Pope Francis hearts atheists

Atheists search for a response to the heartfelt new Pontiff.

I’m not Catholic, but I’m loving me some pope, these days. Yesterday, on the anniversary of one of man’s unbearable cruelties to man, Pope Francis himself, bucked the system—the very system that put him in front of the world—to reach across a great gap by telling atheists that God forgives those who follow their consciences.

Now, some atheists responded to this olive branch with the suspicion and derision that centuries of religious persecution have honed in them. The Italian Union of Atheists and Agnostics, for instance, gave the pontiff a reply as dry as the Sinai: “What interests non-believers is certainly not ‘forgiveness’ from an entity whose existence we do not trust.”

But the best thing about the pope’s conciliatory missive was that he was certainly not speaking to atheists. Of course, Francis knows that an argument grounded on God’s existence won’t convince atheists of anything—not even the ones paying such close attention to everything he says.

The pope—this delightful pope of modesty and apology and liberation theology—presented an argument to folks for whom God’s existence is sufficient grounding. That is, the pope was writing to believers. Rather than reaching across the gap that runs between believers and non-believers, Il Papa was reaching across the gap that so often runs between a believer’s conviction and love.

This pope’s assertion that the mercy of the God in whom many believe has “no limits” speaks primarily to believers who think of their faith not only as a mechanism that brings them closer to that God in whom they believe, but much closer than everyone else.

Clever. Camouflaged as a response to the rhetorical questions of an agnostic newspaper editor is the invitation to believers to climb down from their high horses. God, says Pope Francis to believers—at least, the God in whom Pope Francis believes—does not regard non-believers as anathema. Why then, is the implication, should you?

This pope is not pushing against atheism’s tendency to reduce religion to the cause of the world’s discord, but against religion’s tendency to reduce itself to the cause of the world’s discord. “It seems clear,” continues the address, “that faith is not unyielding.” Of course, faith is only a part of the life of the faithful. Why bother asserting to an atheist (or an agnostic) who has experienced faith only as something unyielding that faith yields? No, it is to believers that this extraordinary pope says, “The believer is not arrogant.” (Ancillary, but not negligible: if the inverse must also be true, then the arrogant are not believers.)

The truth, the pope avers as a core matter of his religion, is not an absolute, a demand that a metaphysical power lays on everyone. Truth, he insists, is a relationship. More important than a dogma, any dogma, is the accord between two people. One doesn’t have to believe that Francis is the pope to appreciate this dogma.

Eugenio Scalfari, the agnostic to which the pope’s lengthy comments were addressed, got it. The newspaper editor conceded that he hadn’t expected the pope to answer at all, let alone “so affectionately, with such fraternal spirit.”

I think you’re great. No, I think YOU’RE great. Let’s both be great together. That’s some brotherly love, right there. If there’s a God, that’s gotta be the kind of thing it eats up. And if there’s not a God, that’s the kind of thing that we can all eat up, anyway.

Mutual recognition in two people of the warm humanity of the person facing the other direction, regardless of convictions. The believers and non-believers in a world without 9-11 s (or Crusades, or Killing Fields, etc.) must be like this.

Ya gotta love a pope for whom making that world here is more important than a belief in God.


David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and My Mormonism. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.

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  • Thec Agnes

    This is a good article and I think the writer is right that Pope Francis is speaking to believers more than atheists in his letter (which is not a “Papal Bull”). But I wonder if he understands that Francis is not a “liberation theology” pope. Francis was shunned by some of his own Jesuits for rejecting most of liberation theology, which is one of the things that brought him to the attention of John Paul II. I’m not sure people understand what “liberation theology” is. I think they think it’s whatever they want it to be.

  • Openletter2004

    When he stops trying to have secular governments force non-believers to pretend to believe in order to get the rights they are entitled to simply because they are human beings, then I will believe he wants anything other than total domination of the world.

    What are some of those rights??
    1. The right of conscience.
    2. The right of a woman to decide for herself whether she will die trying to have a child.
    3. The right of a woman to decide for herself if, when and how many children she will have.
    4. There are other rights like life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.

