrases such as “Let us put it very simply, humans don’t need a God created in the image of man, humans needs humanism and critical thinking, and otherwise they remain without hope.

    The Vatican said by taking such stands the Grand Boohoo would push more people away from the Church.

    The existence of a billion Catholics in the world should be enough to make the Grand Boohoo understand that man can live very well in a delusional state, even without reason, a statement said.

    The Grand Boohoo urged all humans to put their hope for a better future in reason and goal-oriented action rather than in prayer.

    “We have all witnessed the way in which the promise of a better life after death, when promulgated by wealthy old men in funny hats, can become and has indeed been a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in human ethical formation, in the inner growth of all people, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for humans and for the world,” he said.

    Humanist/Atheist hope also means protecting the planet, even if people feel powerless to make only small changes in their lifetimes, he added.

    “We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that have injured the past two thousand years and could damage the future. We can reason about and study the sources of creation and keep them unsullied by mythology gone astray. In this way we can make right use of our human abilities, which we can accept as a gift with promise,” he said.

    (Edited by Jim Coufal)

  • DamienSansBlog

    In this particular case, a little bit of ad hominem argument may not be out of place.

    Tisk, tisk, sir. We’re the Good Guys, and we never stoop to name-calling. Even if the Pope does look like the Emperor out of Star Wars.

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s the resemblance around the worldview that scares me.

  • Entomologista

    I like to call him Pope B Dizzle because once I saw him on TV sitting on his golden throne drinking something (crunk juice? pope juice?) out of a golden goblet. It reminded me of the purposefully-over-the-top display of wealth you see on rap videos. Some people call him the Prada Pope because he wears Prada shoes. The moral of the story is that rejecting worldliness is something for poor Mexicans to do and not hypocritical popes. I don’t like the guy very much. Not that I like Catholicism in general; I find their obsession with uteruses they don’t even possess to be very creepy.

  • John Nernoff

    RevN: I would like to know why there are 2 billion Catholics in the world, why Catholicism is the majority religion in the U.S. and why 5 Catholics populate the Supreme Court. I agree Catholicism is sheer stupidity, but why haven’t all these others seen what we see? What has produced this outrageous discrepancy?

    The same question might be asked of the over 1 billion Muslims on earth.

    I think Ebonmuse has the analytical powers and clarity of exposition to be able to post an essay on this topic.

  • Friday

    At the lowest point of my depression, I too turned to thoughts of God as an alternative answer.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints offered clear, insightful, and most of all new readings of the Heavenly Father. I asked for the Holy Spirit to reside within me, and was soon relieved of my fears and doubts, and began to attend church every Sunday.

    Then I began to gain a deeper understanding of Mormon beliefs. Novel concepts such as different levels of heaven and one’s spiritual ‘choice’ of parents were accepted alongside old favourites such as the non-authority status of women and the non-acceptance of queer folk.

    That snapped me right out of it I can tell you! I look back on it now and my misery was entirely to do with my outlook on life – and the rather large quantities of dope I had been smoking for the previous 15 years. Once my perception had pierced the ‘purple haze’ I clearly saw I was being taken advantage of and reverted back to my old atheist self – a position I had taken since early childhood.


    Way to go with the positive self-talk there!

  • Nolrai

    Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.
    –Academician Prokhor Zakharov

    Its a quote from a game of all things..but it says it so well.