So atheists are people too?

Progress in reaching common ground between what appear to be irreconcilable viewpoints often happens in slow increments. But our attention spans and fondness for hyperbole gets in the way of recognising this, and perhaps perpetuates unnecessary disagreement.

Last week the Pope dared to suggest that atheists might find their way to heaven, or at least be capable of being good people. The church was quick off the mark with damage control regarding the heaven bit (insisting that it’s still only via Christ that you can be issued with a visa), but that was never the interesting bit of Pope Francis’s sermon in any event.

Francis is quoted as saying: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

It’s not plausible to read Francis as claiming that faith is now optional for salvation. Besides the obvious point that atheists could hypothetically be redeemed once they become believers, the important thing in the sermon is the fact that he explicitly allows for atheists to be, and to do, good.

Most atheists I discussed this with were dismissive, asserting that they don’t need the Pope’s endorsement of their moral virtue, or questioning what the Pope might even mean by “good”. In other words, most reactions missed the point by a mile.

We know, from Gallup polls and other research in the US that atheists are distrusted and thought to have no foundation for moral principles. We see that politicians constantly name-check faith, and that Julia Gillard is an exceptional case in being an atheist who has managed to become elected to the presidency (of Australia). In other words, we know that in the PR battle around moral issues such as trust, integrity, charity and the like, atheists struggle to compete with religion.

We don’t struggle to compete in reality, of course – but exploring that is not the point of this column. The point of this column is to say that when the leader of the Catholic Church tells adherents of that religion – one of the largest in the world – that they don’t have a monopoly on virtue, that message directly contradicts an existing and powerful stereotype.

You don’t have to like the Pope, or respect him and his Church, to regard it as a good thing that this influential person makes a statement undermining the idea that you can’t be morally decent without religion. That idea keeps atheists from speaking out, declaring their non-belief to family, friends, or the electorate. It is used as a form of pressure to get people into faiths in the first place, because who would want to be perceived as an immoral (even evil) person?

In other words, there’s a big picture here, beyond our egos. There are in fact various big pictures, competing with the ones describing child abuse in the church, or the sexism of Catholicism. Progress is possible at various rates, at various times and through various forms of strategy – but to deny that this is progress of any sort is as blinkered a reaction as we like to accuse religious folk of falling prey to.

As a friend remarked on Facebook, “change in the views of those who are opposed to ours is, after all, a vital part of progress. It doesn’t mean that the Pope isn’t still part of the opposition to reason, and he continues to promote hateful and dangerous views, but we can be happy about a change for the better without needing to like the person who has changed.”

Read the full article: Jacques Rousseau – So atheists are people too? (The Daily Maverick)

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