Jesuit Professor is Peeved That, Per Pope Francis, Atheists Can Go to Heaven Without ‘Putting In Sunday-Time’

What was the biggest atheist event of 2013?

I’d argue that it was the election of Pope Francis (I was seriously tempted to title this blog post “All I Want For Christmas Is Pope Frank”).

More on the popular pontiff in a minute. First, I’d like to introduce you to Joe Simmons.

A Jesuit philosophy professor in Omaha, Nebraska, Simmons likes the concepts of inclusiveness and divine beneficence, but his gut reaction when Pope Francis (kind of) declared atheists fit for heaven earlier this year was still one of shock and envy, he wrote back in June:

Even though I read Francis’ words with some joy, it wasn’t hard to imagine that faint, indignant voice popping up in response to even such inclusive and hopeful words. This time it sounded like the biblical older brother, like a voice pushed out through clenched teeth, seething with indignation at having to watch his good-for-nothing Prodigal Brother return home only to be welcomed with open arms by their overjoyed father. This time it whispered:

All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!

You know how those atheists are, always squandering property and cavorting with prostitutes! (Interestingly, columnist Ross Douthat, in today’s New York Times, uses the same prodigal-son scripture story to voice his own nagging misgivings about Pope Francis.)

Stripped of Biblical references, Simmons’ complaint comes down to this:

The indignant voice in my own mind says: “I do good because of my faith. And my reward will be eternal life with God. So how can atheists — people who’ve rejected God and the Church … — get the same reward? I’ve had to put in Sunday-time get this salvation… why don’t they have to do the same?

It’s not the most magnanimous response, but at least Simmons is honest about the fact that he’s a bit annoyed and a trifle jealous. In fact, I admire that he openly struggles with his own peevishness. After we both die, I’ll look for him up in heaven to find out if he’s been able to let go of the chip on his shoulder. (But seriously: the self-searching attitude Simmons displays in his piece is nothing to sneeze at.)

The most encouraging line for atheists is probably the one in which Simmons, perhaps for the first time in his life, entertains this startling idea:

If other people can do good without claiming God, then maybe all this time spent talking about God — or to God — is… fruitless.

That kind of doubt opens up pathways to rationality, and Pope Francis has unlocked them on a scale no Dawkins bestseller can match. Francis’ appearance on the world stage is no doubt a victory for Catholicism, but it’s perhaps an even bigger gift for atheists.

(cartoon by David Hayward)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Jeff P

    Life just isn’t fair. Atheists score better on math & science and now it comes to pass that God likes atheists better as well. Go figure…

  • invivoMark

    No, Francis is NOT a boon to atheists.

    All he has done is damage control for the church’s image. He has not changed church policy, he has not caused Catholic groups to start working with organizations who support LGBTs, he has not fixed the church’s misogyny, their bronze-age morality, their protection of child rapists, or their ongoing genocide in Africa.

    If anything, what he’s done will preserve the worst elements of the Catholic church, because it makes it difficult to pressure the church to change when half of atheists are too busy fawning over how nice Mr. Francis is.

    Toss that.

    • Pitabred

      And Obama hasn’t singlehandedly ushered us into fiscal solvency or anything like that. The Pope may be in charge, but he’s still just a man. He is better than any other person who’s held that position during my lifetime, so I’ll definitely give him recognition for his progress, such as with the Bling Bishop, and extending a bit of an olive branch to everyone else, even if his theology still disagrees with us.

      He’s not perfect, he’s not even right. But I’d rather him be the pontiff than a great many others.

      • Nate Frein

        No, but the pope could have done little things. Like put pressure on the indian archbishops to drop the Sanal Edamaruku case. Or apologize for Savita Halappanavar’s death.

        He’s done nothing substantive to even address small issues with the church. Just said nice things about dem atheists.

        • Pitabred

          I disagree.

          It will never be immediate, or probably enough for us atheists. Who knows what politics go through there, too. But again… he’s better than any other Pope has been. I’m not going to begrudge him recognition of that. I will keep pushing for him to do more, but to not recognize actual progress that has happened is folly, too.

