The Vatican has released the first encyclical letter written by Pope Francis.
That’s big news for Catholics, who comprise the target audience for this sort of document, and who often put a great deal of stock in the pontiff’s opinions on how to live their faith. In atheist circles, the most likely reaction is a shrug, a raised eyebrow, and a big ‘so what?’ But with news about outreach to the ‘nones’ and dialogue with non-believers making headlines in the early days of Francis’ pontificate – and it is still early days, at least in relative terms – this document is instructive. It gives us a window into what the pope really thinks about the irreligious.
The eighteen-page encyclical is the last in a trilogy, so to speak; then-Pope Benedict wrote encyclicals on ‘hope’ and ‘charity’, and was apparently working on the ‘faith’ one when he resigned. (Francis tells us so in Paragraph 7, explaining that he “added a few contributions”.) This encyclical is entitled Lumen fidei (“the light of faith”), and describes the ways in which living a life of religious belief is superior to living without it. (No big surprise there, really. He has to say that. He’s the pope.)
But in describing the superiority of a life lived with faith, Francis has revealed some of the common myths about atheism that he’s come to accept over the course of a life spent really obviously having never come into contact with unbelievers. Some of the most common tropes include:
- Atheism weakens community ties. For some reason, Francis seems to believe that religious faith is required to “build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope” (51). As he sees it, “the light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations”, while without it “nothing could truly keep men and women united” (51). (Heck of a burden to put on faith, if you ask me.)
- Atheists make gods of other things. The basic argument Fracis seems to set forth is that atheists secretly know God exists, but we’re scared he might demand too much sacrifice of us, so we pretend to think he’s not real because we are rebellious and naughty. Then we pick something else to venerate in God’s place, because we can’t just not worship anything, and “before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security” (13). It’s a bit of a pat on the back (at our expense) for the courageous faithful.
- Atheists are self-centered. Chances are, the one thing we’re busy worshiping is ourselves: “idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands” (13). Francis really seems to think that only faith can “guide us beyond our isolated selves” (4) or provide “concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego” (46). By contrast, “faith is God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust (14)”.
- Atheists have no moral compass. Carrying his ‘faith as light’ metaphor to dizzying heights, Francis argues that in the absence of faith/light, “it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere” (3). No one can be good without God because they attribute their good actions to themselves instead of to him, and thus “their lives become futile and their works barren” (19). Essentially the only way to be a good person is by pretending it’s not really you doing good things; it’s God making you do them.
- If we really tried to find God, we’d find him. This one is quite a slap in the face for the many unbelievers who became such after a long and sincere process of religious seeking; it suggests that we were either secretly searching in bad faith, or our efforts were defective. If “he can be found also by those who seek him with a sincere heart” (35), clearly we must have been insincere. It’s our fault, not God’s, if we couldn’t detect him.
- Atheists lead impoverished lives. Since “faith enriches life in all its dimensions” (6) and is “the priceless treasure [. . .] which God has given as a light for humanity’s path” (7), we can assume he envisions us all living in the psychological equivalent of a Dickensian poorhouse. I get the sense that Francis sort of feels bad for us, that he can’t really grasp the concept that atheists might sometimes feel peace and joy even though we think there’s no God.
- An atheist can’t really understand love. Francis explains that “only to the extent that love is grounded in truth [read: God] can it endure over time” (27). I don’t really understand why he thinks that, but it seems clear that he doesn’t accept non-God-oriented love as real love. Meanwhile, “those who believe are never alone” (39).
It’s rather hard to tell whether he thinks atheists are to be pitied or feared. On the one hand, we’re just so sad and lonely and confused, wandering in the wilderness of our own moral relativism. But on the other hand, we’re embracing and promoting an ideology that destroys truth and justice and democracy and human morality and “the goodness of sexual differentiation” and “the stable union of man and woman in marriage” (52 – oh yes, he went there).
The encyclical ends with a heartfelt prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking her to “open our ears to hear God’s word”, to “awaken in us a desire to follow in His footsteps [. . .] to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in His love”, to “remind us that those who believe are never alone”, and to “teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus” – even “beneath the shadow of the cross” and “especially at times of trial”.
In other words, dear Mary, I’ll put up with anything he can throw at me, even the trials of Job . . . but please, please, please, for the love of Jesus, don’t make me have to be an atheist.