My take on Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter.

The other day Sara Lin Wilde posted a rundown of Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter.  It’s not too flattering to unbelievers so I thought I’d take a stab at its premises.

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.)

Yes, without our varying religions, many condemning followers of the others to hell, how would we ever be united?  How about the fact that smiles are contagious, so it is of interest to us to make those around us happy?  How about the fact that hunting every day sucks, and it’s much easier to work together so we have grocery stores?  How about the fact that we can’t invent everything by ourselves, so it makes sense to work together and share our innovations – which is why the world we live in is a literal paradise compared to every generation before us?  We have shared aspirations, fears, etc., and we thrive with regard to all of them better as a group.

Also having friends is fun.

As for hope, I can only wonder what he means by that.  Does hope mean believing things will get better all by themselves?  If so, pray away, because that’s essentially what you’re doing.  However, if hope means that things will get better because we have the power to make them better, why would we need religion for that?  It was humans that conceived of the means to fly.  The schematics for an airplane were nowhere in the bible.  It was humans who designed medicine (without recourse to exorcising demons).  It was humans who figured out how to make food more plentiful, how to make water clean, how to construct better buildings, make light bulbs, indoor plumbing, and on and on.  Hope comes from the power of the human mind.  It always has.  And for any religion to downplay human perspicacity as if we’d be wholly without hope if not for the false promises and empty dreams of faith is an insult.  It’s perplexing how anybody could believe it.

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.

Right, it can’t be that we don’t believe a guy rose from the dead and that the things he supposedly demands are unjust, it’s that we do believe and just don’t have the fortitude of believers.

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)”.

Yes, it is the atheists who believe we are a cosmic blip, at best, who are the self-centered ones.  Thank you for making us aware of that ye infallible head of the one true church teeming with people who believes the architect of the universe loves and takes a personal interest in each one of them on this planet made just for us in a universe made with humans in mind.

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.

Maybe we can’t tell good from evil, but we can sure as shit tell harm from happiness and we can certainly care about that distinction.  If that’s not what you’re talking about when you speak of good and evil, if something can cause bountiful happiness while causing no harm and still be considered immoral, as something to avoid, then we’re probably not going to have a lot in common with our moral opinions.

And you’re god damn right I can be good without attributing my actions to god.  When I read in the bible to hate gays or to kill people for any number of silly reasons, it’s me, not god, who says “Hell no.”

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.

This is just an ad hominem that insists we are insincere.  It can’t be that we’re open to the idea and that all evidence the church has provided (like faith, dude) totally sucks.

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.

Well sure, we live impoverished lives compared to the Vatican in all its opulence (all while espousing the virtue of poverty, unless it’s atheists who are poor, in which case they suck).  However, on the whole, the more religious a country is the more likely it is to be mired in poverty.

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).

I rebut it thusly:

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Jeff van Booven

    I would say her analysis of the making god of other things statement is probably wrong. Being as much of a liberation theologist as he is, it’s more likely he’s making a statement about materialism.

    • iknklast

      And probably a very limited view of materialism. Scientific materialism, the idea that everything has a natural explanation, is what they often argue against, but they do it with such vague terms that people who don’t understand the difference between the terms assume they mean rampant consumerism. The one form of materialism – natural explanations – I am all in favor of. The other form – in a more limited way. Nothing wrong with satisfying needs with material things instead of just filling our belly with the empty calories of Jesus wafers.

      • Pofarmer

        But the Jesus wafers feed your soul. Without them your soul will die. Seriously.

        • Jeff van Booven

          And they’re pretty good dipped in chocolate, and make a good zero calorie–I assume there’s no way those things could have calories–dipper for the Pesto of Christ. As for materialism, I do think he’s probably going for the latter moreso than the former as that’s the kind of materialism more commonly referred to by leftist works and thinkers, which are a profound influence on liberationist theology–something that Latin America is rife with.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Sorry JT…not watching it. You already made me cry my eyes out at work once.

    Here’s a question…what other group of people on the planet could a respected moral authority such as the Pope say these things about and there be no public backlash whatsoever? Could he say that Jews have no moral compass? Could he say that Hispanics lives have no purpose? Could he say that teenagers can’t understand love? That women lead impoverished lives?

    Seriously…name me one group of people that this guy could make such gross generalizations about and not be considered a bigoted asshole?

    • Pofarmer

      “Seriously…name me one group of people that this guy could make such
      gross generalizations about and not be considered a bigoted asshole?”

      Like I told CL Honeycut on anther thread. “It’s what they’ve got.”

  • sparkyb

    I find it ironic that the quote the Pope leveled against the courage of Atheist, “before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security” could be more correctly applied to the faithful. The reason religion is so successful is because there are so many people who don’t want to risk losing the moral simplicity of a fake god that tells you exactly what to do in a single book.

  • phantomreader42

    So, the head of the world’s largest organization for the protection and enrichment of child rapists, who sits on a golden throne claiming to be the infallible representative of almighty god, says I’m arrogant and have no moral compass…
    And every irony meter in the entire Universe simultaneously exploded.

  • iknklast

    The one thing I am not is living an impoverished life. I can’t imagine how my life could be richer. It’s filled with friends, a loving husband and dog, intellectual interests, mindless entertaining pursuits, good food, good wine, and Sunday morning to sleep late. I know very few of my Christian friends who could claim a life that is richer – and many bemoan the emptiness and misery of their lives. My life is full of meaning – meaning that I have invested my life with, meaning to me and those around me. The Pope doesn’t speak for me.

    • Gehennah

      Same here. I didn’t understand the whole impoverished life aspect at all. I’m actually much happier now than I ever was as a Christian. I see every day as even more important now that I don’t believe that I have an eternity to spend in heaven, making this life meaningless.

      • Pofarmer

        “I don’t believe that I have an eternity to spend in heaven, making this life meaningless.”

        And, ya know what, that’s the whole truth. I think I realize now what’s important. I spend more time with my kids RIGHT NOW. I try to teach them lessons that will help them RIGHT NOW. I feel an urgency to be a good father and husband that I never felt before, even if my wife’s brain dead Catholicism creates problems in our marriage. The problems will NOT be caused because I don’t show my wife love and affection RIGHT NOW. In fact, the main cause of tension in our marriage is her fear of the eternal afterlife, and what it means to embrace our short life together RIGHT NOW. God, I hate the Catholic Church.

  • Rob

    Francis argues that in the absence of faith/light, “it is impossible to tell good from evil”

    Funny, I can tell child abuse is evil.

  • baal

    Why is Francis taking pot shots at atheists? The ‘spiritual leader’ of a billion people doesn’t have a better and less othering way of carrying forth the light of his religion?

    I suppose (to answer my own rhetorical question) is that the RCC is trying to up the mental cost (fear factor) to leaving the faith. If that’s the case, it’s an awful way to argue. In plainer English – “Stay with me honey since the other guy is more of a loser than I am and you should be afraid of him.”