          • baal

            I’m willing to give him a little longer but the two-step coming out of the Vatican suggests to me that pope Frank is a front man puppet and Emeritus Palapatine is still running the show. i.e. We’ll get more decency on the margins (which across all of the Catholicdom is not a small thing) but substantive change will not happen.

            • Pitabred

              That’s basically all I’m saying. I’m still very much against a lot of what Catholocism teaches and does, but if one still insists on being Catholic, you could do a lot worse than Francis leading them.

      • Casimir

        Well, no. I think there’s an assumption with that analogy that I don’t share. Many people would like to see the US continue as a nation and be fiscally solvent. I don’t see why I would want the Catholic Church to continue to be an influential organization with a big budget. I’m actually more than ok with the Catholic Church become a fringe group, or even going into the dustbin of history along with the Arians, the Cathar Heresy, and followers of Poseidon.

        I prefer Benedict, since more decent people were leaving the church. Instead we’ve got Francis delaying the inevitable, and decent people continuing to support an organization that covered up child molesters and continues to oppose equal rights for homosexuals.

    • Peter Hardy

      Genocide in Africa?! The Church provides more medical help in Africa than any other charity. You’re clearly too hysterical to be taken seriously.

      • UWIR

        The US gives about $8 billion/year to Africa. How much does the RCC provide? And how much do they harm Africans by opposing condoms?

      • more compost

        If you are going to come to an atheist blog and spout off about how good “The Church” is, please provide some evidence.

        That’s the reason why we are atheists. “The Church” doesn’t have any evidence to support its claims.

        Don’t make claims without evidence. If you don’t have facts to back it up, don’t say anything.

        • Peter Hardy

          I haven’t just come here, this has been one of my favourite blogs for about a year, I share lots of the posts.

          I didn’t see any evidence supporting the ridiculous claims in the post I was replying to. Look it up yourself if you’re so interested.

          • ShoeUnited

            That’s all well and good, but you haven’t addressed the issue UWIR has brought up about telling Africans that condoms cause aids and the detriment that has had for controlling aids in Africa.

          • more compost

            “Look it up yourself if you’re so interested.”

            You are the one coming here making claims. You are the one I am talking to. It is incredibly weak to say, “Other people are doing it!”

            You are convincing zero people.

            • Peter Hardy

              “You are the one coming here making claims.” – As I said in my previous post, you haven’t supported the *claims you made* with evidence either. The burden of proof is no more on me that on you.

        • Emmet

          Sure. So where’s the evidence that the Church is carrying out genocide in Africa? I mean, come on. Any evidence for that claim?

          • DavidMHart

            I think what InvivioMark was referring to was the policy of opposing the use of barrie contraception in societies where HIV is rife and effective medication unaffordable. It isn’t deliberate murder to persuade vast numbers of people not to use contraception who will either be fatally infected themselves or infect others, but it is, in Sam Harris’s memorable phrase, genocidal stupidity. By opposing the one simple technology that holds out the promise of saving millions of lives before we develop an effective and affordable vaccine (assuming that we ever even do), despite having access to all the necessary information to be able to understand the medical need for barrier contraception in those areas, the church is effectively committing genocide-by-negligence.

            Though do correct me if I’m wrong – if the church has either turned up good evidence that barrier contraception leads to more deaths than it prevents, or has changed its weirdly anti-sex stance.

            • Emmet

              So wait – people who aren’t following the Church’s teachings on abstaining from sex before marriage and being faithful to their spouse are yet following the Church’s teachings on contraception while they commit adultery and fornication? And this is genocide?

              That’s absurd.

              • DavidMHart

                If the Church is the only source of information about contraception in a particular location, and it is pushing a no-condoms policy (or is able to limit the availability of condoms for everyone in a locality), then yes, it is knowingly pushing an agenda that will lead to deaths that would not have happened if it weren’t pushing that agenda.

