Many atheists and humanists have mixed feelings when someone compliments one of our good deeds by saying “That’s a Christian thing to do.” We know they mean well, but they falsely equate goodness with Christianity. Consequently, and because of Pope Francis’ recent remarks, I’m tempted to compliment him with “That’s an atheist thing to do.”
In an interview with an Italian atheist, Pope Francis said “proselytism is solemn nonsense” and that we should listen to and get to know each other, expand our circle of ideas, and improve our knowledge of the world. He added that we should encourage people to move toward what they think is Good (he did not say God!). Pope Francis referred to heads of the Church as “narcissists,” and that he will do everything he can to change a Vatican-centric view that neglects the world around us. He even called himself “anti-clerical,” and said “clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity.” This sounds as if he might be encouraging people to question Church dogma and then do what they think is right. That really is an atheist thing to do.
In a recent piece, I said “Pope Francis may be as good as it gets, but the Catholic Church just doesn’t allow popes to get that good.” I hope I was wrong. Perhaps Pope Francis will have the freedom and desire to make not just stylistic and rhetorical changes, but substantive changes as well.
For instance, this human-centered pope had the courage to alienate those in the Church hierarchy as well as other conservative Christians who value belief over behavior. Because the Pope’s priorities include alleviating poverty and treating women with respect, perhaps the Church will come to trust people to make contraceptive decisions based on their personal circumstances, instead of being pressured by its hierarchy of celibate old men who declare contraception sinful under all circumstances. In an overpopulated world with millions of undereducated and vulnerable women, that change alone would diminish suffering and reduce the spread of sexual diseases. A Pope who values human expressions of love might even someday “bless” same-sex couples who want to love each other in a committed relationship. There are a lot more changes I’d like to see, but these would be a much-needed start.
I suppose I’ll be criticized as an outsider for giving advice to a church, but everyone has the right (and duty) to object to the power of any institution that negatively affects so many lives.
As for my Jewish religion/culture, I’m far from alone in having moved from religious to irreligious. According to a major study by the Pew Research Center, only 15 percent of Jews see being Jewish as mainly a matter of religion, while many view themselves as culturally or ethnically Jewish. Approximately 32 percent of Jewish millennials identify as “Jews of no religion,” and quite a few with Jewish parents no longer consider themselves Jewish. Sects within Judaism run from most religious (Orthodox) to not-at-all religious (Humanistic), both attempting to preserve Judaism in different ways.
The Orthodox frequently form insular communities devoted to Torah study and take seriously the Commandment to be fruitful and multiply. They have minimal contact with gentiles, their children are likely to adopt the same religious practices, and intermarriage is shameful and rare. However, only a small percentage of all Jews have religious views compatible with those traditionalists. Humanistic Jews are inclusive secularists interested in preserving Jewish culture, with outreach to the increasing numbers of Jews of no religion. But Humanistic Jews frequently marry outside Judaism, and their children often abandon or lose interest in the culture.
While both Jews and Catholics struggle to preserve the faith and/or culture, younger people are less inclined to do so. Jew or Catholic, atheist or humanist, I care most about whether an individual is a good person, regardless of religious belief. Here are constructive words I try to live by, authored by sages through the ages:
Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-10CE), when asked to recite the entire Torah standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826): “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899): The hands that help are better far than lips that pray.”
John Lennon (1940-1980): “Imagine nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.”
I’d like to think that Pope Francis agrees with the rabbi, the politician, the social activist, and maybe even the Beatle. But I suppose that might be a bit of a stretch.
Image courtesy of Semilla Luz.