The New Pope Says Something Nice About Atheists! Is This Really A Big Deal?

I’ve seen a lot of news stories, opinion pieces, critiques, and other buzz regarding the new pope’s comments about atheists and other non-Catholics, to this effect: that all can do good, and that doing good is what should bring us all together. Sounds nice, right?

While there are many prominent atheists, secular humanists, and others who are gladdened by the pope’s remarks, many others are skeptical or dismissive, as exemplified by participants in a recent online discussion I took part in. They point out that the Pope’s historical positions on many important issues is aligned with the officially systematized bigotry of the church he leads: opposition to gay marriage, women banned from the priesthood, and so on. With this, I agree. They also think it’s a mistake to ‘hope for acceptance’ from the Catholic Church, or that atheists are ‘eagerly’ ‘falling for’ a positive interpretation of the pope’s actual stance on atheism. This is the part of the discussion where I think it veered off into treating some hypotheticals about what the glad atheists are thinking as fact. I think the skeptical reactions may be based on misunderstanding the reasons behind the positive reaction.

My point in the discussion, and my understanding of why there was such a glad reaction to the pope’s comments, was this: the pope’s current tendency to use more peaceful and ecumenical rhetoric is more likely to inspire better behavior in his followers, who generally look to him for an example to follow, not Vatican officials who issue a legalistic statement later. So, even if it’s true that the pope is still a bigot and his church is still an organization that promotes hateful and untrue doctrines, it’s still the case that if the words that come from his mouth are of a more peaceful and ecumenical tone, those who look primarily to him as their role model are more likely to adjust their own attitudes accordingly. That’s one point. There is nothing in this having anything to do with caring whether the pope or any other church members personally approve of atheists, or whether official church doctrine has changed regarding the afterlife and how it pertains to atheists, or any of the other red herrings such as charges of ‘hoping for acceptance’ that came up in the discussion. The positive response of many atheists, especially prominent ones, focus on whether or not the pope’s words signal a positive shift in attitude, and whether his words will provide a good example to his followers.

But another point I didn’t make, which upon reflection I think is more important, is this: the single most influential moral leader in the world just publicly classified atheists (and others) in the same moral category as Christians and Catholics. Christians do good. Atheists do good too. So both are good! Big deal, an atheist, a cosmopolitan, indeed, any reasonably informed or empathetic person might say. That’s as obvious as saying: atheists think and have emotions and are competent language users, therefore, they must be human too! I mean, c’mon! Duh!

But remember: atheists have been distrusted and marginalized for so long, since most Christian religions claim that belief in Christ’s divinity is necessary for deliverance from evil, that the idea that atheists can be good people is a novel one for countless religious people all over the world. Yet these are same people who adjust their beliefs to align with the pope’s, and his words constituted a sort of permission to consider atheists and non-Christians good people too. In my own family there are still those who use the word ‘atheist’ as an epithet for one who’s wicked, stupid, or depraved! The previous pope’s hyper-conservative, dogmatic, and divisive rhetoric did nothing to help matters. This pope’s remarks, by contrast and for the first time at this level of authority and clarity that I’m aware of, places atheists in the same moral category as religious people: those who do good. It humanizes atheists for those who simply don’t understand atheists, who think atheists are evil and have rejected the good since they don’t believe in any gods. And this is important because of what we know about human psychology: people are kinder to others when they identify with them, when they think they’re on the ‘same team’, when they’re humanized and no longer ‘the other’. 

I think that the Pope, with these few remarks, just helped a whole lot of people all over the world to really believe that when it comes to doing good, most human beings believe in the same and most important thing. Thomas Paine described it best: ‘The world is my countryall mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.’ (The Age of Reason, 1794) Whether the Pope himself really shares the conviction that atheists are worthy people, I think his remarks will lead a whole lot of other people to believe so.

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