    Understand, that 1st HUMAN RIGHT means that women have NO right to force the Pope or anyone else to pay for the medications and medical procedures necessary for them to exercise the 2nd and 3rd rights. Me or the pope NEVER paying for any of those things we find morally wrong is NOT the same as the Pope pressuring secular governments to make criminals out of women that do those things. Me and the Pope not paying for them will also never prevent ANY woman from getting them that really wants them. All it does is require the women to take PERSONAL responsibility for the choice they want to make. All it does is require the communists, socialists, Marxists, liberals, progressives, Democrats and others to also take PERSONAL responsibility and VOLUNTARILY pay for all the things they don’t find morally wrong..

  • nkri401

    The Church could pay taxes like everyone else…

  • Fred Bearman Jr

    The Society of Jesus, JESUITS, effectively took over control of the Vatican State in 1814. Pope Paul I was “taken-out” by the Jesuits after only 33 days as Pope because he was going to remove the then governing Jesuit General from office. The Jeuits’ power is absolute in the Roman Catholic Church. Now, the world has its first Jesuit Pope.

    Jesuit dogma: Kill the heretics wherever they may be in the world. ( They’ve also been known to eliminate their own followers for not following or advancing THEIR rules and political dogma.)

  • Ray Turner

    The Pope is telling people what they want to hear even if it goes against the Word of God. This pope seems more and more like the False Prophet that appears at the end of this age. What I know for sure is that any doctrine that opposes the Word of God is of Lucifer, the god of this world. The Antichrist and the False Prophet will deceive the whole world. The only hope we have is in Yeshua Ha Mashiach (Jesus Christ), the living “Word of God”. Repent from your sins and ask God to save you.. You must be “born again”. There is no other way!

  • Rongoklunk

    The pope’s mission is to drag religion into the twenty-first century – one way or another. The pope knows that the trend is away from religion and towards nonbelief; that science is showing us a world where god doesn’t fit in anymore. Books by Hawking and Dawkins and Victor Stenger and many other scientists are showing us that
    god is man made, like the thousands of other gods like Zeus and Apollo and Jupiter; all invented by man. It is obviously what we humans do. We invent gods. My guess is that the pope knows as well as I do that there’s nobody up there. I’ll bet god never ever calls the pope, or answers his prayers. How can he? He doesn’t exist.
    The pope knows too that 93 percent of members of The Academy of Sciences do not believe in a god.

  • leibowde84

    What if the early followers of Jesus got his message wrong. I mean, the first gospel wasn’t written until around 74 A.D., so who’s to say that some of the messages were taken out of context or not properly expressed?

    And, as a previous Catholic, I am extremely pleased with he Pope. From everything else that Jesus stressed, it seems inaccurate that he would require belief in himself in order to be saved. I strongly believe that everyone gets to go to heaven if they live a good life. I think you are the one who is confused about what Jesus (not his early followers who wrote the Bible) wanted for us.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “My guess is that the pope knows as well as I do that there’s nobody up there.”

    You bring up science quite often and yet this statement of yours is 100% unscientific according to what the scientific method is all about.

    You also wrote, “The pope knows too that 93 percent of members of The Academy of Sciences do not believe in a god.”

    Do you actually believe that anyone’s belief or non-belief has any bearing on the validity of anything?

  • Tender Hooligan

    Luckily, I don’t listen to the False Prophet, or the AntiChrist, or whatever Ray perceives to be the word of God, but instead to my own conscience and to logic. Therefore, thanks for the warning Ray, but I think I’ll be ok. After all, the Word of God could be a deception too. I’m not taking any risks. I’ll stick with science and rationality.

  • Tender Hooligan

    I don’t want to pre-empt Rongoklunk, Thomas, but I would have thought that if the pope wants to have any relevance in the world,he has to recognise that a very significant proportion of educated people consider religion to be irrelevant. Therefore the pope has to consider how his ideas are perceived by atheists, and try and relate to us too, or his position will continue to diminish.

