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)