Pope Francis’ First Encyclical Shows What He Really Believes About Unbelievers

The Vatican has released the first encyclical letter written by Pope Francis.

That’s big news for Catholics, who comprise the target audience for this sort of document, and who often put a great deal of stock in the pontiff’s opinions on how to live their faith. In atheist circles, the most likely reaction is a shrug, a raised eyebrow, and a big ‘so what?’ But with news about outreach to the ‘nones’ and dialogue with non-believers making headlines in the early days of Francis’ pontificate – and it is still early days, at least in relative terms – this document is instructive. It gives us a window into what the pope really thinks about the irreligious.

The eighteen-page encyclical is the last in a trilogy, so to speak; then-Pope Benedict wrote encyclicals on ‘hope’ and ‘charity’, and was apparently working on the ‘faith’ one when he resigned. (Francis tells us so in Paragraph 7, explaining that he “added a few contributions”.) This encyclical is entitled Lumen fidei (“the light of faith”), and describes the ways in which living a life of religious belief is superior to living without it. (No big surprise there, really. He has to say that. He’s the pope.)

But in describing the superiority of a life lived with faith, Francis has revealed some of the common myths about atheism that he’s come to accept over the course of a life spent really obviously having never come into contact with unbelievers. Some of the most common tropes include:

  • Atheism weakens community ties. For some reason, Francis seems to believe that religious faith is required to “build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope” (51). As he sees it, “the light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations”, while without it “nothing could truly keep men and women united” (51). (Heck of a burden to put on faith, if you ask me.)
  • Atheists make gods of other things. The basic argument Fracis seems to set forth is that atheists secretly know God exists, but we’re scared he might demand too much sacrifice of us, so we pretend to think he’s not real because we are rebellious and naughty. Then we pick something else to venerate in God’s place, because we can’t just not worship anything, and “before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security” (13). It’s a bit of a pat on the back (at our expense) for the courageous faithful.
  • Atheists are self-centered. Chances are, the one thing we’re busy worshiping is ourselves: “idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands” (13). Francis really seems to think that only faith can “guide us beyond our isolated selves” (4) or provide “concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego” (46). By contrast, “faith is God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust (14)”.
  • Atheists have no moral compass. Carrying his ‘faith as light’ metaphor to dizzying heights, Francis argues that in the absence of faith/light, “it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere” (3). No one can be good without God because they attribute their good actions to themselves instead of to him, and thus “their lives become futile and their works barren” (19). Essentially the only way to be a good person is by pretending it’s not really you doing good things; it’s God making you do them.
  • If we really tried to find God, we’d find him. This one is quite a slap in the face for the many unbelievers who became such after a long and sincere process of religious seeking; it suggests that we were either secretly searching in bad faith, or our efforts were defective. If “he can be found also by those who seek him with a sincere heart” (35), clearly we must have been insincere. It’s our fault, not God’s, if we couldn’t detect him.
  • Atheists lead impoverished lives. Since “faith enriches life in all its dimensions” (6) and is “the priceless treasure [. . .] which God has given as a light for humanity’s path” (7), we can assume he envisions us all living in the psychological equivalent of a Dickensian poorhouse. I get the sense that Francis sort of feels bad for us, that he can’t really grasp the concept that atheists might sometimes feel peace and joy even though we think there’s no God.
  • An atheist can’t really understand love. Francis explains that “only to the extent that love is grounded in truth [read: God] can it endure over time” (27). I don’t really understand why he thinks that, but it seems clear that he doesn’t accept non-God-oriented love as real love. Meanwhile, “those who believe are never alone” (39).

It’s rather hard to tell whether he thinks atheists are to be pitied or feared. On the one hand, we’re just so sad and lonely and confused, wandering in the wilderness of our own moral relativism. But on the other hand, we’re embracing and promoting an ideology that destroys truth and justice and democracy and human morality and “the goodness of sexual differentiation” and “the stable union of man and woman in marriage” (52 – oh yes, he went there).