                And even if the Church were only preaching to already-confirmed Catholics, it would still be engaging in needlessly death-promoting behaviour since
                a) abstinence is only 100% effective if everyone is 100% obedient
                b) no one has ever figured out a way of coaxing 100% obedience to the church’s preachings on abstinence
                c) by demonising contraception, the church is planting those memes in the minds of both the people who are going to heed its abstinence-only method 100% of the time and those who aren’t, making it extremely likely that some people who would have had sex-outside-of-marriage either way will fail to use contraception where they otherwise would have.

                And that doesn’t even address the issue of married couples, one of whom has already been infected, or one of whom is sleeping with other partners without the other’s knowledge, thus exposing their spouse to a risk of infection that could be massively lowered by condom use.

                There is simply no way of getting around the fact that in a society where HIV is rife and treatment unaffordable, the church’s position on contraception serves to promote the spread of a potentially fatal disease*. Multiply that by enough people and ‘genocide-by-negligence’ is an entirely non-absurd thing to call it.

                [edit: incidentally, it also makes a mockery of the church's own claims to being pro-life. What they care about is not life per se, how ever loudly they protest that it is. Their policy choices make it clear that what they really are is anti-sex (outside their own limited confines) and they are therefore entirely comfortable to make sex more dangerous than it would otherwise be.]

                *Don’t try to get around that by saying that the church’s position on sex mitigates against that. We both know that it is far easier to get people to use contraception when having sex than it is to get them to refrain from having sex at all.

                • Feminerd

                  To be honest, the RCC isn’t pro-life at all, given that they’d rather kill a woman and her fetus than perform an abortion.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Francis’ appearance on the world stage is no doubt a victory for Catholicism, but it’s perhaps an even bigger gift for atheists.

    Still have no idea why as an atheist I should care what the Pope thinks about anything. Or at least care any more than anyone else who has as much insight into the mind of the creator of the universe as he does which is to say every person on the planet.

    • Terry Firma

      I’m not arguing that we should care what Pope Francis thinks about us. I’m arguing that his willingness to dull the Church’s harshest teachings is giving lots of Catholics license to re-examine and re-imagine their faith.

      In the case of prof. Simmons, he’s contemplating whether all that time spent talking to and about God is a waste. You can see the wheels turning: Perhaps all that matters is being an upstanding person. Whadda concept.

      You don’t find that encouraging?

      • Art_Vandelay

        Sure…if it were happening. For the most part though all I see is Catholics talking about how super awesome he is and in turn how good Catholicism makes you. Most Catholics don’t constantly reexamine and assess what they believe the way this Jesuit does. Their theology isn’t very sophisticated at all. Sure, there are exceptions but most Catholics look at Francis’ ridiculous words about atheists getting to go somewhere they don’t even think exists and it just makes them think how lucky they are to be part of such an inclusive faith (which we know is bullshit). “Hey…he touched a guy with boils last week. Our Pope touched a man with boils!! Physically!” Nobody really asks the obvious question about how low your moral standard for the vicar of Christ on earth is when you’re freaking out just because he touched someone with a skin affliction.

      • Rusty Spell

        He’s not dulling anything. He’s re-packaging the harsh teachings and flashing shiny (in this case “humble”) objects to distract us from the fact that nothing has changed. Simmons’s reaction is from a man who doesn’t understand the game that Francis is playing. My vote for the less evil person of the two is Simmons.

  • SansDeus

    This is something I always argued with my dad about. I would argue with him that god wouldn’t be forgiving or loving (which my dad always referred to god as) if he were to ignore or damn someone who was an exemplary good person their whole life without ever knowing, acknowledging or refusing a belief in a god.

    Basically my father believes the same as these guys, that they don’t think it’s possible to be a truly good person possible without a deity (although their book of examples of said deity’s acts are contrary to how a good person would act).

  • trivialknot

    Sounds like an admission that religion has no benefit in this life.

    Funny, because when I kid I thought mass was so boring, I seriously questioned why God would ever put us through it.

