(RNS) Atheists and other nonbelievers largely welcomed Wednesday’s (May 22) remarks by Pope Francis that performing “good works” is not the exclusive domain of people of faith, but rather a place where they and atheists could and should meet.

Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter's Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. World leaders flew in for Pope Francis' inauguration Mass in St. Peter's Square on Tuesday where Latin America's first pontiff will receive the formal symbols of papal power.  RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. World leaders flew in for Pope Francis’ inauguration Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday where Latin America’s first pontiff will receive the formal symbols of papal power. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In a private homily, Francis described doing good not as a matter of faith, but of “duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because he has made us in his image and likeness.”

Then, referring to non-Catholics and nonbelievers, he said, “if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.”

Reaction among American nonbelievers ranged from mild surprise to warm welcome. Some say they see Francis’ remarks as a sign that nonbelief — atheism, humanism and other forms of freethought — is being normalized, while others see recognition of what they say they have known all along: Having no faith does not mean having no morality.

“We are a community that is just trying to do good and live good lives, just like most communities are,” said Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s Humanist chaplain and author of “Good Without God.” “His statement is an acknowledgment of that. It is welcome and it is gratifying.”

Epstein was struck by the contrast of Francis’ remarks and Tuesday’s broadcast of an interview by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer of an Oklahoma tornado victim. When Blitzer asked the woman if she wanted to thank God for her family’s survival, she replied she is an atheist.

“You have this small example of this soft-spoken young mother who is recovering from the tornado who by her presence, her quiet dignity, not only exemplified what the pope was saying, but overshadowed him,” Epstein said. “The quiet dignity of her just being a person and so clearly a good and loving person, it makes my reaction, and I would think a lot of people’s reaction (to Francis’ remarks), ‘Well, of course.’”

Dale McGowan is an author and executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a nontheistic charitable organization. He was recently enlisted to write “Atheism for Dummies,” the first book about nontheists from the “Dummies” series of books. RNS photo courtesy of Dale McGowan

Dale McGowan is an author and executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a nontheistic charitable organization. He was recently enlisted to write “Atheism for Dummies,” the first book about nontheists from the “Dummies” series of books. RNS photo courtesy of Dale McGowan


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Dale McGowan also affirmed the pope’s recognition of nonbelievers. His Foundation Beyond Belief collects funds from nonbelievers and distributes them to charities and relief organizations and organizes teams of secular volunteers. To date, Foundation Beyond Belief has raised more than $35,000 for victims of the Oklahoma tornado.

“Anything that decreases the mistrust and fear between people is a good thing,” he said. “Some people might say it contradicts past statements (of other popes), but I don’t care about any of that. It is terrific when a position evolves to where we can put division behind us, and this is an example of that and I think it is great.”

D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Education Foundation, an organization of skeptics, said he hears echoes of the landmark Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in Francis’ remarks. And while he takes issue with some policies of the Catholic Church — the promotion of miracles, the opposition to contraception — the pope’s address was nonetheless “refreshing.”

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was a vocal opponent of secularism and unbelief, even as he approved a new initiative called “Courtyard of the Gentiles” to engage in dialogue with nonbelievers and linked arms with outspoken Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, an atheist who saw trouble in the growth of European Islam.

“I don’t see that disdain for nonbelief that was so apparent before” in other popes, Grothe said. “He is really talking about what I would call humanism — the ethical approach to making the world a better place without recourse to supernatural beliefs.”

In the same homily, Francis said all people, “even the atheists,” are “redeemed” through “the Blood of Christ” — the Christian belief that the sins of humanity are wiped clean through the crucifixion of Jesus. The inclusion of atheists in a belief they do not share seemed to raise few hackles.

“He was using his own language and speaking from his own beliefs,” McGowan said, a statement echoed by others. “That is not the point. The point is he is saying, ‘I don’t fear you,’ and I think that is a lovely thing.”

KRE/AMB END WINSTON

19 Comments

  1. katherine appello

    No, the blood of Christ does not wash away the sins of those who reject him, live purposely in sin and do not claim Christ as personal savior. If doing good was all it took, then there would have been no need for Jesus. We can disagree with atheists and they with us, but to say all are saved just because they are charitable and nice is bogus Christian teaching.

    • Timothy Riches

      Seriously, think about what your metaphor says about you. You are washed in the blood of someone who was sent to be brutally executed. This was the best your God could come up with? LEND his ‘son’ so that bronze-age peasants wouldn’t have to be burned for all eternity, just because they were born as filthy scum? What are we, bloody Mayans?

    • Far out, I see you’re part of the problem. The thing about this statement (from il Papa) is that they’re simply words. If the Church actually does something I’ll be more impressed.
      Also Katherine, so you’re saying being Christian is what MAKES you charitable? Does it also keep you from stealing, raping and killing? If that is the case then you have problems. As an Atheist I have stolen, raped and killed all I’ve ever wanted to….and that number is ZERO! lol sheesh. I still disagree with religion and this is clearly an attempt to make it seem like “god” is responsible for everything again, but whatever, Katherine, you’re a super dumb dumb

    • Everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want, doesn’t matter how stupid it might be. However, attacking homesexuals or killing people in the name of that belief is not only illegal but also immoral… Religions focus on laws created by their imaginary leaders -god, and have nothing to do with morality. All gods are described by their own followers as narcissists, cruel, impatient, and ignorant of any reality. I think the above title should read: Atheists “feel relieved” by what they see in Pope Francis… instead of the word “like”.. I personally would never like the idea that so many people on this planet have virtually no grasp of reality…

  2. katherine appello: “but to say all are saved just because they are charitable and nice is bogus Christian teaching.”

    Well then become Pope and change the rules. LOL

  3. What I find fascinating is the confidence with which religious people, like Ms. Appello above, can talk about stuff that they cannot possibly have any clue about. Not only she knows what effect the blood of Christ will have on different categories of people, but she knows it better than the Pope or anyone else who knows otherwise. Even if they all know it from the very same book. I think this kind of arrogant, self-reliant “knowledge” is the very essence of faith. I wonder, is humility at all compatible with faith?

  4. Everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want, doesn’t matter how stupid it might be. However, attacking homesexuals or killing people in the name of that belief is not only illegal but also immoral… Religions focus on laws created by their imaginary leaders -god, and have nothing to do with morality. All gods are described by their own followers as narcissists, cruel, impatient, and ignorant of any reality. I think the above title should read: Atheists “feel relieved” by what they see in Pope Francis… instead of the word “like”.. I personally would never like the idea that so many people on this planet have virtually no grasp of reality…

  5. Wow. All I see are hateful and hurtful comments. The Pope is trying to say that whatever is good, noble, loving, and encouraging is from the one who created such virtues- God, a Creator. If the mere notion of this makes you angry or the need to retaliate with hurtful words, then that is a prejudice. It would be similar to a slave owner 200 years ago hearing something good about a slave, and his blood boiling at the mere notion of such a claim. Likewise, looking back on the actions of some “religious” as being proof that a faith in any God or Gods creates bad human behavior is silly at best. By the same rationale, bad human behavior proves that ALL HUMANS are bad; therefore, denouncing any form of Humanism. Hate is plainly seen.

  6. If an atheist does good works and is charitable toward others, then God is acting through him or her. However, good works are insufficient for salvation. If the atheist should repent, however, and believe in Jesus Christ, then salvation may yet be attained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.