  • Rongoklunk

    Jesus almost certainly was not the guy who people think he was. Hundreds of books have been written over the centuries, and some say one thing and others say something else. Selina O’Grady just wrote a book called “And Man Created God” which describes the world that JC lived in. It was insanely supersitious with gods everywhere and wannabe Messiahs a dime a dozen. And about a century ago Albert Schweitzer (the humanitarian and seeker) wrote “The Quest For TheHistorical Jesus” and concluded;
    “There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of Jesus.
    The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who
    preached the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon
    earth, and died to give his work its final consecration, never had any
    I guess it’s still available in paperback at Amazon. Many other writers of the middle and late eighteen hundreds who also tried tracking down JC – write in this book as well. I guess what it means is that Jesus may have been around 2000 years ago, and crucified. But the miracles, the walking on water, the getting out of his coffin after death and flying upwards towards Heaven is fantasy. Selina O’Grady has a chapter in her book titled “And Paul Created Christ”, which says it all really.

  • ThomasBaum

    I don’t know who is going to be more surprised when it becomes known universally that God’s Plan is for ALL.

    Maybe more Catholics, and others for that matter, should ponder the idea that God’s Salvation is catholic, sometimes it can be good to ponder and even entertain the idea that God is better than we think possible or in many cases want God to be and we can even hope for that which many seem to believe is beyond hope.

  • ThomasBaum

    I think that the Pope should present his ideas and let people perceive whatever they want to out of them.

    He should not “water them down” for anyone, believer or non-believer.

  • Rongoklunk

    My last post was directed to you.

  • Tender Hooligan

    That is a fair point Thomas. I was just looking for the reasons why this pope in particular seems to be trying to reach out to non-believers, and my conclusion would be that he is aware of the diminishing influence of the catholic faith in the world. Whilst he cannot appeal to us to follow the belief system, he might at least get people saying ‘hey, this pope chap isn’t so bad after all; at least compared to the previous two anyway’.

  • Catken1

    OK, if I NEVER have to pay for tax exemption status for any church…

  • QMan

    Turns out that Stephen Hawking may be a good physicist but he does not have the skills of a professional philosopher. Enter John Lennox (whom I absolutely admire) Oxford mathematician and philosopher who brilliantly takes apart Hawking’s proof that God does not have to exist (in his short paperback “God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway?”).
    You really have to pay attention to both sides of the argument. As far as I can tell the theist scientist side, and there are actually many of them, is winning the argument hands down.

    Also, life experience counts for something. My conclusions based on mine can be summarized as follows:

    99.9… % of all knowledge any individual has is obtained through outside sources like history, schooling, news, books, magazines, personal communication, and so on. The individual does not live long enough to experience everything. It is therefore of primary importance that one learns to differentiate between the quality of the information that is passed on to you from others, and to discern the quality of the source itself. Now, information flow is hierarchical, has a pyramid shape, with the top quality coming from fewer qualified sources of greater veracity and capability from the top part of the pyramid. For example, would your top quality source be a supreme court justice who has decided that abortion is an OK procedure, a president who has decided that homosexual marriage is equivalent to faith based marriage, a philosopher who has not made an iota of effort to search for a personal God in his/her life? Now, as far as my life experience and research has shown me, based on public and private moral teaching, the pinnacle of the information pyramid is occupied by Jesus Christ and his teaching, there simply is no other room there. If you can show me a president, a supreme court justice, a wise man, a news pundit, a senator, a judge, an expert scientist, philosopher, common man or woman who can, e.g., turn water into wine, heal instant

  • Tender Hooligan

    Ok, let’s get your argument straight. You could take your information from people who have studied and pushed back the frontiers of knowledge about the universe, and have concluded that there is no need for a deity, and people who have considered the human rights of all, and are pushing for equality. You could take your information from a charlatan who did some magic tricks a few thousand years ago, and whose words were reported some 70 years after his death, and who founded a zombie cult. Hmm, tricky choice.

  • Catken1

    “would your top quality source be a supreme court justice who has decided that abortion is an OK procedure,”

    In other words, a Supreme Court Justice who has decided that women are human beings and have the same right to decide whether or not another person may use their body parts and inhabit their personal body as any other human being has…

    “a president who has decided that homosexual marriage is equivalent to faith based marriage, ”

    Or, perhaps, someone who believes that their “faith” is the only faith, that gay people are never religious and their marriages never based on faith, and that “faith-based marriage” (in other words, marriage based on THEIR faith, abiding by the religious belief that a perfectly loving, committed, caring marriage can and should be vetoed just because the participants are of the “wrong” sexes”) is inherently superior to the marriages of those of us who simply view our commitment to and love for our spouses as one of the central aspects of our lives, but do not share your religion.