    • baal

      I never could fathom that a deity would want a Mass when I was in them. My young mind was of the set, “Really, This? of all the things?”.

  • decathelite

    Isn’t there a whole story in the Bible about a guy who has a couple of kids, one who obeys and one who disobeys, and the one who obeys is mad at his dad because the disobedient one gets his father’s blessing too? And the dad is like, I’m going to give my blessing to whoever I like because it’s my blessing to give, so STFU.

    • Cat

      That’d be the story of the prodigal son that’s referenced in the above article.

      • Terry Firma

        Twice. :-)

        • Little_Magpie

          indeed, but i do like decathelite’s nice little paraphrase/summary above. :)

      • decathelite

        Sorry, I was confused and thought the prodigal son story was the one about the guy with three sons who gave them each different amounts of cash to invest. Sorry.

    • JT Rager

      That is EXACTLY what I thought of. I think that professor should read more of the bible.

      • Peter Hardy


      • UWIR

        I think it’s Terry who should, because he doesn’t seem to understand that this the professor’s point.

  • Kellen Connor

    Screw Pope Publicity Gimmick I. I’ve got more respect for Simmons then I ever did for that show-boating old windbag.

  • aoscott

    Very telling when he says “I do good because of my faith.” I suspect this is what motivates a large number of religious people. You do good because you will be rewarded after you die. To me, that sounds like a brilliant con — do all of these things in life, and you’ll get your reward after you die ;] ;]

    • silv

      It’s a pretty damn awful way of claiming your a good person anyway. You’re motivated by fear of retribution instead of concern for others welfare. I know that’s not a secret with the whole morality-as-obedience shtick but pretty much shows the warped view of morality.

      • silv

        Meant people who share that view not ‘you’ personally :D

        • aoscott

          I got ya ;]

    • Peter Hardy

      He didn’t say that, that was the author of the post intepreting what he thought he meant.

      • The Other Weirdo

        But isn’t that a Biblical point of view, anyway? Jesus instructed a number of people to give away their wealth to the poor not because it was the right thing to do to feed the poor(and also a stupid thing to do because without more wealth you can’t make more wealth to help even more poor), but because rich men can’t get into heaven? So the future reward part is already built right from the start into Christian charity.

      • aoscott

        Ahhh you’re right. I didn’t read that carefully enough. Thanks for pointing that out :] Not sure why you’re getting downvoted….

  • LesterBallard

    I don’t care what “Francis” says, so I really don’t care what this one says. There is no Heaven, or Hell. But if people didn’t believe in them, churches and religion would be shit out of luck.

  • busterggi

    One of my earliest problems with the RCC when I was a kid was that not attending Sunday mass was something that was somehow evil enough to get one sent to hell for eternity – why would a ruler of the universe care?

    • FTP_LTR

      As Amy said in the Big Bang Theory

      “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance”

  • Rusty Spell

    Francis is horrible, and each time a non-Catholic or non-believer wets his/her pants for him, it’s another victory for the evil things he stands for. I was so offended when he said the thing about atheists: he is a man who is given great power while having zero actual power, and now he thinks he can put me in Heaven? Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! (And what an offensive comic strip: the sad-sack atheist, it turns out, needs the approval of this benevolent heavenly jerk.) Why would any one of us want to be a member of the baby-rapists’ country club in the sky?

    And remember what he said about gay people and women’s rights? Not that he was changing his mind about these issues, but that he just didn’t want to talk about it as much. And the crowd cheered. It was like that time the man continued to beat his wife but stopped bragging about it. What a guy!

    My favorite recent pant-wetting was when the pope kissed a man with a disfigured face. The only reason people would cheer for this is if they believed he was actually God’s representative on earth, someone who would condescend to kiss a disgusting mere mortal. At least Jesus, apparently, had the power to heal sick people. Francis could only close his eyes earnestly for the camera. It was nothing but a photo op, and the pope was the one who grossed me out, not the man with the boils.

    I can’t stress enough that there is nothing positive happening here.

    • Pitabred

      It’s all relative.

