Atheists like me are used to religious leaders like the last pope telling us that we are going to Hell to be tortured for all eternity because we are skeptical of their pretty hard to believe claims. This new pope surprised everyone the other day by proclaiming that atheists are not condemned to eternal torture if we live a virtuous life. Thanks for that, Pope Francis, but I wasn't worried. I'm reasonably sure that Hell is imaginary.
The thing is that Pope Francis went farther than just acknowledging that atheists aren't going to be tortured for all eternity. He also said that if we live virtuous lives, we will be "redeemed" by Jesus just like Christians. I think that last part goes a little too far for me. I know the pope meant well and probably didn't realize just how condescending that actually sounds to many atheists. In an effort to help the pope better communicate with the growing atheist community and in the spirit of furthering dialog, I'm going to explain why I take issue with his statement.
I'm not interested in being "redeemed" by Jesus. Contrary to the Catholic and even the broader Christian belief, I don't believe humans are evil sinners in need of redemption. I don't see the glass as half empty. The way I see it, the glass is full. Half the glass is filled with water and the other half filled with air. In other words, I don't think people are inherently evil; I think people are more nuanced than that. We do good things and we do bad things.
As a humanist, I have come to understand that people generally try to be the best they can. We are all trying to be the heroes in our own story, sometimes getting sidetracked along the way.
It seems to me that Christian theology demands that Christians focus on a half empty glass. Christianity depends on the belief that we are all evil sinners needing redemption, but what if we aren't evil sinners? What if there is more to the story? Then we don't need redemption and we don't need a redeemer. If people aren't evil sinners and Jesus' alleged death on the cross didn't redeem them vicariously, then the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards. Everything Christianity is about hinges on the belief that we are all wretched human beings and that no one is righteous, not one.
While I really am glad that the current pope doesn't believe that atheists will be and ought to be tortured for all eternity, I think he still has a long way to go on moral issues. It isn't just that we have a diametrically different view of humanity; there are a host of other important moral issues that this pope has to deal with.
The Catholic Church still has to deal with their continuing attempts to cover-up the rampant sexual assault and child rape within the priesthood. They can start by turning over all the priests who they know or suspect have been involved in these criminal acts to the authorities. Any priest who has been "moved around" to avoid prosecution should be turned over to local authorities for prosecution.
I would also like Pope Francis to publicly acknowledge that homosexuality is not immoral and that gay people should have the right to marry the partner of their choice. In the 21st century, our society can no longer stand for intolerance toward the gay community. Even the Boy Scouts are starting to come around on this one.
In many developing nations, AIDS has become an epidemic. With a few words, the pope can save countless lives by simply acknowledging that condoms in most cases prevent the spread of HIV. Instead of telling atheists that we are redeemed too, he should be telling his fellow Catholics that they should use condoms and practice safe sex.
I know poverty is a big issue for this pope. That's great, but at the end of the day he is still the one with the gold scepter. Comedian Sarah Silverman put it best when she made a video calling for the Catholic Church to sell the Vatican and feed the world.
There are of course countless moral issues to talk about, and I truly hope that Pope Francis will continue to reach out to atheists. Maybe we can start to have a meaningful dialog on these and many other moral issues in the future.