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Atheists Saved!

For a brief moment last week, I was saved — and as an atheist, that was new for me.

During morning mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis offered a sort of absolution for heathens. The Lord has redeemed all of us, he said. “Not just Catholics. Everyone! … Even the atheists.”

Well, the world gasped. After 2,000 years of astonishing rigidity and intolerance, the Catholic Church was suddenly handing out pardons?

But ole Franky didn’t stop there. The Vicar of Christ upon Earth (for real, that’s what he’s called) went on to imply that our character is reflected as much by our actions as by any religious affiliation — maybe more. “‘But I don’t believe, Father; I am an atheist,'” the pontiff posited. “But do good. We will meet one another there.”

Wait, did he just …? It sounded like he … What the heaven just happened?

It was an interesting week for infidels all around. The Boy Scouts finally voted to allow gay scouts to join their ranks — while godless lads remain unwelcome. But nonbelievers found a hero in Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, who responded to CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer’s comment “You gotta thank the Lord” by giggling, “I’m actually an atheist.” As odd as it was for a journalist to suggest that she praise God while standing in the rubble of her former home, and as unlikely as it was for Blitzer to get stuck on camera with an “out” atheist in the middle of the farm belt, the woman’s admission inspired thousands of faithless folks to contribute to a relief fund to help Vitsmun and her toddler son. You can even buy “I’m actually an atheist” T-shirts to aid the cause.

Alas, the Pope’s handlers weren’t nearly so generous. The day after His Oldiness issued his inclusive homily, the Vatican issued a statement saying that dissenters like me will not, after all, be evading the Holy Hot Hereafter.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord retracteth for damage control.

You can’t be saved if you refuse to enter or remain in the Catholic Church, insisted Vatican spokesperson Fr. Thomas Rosica, adding in effect that the Pope talks purty but shouldn’t be … er, taken too seriously. He is “first and foremost a seasoned pastor and preacher who has much experience in reaching people. His words are not spoken in the context of a theological faculty …”

Which is a damned shame.

Look, I’m so staunch an atheist that I’m embarrassed and angered by our society’s willingness to even discuss the possibility of a magical entity who would lay waste to terrified children with His Divine Tornado while sparing the lives of sassy skeptics. It makes me want to howl in frustration.

And yet I’ll admit that I was delighted by the Pope’s message. I can’t claim to care what a pointy-hatted baby blesser decrees about the destination of my soul. I can’t summarily dismiss an entire belief system and then sigh with relief when said system announces a shift in its official measure of my worthlessness.

No, I welcomed Francis’s words not because I crave the approval of an organization I think is silly — but because it made them seem less silly. And I want that.

I want to believe that one-sixth of the world’s population is rational and tolerant — that they do value good work and good deeds over blind compliance to a musty and convoluted old canon. I want to believe that the Catholic Church wants more for its followers than fearful allegiance and that its figurehead and followers are both freethinking enough to consider meeting an atheist — or agnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or freewheelin’ Episcopalian — halfway to salvation, just to see what happens.

But I guess we’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

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