      Relative to any Pope that’s been alive in any of our lifetimes, he’s a lot better. No, he’s far from perfect or even good, but he is the leader of a hell of a lot of religious people, and if he’s showing them a slightly better way of behaving, I’ll take it. I want it to go further, but I’m not going to begrudge him recognition of progress, either.

      • newavocation

        Hey, he is just saying what he needs to say to keep the cash coming from the Catholics on the fringes.

      • Emmet

        What’s the “slightly better way of behaving”?

        • DavidMHart

          Not demonising gay people and atheists quite so much, not obsessing quite so much about the supposed ineligibility of women to have a role with meaningful decision-making power within the hierarchy, trying to tone up the humility and tone down the ostentatious gold thrones and Dorothy-shoes? If you don’t think that those are better ways of behaving than the previous pope (if only by a very small margin) then I submit that you may be operating on a definition of ‘better’ that is totally at odds with the ordinary everyday use of the word.

  • baal

    “You know how those atheists are, always squandering prostitutes and cavorting with goats!” We aren’t regular evil doers.

  • Kate Rauner

    I recall a friend who told me that (in his childhood), when he asked his priest what happened to people who had never heard the teachings of the church, he was told God would forgive their ignorance. “So stop teaching me all this stuff” he had said. “I need all the ignorance I can get to explain my actions.” I don’t know if that was original – it sounds like Mark Twain, doesn’t it? But I loved it.

  • Nate Frein

    Didn’t the Vatican basically come out and say “Lol, no. That Francis, he’s such a kidder, ya’ll are gonna burn if you don’t convert” right after Pope Francis made his “pro atheist” statement?

    • MineApostasy

      Yeah, and then Francis went on to counter that. This is the danger they live under for having an infallible leader.

      • Nate Frein

        I haven’t seen his counter…do you have a link? Can’t really do in depth searches atm.

        • MineApostasy

          Here’s a link to the interview that’s considered the second time he says it:

          This was also after the damage control was done by the Vatican officials. I just worry that he’ll end up angry with atheists as he continues in a similar manner to Luther’s antisemitism — e.g. “I gave them so many opportunities to find Jesus on their own and told them how welcome they would be but they’re just so stubborn.”

          In Luther’s case that ended up being a major part of traditional German antisemitism and used a couple of hundred years later to justify terrible, and hateful laws.

    • Peter Hardy

      No, that was a lone priest much of the media -including this blog I believe- claimed was a ‘Vatican spokesman’ but was in fact no such thing..

      • JohnnieCanuck

        So he’s no True Vatican Spokesman™? Is that what you are saying?

        BTW, an ellipsis is 3 dots all in 1 character… Shouldn’t you be more familiar with such concepts?

        • The Other Weirdo

          Report: “Pope says atheists not destined to hell.”
          Believer: “No Pope would ever say that.”
          Report: “Pope says Catholics shouldn’t beat on gays so much.”
          Believer: “No real Pope would ever say that.”

  • A3Kr0n

    Imagine having an imaginary friend when you were a child, and when you grew up you went to collage to study about your imaginary friend. Now, other people have given you a piece of paper that says you’re a professional, and your line of work is teaching others about your imaginary friend. That’s Joe Simmons in a nutshell.

  • Mario Strada

    That may be, but I hear that when you go look for a place at the heavenly housing board all those people that went to church and prayed every day always get the best mansions. They just can’t help but discriminate. Even in heaven.

  • Buckley

    “My name’s Psycho, any of you call me Francis, and I’ll Kill ya. Any of you try and touch me, and I’ll kill ya.” Lighten up Francis.

  • Mick

    Pope Francis … the popular pontiff Not really, All that’s happening is that a billion simpering Catholics are praising his name even as his cronies rape their children.

    If that Joe Simmons had bothered to read the office noticeboard he would have found the Pope’s “Lumen Fidei” encyclical and quickly realised that anything nice said about the atheists was nothing more than piss and wind.

