Point of View

Using a pope's words to make allies of atheists and the Catholic church

March 25, 2013 

In his greeting to delegates representing faiths and sects other than Roman Catholicism, Pope Francis made a wonderful gesture when he stated:

“We also feel close to all men and women who, although not claiming to belong to any religious tradition, still feel themselves to be in search of truth, goodness, and beauty, God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and who are our precious allies in the effort to defend human dignity, in building a peaceful co-existence between peoples, and in carefully protecting creation.”

Though clearly directed at the so-called “nones,” the growing mass of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” it has been taken by some to be an offer to atheists and agnostics as well.

If the pontiff is extending his hand to atheists among other nonreligious, I accept.

All of us should accept this offer, even if we might take exception to Francis’ equation of truth, goodness and beauty with God’s capitalized version of these worthy pursuits. We should accept because we can all agree that defending human dignity, working for a more peaceful world and protecting the biosphere that supports us all are all goals that atheists and humanists are concerned with. And inasmuch as the Roman Catholic Church works toward these goals, we ought to consider Catholics our allies.

We won’t agree on every aspect of the church’s agenda, and wherever it conflicts with secularism in our own countries we should stand ready to oppose it. But where the church agrees with us, where its aims dovetail with ours, we should unite in common cause.

It will be argued by many, on both sides, that this is an unacceptable compromise. I will leave it to the religious to deal with the fallout on their side. Some atheists, though, may accuse me of offering aid and comfort to the enemy. They will claim that by working with the religious I give tacit support to holders of, as some would call it, an irrational belief in the supernatural.

I can say only this: Up to the point where Catholics (or members of any other religion or sect) attempt to impose their religious strictures on me, their beliefs are harmless. The rationality or irrationality of their beliefs is immaterial.

More to the point, of all Christian sects, Catholicism is the one atheists should find most congenial. For one thing, the church is friendlier to science than most Protestant sects. In response, one may bring up Galileo, and the persecution of him certainly represents a black mark against the church, but against this should be weighed the invaluable contributions of Catholic religious to the sciences. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, discovered the basic principles of heredity; Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest, extrapolated the idea that would be known as Big Bang, as well as the expansion of the universe, from Einstein’s math.

The pope’s own order, the Jesuits, has long been known as an incubator of scientists and scholars. Scientific achievement occurred not in spite of an inchoate anti-science position, but because of a pro-knowledge attitude that has generally prevailed in the church.

This does not mean that our ally is immune from criticism. When Catholic positions of human dignity conflict with our own, we should stand fast in our beliefs. When the church is a bad actor, as it has been in many places with its protections of pedophile priests, we should stand with the victims. Our cooperation does not imply our consent to everything our ally does, and when our ally does wrong we should say so. We should also expect similar consideration. That’s what friends do.

The potential gains far outweigh the risks. If we, as atheists, can abandon the need for the rough sort of doctrinal purity that suggests we can deal only with people who believe as we do, we can achieve much. How can we not, when we can potentially join 1.2 billion people to our causes? Why would we not, with all this potential? Because the goals Francis outlined in this wonderful address – defending the dignity of our fellow humans, working toward a peaceful world, protecting the environment for future generations – are humanist goals. They focus on the betterment of people’s lives in the here and now.

They are compatible to a great extent with secularism. And isn’t that what we really want?

Michael G. Bazemore Jr. is a visiting assistant professor of history at William Peace University in Raleigh.

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