  • Catken1

    No thanks, I’ll take the views of those who live their lives based on reason and good sense, rather than slavish adherence to the words of a holy book written thousands of years ago by and for people in very different cultural circumstances.

  • nkri401

    If the pope would categorically and unequivocally say that not everyone is his God’s children and that is OK in his book, then I’ll be impressed.

    “even Atheist” sounds like “even dogs deserve crumbs from the master’s table”.

  • LululemonFanatic

    As a slavish former fan of “The 25,000 Pyramid” and someone who adheres to the Food Pyramid, it’ comes as a huge relief to finally complete this Holy Trinity with QMan’s magical information pyramid!!! Woo!

  • amelia45

    The Pope starts a dialogue with those both in his faith and those without faith. He is telling the current extremist Catholics that God loves everyone and God wants us to love everyone and 1) stop judging others while also 2) no longer congratulating ourselves and feeling so superior to others who are not Catholic. God judges eventually on the heart, not how many prayers are recited or how many masses are attended. Even the Catholic who follows all the dictates of the Church but does not let the love of Jesus into his heart is not going to heaven.

  • QMan

    Tender Hooligan, a philosopher will spot you on this right away (I picked it up from John Lennox). You are using a technique (whether you are aware of it or not) of offering up a choice of a fake or false alternative, in other words, a fake argument. Stephen Hawking often unwittingly used this technique up to three times in the same sentence. That was part of the reason why his arguments were so easy to defeat.

    “You could take your information from a charlatan who did some magic tricks a few thousand years ago, and whose words were reported some 70 years after his death, and who founded a zombie cult. Hmm, tricky choice.”

    Clearly a fake, unproven and unrealistic alternative. You can’t win an argument with that. You need facts. Fact is that this cannot contradict 2000 years of solid historical research conducted by scholars many of whom were probably smarter than you and I are. Naturally, if you have any solid facts please let me and 2 billion other uninformed people know so that we can tell our spiritual leaders that they had it wrong all along.

  • Vanka

    You will not likely hear arrogant Mormon leaders make any such statement.

    If there was a god, Mormons must be the bane of her existence.

  • Ferro Ella

    I see a lot of noise about the Pope Francise’ s statement about atheist. But I can tell you what it has done for an atheist like me, he has given me faith. Not in Heaven or Hell. Just Faith. For the first time in my 50 years a spiritual leader was not just making noise. When the Holy Father himself, tells us atheist, that we are loved and the religious and self-proclaimed righteousness people on this earth have no right judging us, that is extremly poweful. Obviously, it has jolted the whole world into a little shock. It is very comforting and hopeful to know that there is one leader, walking and breathing among us in this world that tells us that we all desereve love.
    Pope Francis has also given me a spiritual jolt of some sort for the past 3 days since I read his words. Im inclined to follow this man. I have never followed anything or anyone before.

  • Rongoklunk

    In the old days of Christendom when folks were questioning the religion and expressing doubts about their teachings and the total absence of this God who never showed himself and never said a single word to any earth-person – it was compulsory to believe it anyway; sight unseen. And it still is. How can anybody believe in a skyfella who nobody in the history of the world ever set eyes on or actually heard from – ever? Faith is not just a terrible reason to believe in something nobody ever saw, it’s also very dangerous as 9/11 showed us all too clearly. As the terrorists were wrong to expect 72 virgins from God himself for a job well done, so is anybody who believes in a skygod, which is a concept of the most ancient and ignorant of people thousands and thousands of years ago before knowledge. Like what did THEY know?

  • Rongoklunk

    The 9/11 terrorists had faith in a God who wanted them to blow up the World Trade Centre.They had faith that they’d end up in Paradise each with 72 virgins. Now that’s faith a man can be admired for. They gave up their lives for it.
    And I have faith that religion will die a natural death before the end of the century. It’s already moving in that direction. It’s like my Atheism coach says all the time – “you gotta have faith; you gotta have faith that there’s nobody up there. We can’t quite prove it yet. But we’re getting there”.

  • itsthedax

    I’m sure he’s a very nice man.

    But that doesn’t resolve the fundamental contradictions in christianity.