    In section 3 of the encyclical (published on June 29, 2013) the ‘popular pope’ says that it is impossible for non-catholics to tell good from evil. He says they flap about in endless circles, going nowhere.

    In section 19 he also claimed that non-Catholics, fail to realize that goodness comes from God so their lives become futile and their works barren.

    • The Other Weirdo

      “No one —
      Saint Justin Martyr writes —
      has ever been ready to die
      for his faith in the sun”.

      But… that’s a good thing. If more people felt this way, we’d all be better off.

  • Rain

    Ross Douthat sure is long-winded about a bunch of dumb crap. Does he actually waste time thinking about all that? Anyway, I’m glad the Pope kicked out all the stuffy self-important old oooooh-so-serious-about-dumb-stuff stuffy-stuffs.

  • Paula M Marshall

    “iinclusive”….okay, I cannot have respect for anyone in a religion who says you don’t have to believe in that particular religion. Why not just leave it? Very hypocritical.

  • advancedatheist

    You know how those atheists are, always squandering property and cavorting with prostitutes!

    I guess Simmons hasn’t heard about how atheist men can’t even pick up godless women at conventions these days.

    • islandbrewer

      That’s just you, AA.

    • RowanVT

      You have a consistency problem.

      Do you think women being promiscuous is a problem, or not?
      Do you think women being in control of their own sexuality is a problem or not?

      If you think those things are a problem, then you shouldn’t be whining about not picking up women at atheist conventions.
      If you think those things are NOT a problem, then fucking stop carping on about what terrible things they are.

      You are the reason you can’t get casual sex. You are an ass, plain and simple, and your braying is obnoxious.

    • Matt D

      Not by treating them as you do, no.

    • katiehippie

      Godless women aren’t stupid.

  • advancedatheist

    If atheists don’t go to hell when we die, how can our lives have any meaning?

  • Peter Callan

    Yeah, missing the point of course, in their tried and true narrow view of the universe, that there’s no heaven. So not sure exactly what Pope Frank is achieving for we atheists here.

  • GCBill

    I have come to realize that for atheists, there are two ideal Pope types:
    1) A Pope so conservative that Catholics are driven away from the Church in droves.
    2) A Pope so liberal that he champions reform of the Church’s less egalitarian doctrines.

    Francis might seem likeable on the surface, but in truth he is lukewarm – neither hot nor cold. And for that reason, we ought to spit him out.

  • UWIR

    It looks to me like Terry is totally missing the point. The whole point of the prodigal son story is that it’s an allegory for someone who spends his whole life serving God, and is angry that someone who converted late in life after a life of sin gets the same reward as him. Simmons is simply echoing that message with respect to Francis’ words.

    • joey_in_NC

      Yeah, I thought the point is pretty obvious as well.

      • baal

        I thought the point of the story was that getting angry over someone being in god’s good graces regardless of how or why is unchristian.

        • islandbrewer

          I thought it was about veal should be well marbled.

  • revyloution

    It’s funny how you never see Joe Klein killing a fattened calf, or even a young goat, for a prodigal son who comes home after whoring around.

  • Ethan Anderson

    Well, this isn’t exactly on-point, but as far as grace being “fair” goes, Matthew 20 has a bit to say about that.

  • Bender

    The indignant voice in my own mind says: “I do good because of my faith. And my reward will be eternal life with God. So how can atheists — people who’ve rejected God and the Church … — get the same reward?

    Because we did good without expecting a reward, that’s why.

  • fenaray

    Irony, gotta love it.

  • Croquet_Player

    Well, it offers another insight into why some people have such a knee-jerk dislike of atheists – they feel like we’re getting away with something.

  • Robster

    Pope Frank, catches busses you know! Does some strange things still though like washing other blokes feet, eating and drinking jesus flesh and blood on Sundays (that’s really weird), those silly hats shouldn’t be forgotten either, he’s still a smelly old pope.

  • ShoeUnited

    Kinda funny that a Jesuit is bitching about expanding openess in the RCC. He should read up on the history of the Jesuits.