The encyclical ends with a heartfelt prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking her to “open our ears to hear God’s word”, to “awaken in us a desire to follow in His footsteps [. . .] to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in His love”, to “remind us that those who believe are never alone”, and to “teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus” – even “beneath the shadow of the cross” and “especially at times of trial”.

In other words, dear Mary, I’ll put up with anything he can throw at me, even the trials of Job . . . but please, please, please, for the love of Jesus, don’t make me have to be an atheist.

Thanks, Frank.

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  • Carmenalex

    And that conclusion is “I don’t know” , not god did it..that’s just ludicrous. It reduces you to that dude in The Gods must be Crazy…they didn’t know..therefore gods. You don’t have all the answers so..Zeus or Odin..

  • winslow

    I asked for facts, not unverifiable assertions or knee-jerk atheist sarcasm and insult. How about responding to what I wrote instead of using your atheist playbook, which is truly ludicrous.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Crazy atheists…It’s not a Trinitarian-incarnational-atoning-resurrecting-ascending-soon-to-be-returning-God who sacrificed Himself to Himself as a 33-year-old virgin carpenter who lived with his mom. Now THAT is risible. Lord Rael explains it ALL…There is ONLY ONE other possible conclusion…I invite you to reconsider your entire life in light of the FACTS and the Guiding Force…Praise!

    The mother-ship is ready for you and no one ends up in a loincloth, tacked onto some two-by-fours or as a male virgin at age 33…The Intelligent Designers are here…Glory!

    http://www.rael.org/home

  • Carmenalex

    But I’m not the one making unverifiable assertions…YOU are. The whole “Something can’t come from nothing, so their must be a God” argument is just not a very good one. Especially since the very god would have to come from something then and then begs the question…what created god? It couldn’t have come from nothing, according to the same logic. It is more intellectually honest to say “I dont know” than I dont know therefore Im going to pretend to know by saying goddidit. God is an unverifiable assertion.

  • Carmenalex

    umm, there’s not. And science doesn’t say rock begets rock..and gods do not make more sense because according to your own logic..WHO MADE GOD? Saying well, he’s always existed..makes no sense according to your own logic, Its lazy thinking. It’s saying you don’t know, so lets make up some god, because you are incapable of accepting “don’t know” as an answer. There simply is no evidence of a designer..just your wishful thinking that there’s some god out there who gives a damn about you, because you look out there and go ohhhhh pretty..uga uga gods.

  • winslow

    You’re not too good a reader, are you? I said, clearly and in plain English, I can’t account for God’s existence and you can’t account for the existence of matter. ‘Rock begets rock’ is the only possible conclusion to your notion of the creation of the universe. IOW, the universe created itself, which is scientifically impossible. You know what ‘impossible’ means, don’t you. My conclusion is, what is impossible, can’t possibly have happened. I know we exist because, as Spinoza said, I think. Since neither you or I can say with certainty the existence of God is impossible and we know we have to account for our existence, the only logical and possible conclusion is the universe was created, therefore it had a creator. That’s who we call God.

    As to a designer, in the message you responded to, I wrote, “Your ‘no evidence of design or guiding force’ comment is simply wrong and uninformed. It ignores all design, from the elementary to the complex. Start with the solar system and tell me again there’s no evidence of design. Study evolution and tell me there’s no evidence of a guiding force. After that it gets complicated.”
    Try responding to that instead of puffing yourself up with insults and sarcasm. If you’re an intelligent individual, show me something. Right now you’re just another juvenile heathen with nothing to say.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Actually, rock does sort of beget rock in a very roundabout way.

    See, you have your basic rocks formed when the gas mass that will become a planet forms together and cools. If, like our planet, the force and heat of all that stuff coming together results in a semi-molten iron core, you have tectonic plates that shift around, letting some of the liquid rock come up to the surface and pushing some of the solid rock down to melt. The pressure and temperature of the lower areas creates different rocks than either the surface cooled magma/lava or the original squashed-together-gas rocks. And, of course, since tectonic movement shoves some of the new, different rock from the hotter, higher pressure zones up, while other rock on the surface gets shoved down into the magma below, rocks do indeed beget rocks in a lovely cycle of rock –> magma –> rock.

