“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! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, 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. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
I smiled while reading the Huffington Post piece, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics. (I’m assuming it applies to us agnostics who do good in the world as well, since the hair between the atheist and agnostic is the knowability of the presence of God.) Personally, the issue of my redemption matters little to me. I don’t hold to the idea of sins or sinners needing redemption. As human, I am fallible, and whether one calls those numerous failings human behavior, sins, transgressions against other living beings, or mistakes doesn’t really matter to me. And as human, I am accountable to myself and others for those shortfalls. I don’t see the role a divine being would have in my acknowledgement of my mistakes, my need to make amends, and my subsequent attempt to avoid those mistakes again.
And yet, to this agnostic, Pope Francis’s words matter. They don’t matter because agnostics and atheists are all excited about going to heaven, a place that doesn’t have meaning to those who don’t ascribe to the religious beliefs behind the concept (and I know that’s not the redemption issue, but it is bothering some Catholics, all of us nonbelievers thinking we’re a shoo-in for heaven). They don’t matter because atheists long for compassion from a god or knowledge that Jesus died for their sins (but plenty of us find Jesus to be a fine example of love and compassion). They matter because they are inclusive in a way that past hierarchy of the church has not been, at least not in quite some time. They matter because intolerance for non-believers is alive in this country.
An unanticipated consequence of my movement from theistic Catholic to agnostic Unitarian Universalist has been awareness the negative view much of this nation has about nontheists. I’ve become a member of an untrusted minority. While I’ve been called a moral relativist and amoral by a few, overall, I’ve received very little heat for my lack of belief. Admittedly, I’ve chosen to associate with compassionate people of a variety of belief systems, but plenty of my friends are believers. Generally, I choose to listen to others statements of faith and their understandings of reality without injecting my own version. I identify as a UU, a faith tradition I’m glad to attempt to explain when asked, but I don’t go out of my way to say that I don’t believe in a god. That part just gets too sticky.
It shouldn’t be that sticky. I’m not pleased that I tend to avoid talking about that part of my understanding of the world. And I’m aware that too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, that we’re selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates. Others are just sad for my loss. I’d just like to be accepted as someone who works to do good in the world, who tries to love more fully, to show compassion more freely, and to work for a better world more often.
But I’m an adult, and I grew up in a faith-filled home, a variety of religious expression, and my own belief. I grew up sharing an essential belief with most Americans, and I felt, well, normal. My kids don’t share that experience. My younger son, a staunch atheist since age five, a bit before I’d moved my hat to the agnostic peg, wonders if his atheism will limit him professionally. He has his eye on politics, and he’s well aware that this country, at least not now, sees atheists as amoral and suspect. They certainly aren’t presidential material, according to most Americans, he notes. As outspoken as he is, he learned early to curb talk of religion outside of our UU church, where varying opinions of divinity are regular Sunday school fare. He knows which of his friends are religious, and he has learned to listen but leave his own opinion aside, a task that I know is hard for him and that I’m certain has improved relations with others. It feels less than ingenious, though.
His older brother briefly considered scouting, wanting to be outside, light campfires, and climb trees with other kids. Then he read the Boy Scouts of America’s oath. “I can’t say that,” he told me. “I don’t believe it.” Now, given his preference for shirts without buttons and sleeping indoors, scouting was nixed for more than religious differences (and, yes, their stance on gays was another issue we had), this wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a moment reminding us that we stand apart.
So what Pope Francis said about doing good, and about atheists doing good, matters to me. It matters that the head of the Catholic church, a church to which a quarter of the US belongs, says that atheists are redeemed. It’s the message to believers that those of us who don’t believe are recognized as moral beings with the capacity of doing good, just as much good as a believer. Yes, I’ve read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that atheism is “…a serious problem of our time ” and “a sin against the virtue of religion.” Agnosticism can express “…a sluggish moral conscience.” Catholics are not Universalists, after all, the part of my faith tradition that believed in inclusive salvation. And that’s fine.
I’m not expecting open arms from all the Catholics I meet, although most of those I know already welcome me that way already. I do hope that those who only saw atheists as morally depraved, least sad sacks of selfishness, or angry or ignorant people wandering lost will take Pope Francis’s words to heart, listening to the call of love and inclusivity of his words on May 22. Let’s do good together to make this earth better for all its inhabitants.