    Seriously, dude, you learn this stuff in middle school.

  • Fred

    Instead of just blatantly claiming that its all designed maybe you should come up with a test to prove that things were designed. It would put you head and shoulders above all the other scummy apologists.

  • Carmenalex

    Lets make this clear. SHE is not the one selling any hooey about gods..YOU think gods exist so show us the money or just go away.

  • winslow

    Very funny. What she’s selling is nonsense and you’re buying it. I asked her how she accounts for the existence of the universe and she went off into a massive dust cloud and winds and gravity and whatever else she invented. I then asked her where she got her dust and wind and gravity and she disappeared, proving she was trying to sell nonsense to me. And probably knew it.
    You’re selling the notion either the universe created itself or always existed, two risible notions which are scientifically impossible, so show me the money or go away. See how easy that was?
    And it’s not gods I believe exist, it’s God, the Creator and Supreme Being. I believe it as the only possible conclusion to my existence.

  • Carmenalex

    I mean dude..your only argument is you seem to think rocks make baby rocks and there be gods..or god…which you cant seem to explain who made this god, because you said everything has to have a beginning. So who made god?

  • winslow

    Further evidence you either can’t read or can’t understand what you read. My allegation is, it’s YOU who think rock beget rock since you have no other way to account for the existence of matter. Feel free to read that as many times as it takes for you to get it.
    I never said ‘everything has to have a beginning. I said either the universe was created or it created itself. God is spirit and doesn’t exist in that which He created. A little complicated for someone like you, so don’t trouble yourself with it.

  • Carmenalex

    And by the way, she’s right..magical baby rocks dont have anything to do with the Big Bang.

  • winslow

    You don’t know much, do you? What is ‘The Big Bang’ and what came out of it? Where did all the material released by the alleged Big Bang come from? Did it create itself? Did one rock beget another? How did it all multiply of was it all there from the beginning? There is much to account for in your philosophy, yet you seem to think believers are the only ones who have to prove what they believe. Very convenient rules of engagement you make up for yourselves. Clear evidence of my primary dictum on this site, ‘You have to be brain-dead to be an atheist.’

  • antonio

    What are you doing in a atheist blog?…troll

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Well, maybe we are what happens past the event horizon of a massive black hole. Maybe we are the remains of previous universes. Maybe we are the result of completely random quantum fluctuations. Maybe we haven’t come up with the correct hypothesis yet at all.

    What we are pretty damn sure of is no God masturbated and, ahem, “shot” the universe into existence in any way, shape, or form. There’s no evidence for that.

  • Fred

    HAHAHA.
    I see what you did there.

    Not being able to prove where matter comes is meaningless when I can pick up some evidence that it exists and toss it at your head. You can try the same with your god.

  • winslow

    Fred. Wake up. We all know matter exists. Where it comes from is the ultimate answer. Tell me where matter comes from and, if it’s not created, I’ll take your atheism seriously. Otherwise you’re just fooling yourself.
    Once again, God is not matter. You made a bad analogy.

  • Fred

    HAHAHA,
    Thanks for admitting that matter exists.
    I’m still waiting for the evidence that your god exists.

    Then we can move onto where they come from.

  • winslow

    What’s funny, Fred? Are you entertaining yourself? I’d have to be brain dead to deny the existence of matter. Do you think I’m like you?
    As to evidence of the existence of God, the universe is evidence of the existence of God; YOU are evidence of the existence of God. You began as a speck in your mother’s womb and the miracle of God’s creation began. You had a heartbeat before you had a brain. Every cell in your body came to be from the same source, though they are as diverse as the parts themselves. We can say that about all living things, but you reject creation. You believe things just happen that way. You believe rock begets rock and begets life. it all happens by itself, right? The conclusion is inescapable; you have to be brain dead to be an atheist.
    Have a nice day, Fred.

  • Baby_Raptor

    You’re funny.

    Reproduction isn’t proof of god. It’s proof two people had sex. Thanks for erasing women, though. It’s not like we play in part in pregnancy,

    Do you know why a fetus’ heart beats before it has a brain? Because the mother’s body is handling all the fetus’ needs and functions. Just like the mother’s body gives it nutrients and other necessary elements. It has nothing to do with god.

    You would have to be brain dead to choose the “I don’t understand it? God did it!” way of thinking.

  • winslow

    winslow Fred

    • 2 days ago

    Baby_Raptor said: You’re funny.
    Really? And you’re sad. There are miracles happening all around you all day, but your ideology has blinded you to all of them. That’s as sad as It gets.

    B_R: Reproduction isn’t proof of god. It’s proof two people had sex. Thanks for erasing women, though. It’s not like we play in part in pregnancy,
    A perfect homage to your ideology. Two people had sex and a baby popped out. More evidence you have to be brain dead to be an atheist.
    As to my ‘erasing woman,’ it appears feminism is another ideology which has crippled your brain. Had you not been victimized by that ideology, you would have seen, read and understood my remark to Fred that he began as a speck in his mother’s womb. HIs mother was a woman at the time, you know. Or do you?

    B_R: Do you know why a fetus’ heart beats before it has a brain? Because the mother’s body is handling all the fetus’ needs and functions. Just like the mother’s body gives it nutrients and other necessary elements. It has nothing to do with god.
    Is that so? IOW, it just happens and Mom makes it happen. Tell me this. Outside of following a healthy diet, avoiding things like tobacco, alcohol and drugs and seeing her doctor regularly, what active part does a woman have in the development of her child? You know what ‘active part’ means, I think. Supplying the needs of her child is nothing the mother does. It happens as much when she’s sleeping and when she’s awake. Perhaps more. And it has everything to do with God. Anyone with half a brain could figure that one out.
    Do you know a baby can be born under water and live without breathing as long as the placenta is attached? The baby needs to breathe only after it has taken its first breath. I guess Mom does that, too, huh?
    A woman is the means by and through which God performs the wonderful miracle of creation. There is a similar process for every living thing in the world, animal and vegetable.

    B_R: You would have to be brain dead to choose the “I don’t understand it? God did it!” way of thinking.
    First of all, get your own material. I assigned ‘brain dead’ to atheists. ‘So’s your old man’ doesn’t cut it.
    I didn’t say I didn’t understand it. I understand perfectly how God does things. It starts with understanding the nature of God. He (for lack of a more accurate term) is not a ‘Big Daddy in the sky’ or whatever term you use to phrase your insults. And he’s not kin to your grandfather, as some atheists seem to think. As creator of the universe, God owns everything and can do whatever He decides to do. “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ and there was light.” Simple as that.
    Atheism is illogical. That’s easy to understand, too. Happy New Year, if it’s possible for a feminist-atheist to be happy. :-)

  • Baby_Raptor

    …Do you have any idea at all how pregnancy works? There’s not a single thing right in that rant. I’ve actually carried a pregnancy to term, so I know of what I speak.

    The idea that god steps in and takes over a woman’s body functions when she’s asleep is hilarious, though. That’s a form of erasure I hadn’t heard yet. But hey, whatever you need to think to keep you in your bubble.

    I’m actually happy now that I left Christianity behind. I don’t need to sit around insulting people to feel superior, and constantly reassure myself that I’m smart by saying over and over that anyone who disagrees with me must not have any brain function. I don’t need to give my life up to some mystical being, I can own my own problems and fix them myself, and I make my own decisions. I’m happier than you’ll ever be.

  • Fred

    The universe is evidence for itself.

    You pointing at a rock on the ground and claiming that a god made it, isn’t evidence.

  • winslow

    Do you even know what you mean when you say, ‘The universe is evidence of itself?” (And the correct phrasing is ‘of itself.’ not ‘for itself.) You’re saying the universe is evidence of its existence, not its creation. You have one of two possibilities there, Fred. Either the universe was created or it created itself. Which do you believe?
    Unless you believe the rock on the ground created itself, by the operation of logic and deductive reasoning, the only possible alternative is, it was created. If it was created, there had to be a creator. That’s who we call ‘God.’