Pope Francis recently said (this is the Reuters interpretation here), that ‘Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good.’ Some, reading only the headlines or the media’s interpretation, might misinterpret that as an endorsement of works over faith. Instead, I see it as an encouragement for everyone — for whatever reason — to go about doing good.
Who can oppose that?
His comments may also speak to the long-held notion among some Christians that, having no eternal life to worry about, atheists lack an incentive for good behavior. Doing good, thus becomes an irrational example of cognitive dissonance.
But there is an earthly incentive to living a good life. There are consequences to bad behavior in the here and now. And whether this is because a virtuous life coincides with God’s plan, or whether it’s merely the product of nature’s arbitrary laws, it is observably true.
You might even call it “karma.”
Speaking of observation, some of the most decent and ethical people I know are atheists. But I’m less confounded by why they do “good” than by how they maintain a sense of purpose. After all, if we are, in Voltaire’s words, just “Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,” what’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning, let alone trying to change the world? If it’s all going to end in a few years, then even acts of virtue — like feeding the hungry or helping the powerless — are fleeting and ephemeral.
This is known as Tolstoy’s dilemma:
“What will come from what I am doing now, and may do tomorrow? What will come from my whole life? Otherwise expressed—Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything? Why should I do anything? Again, in other words, is there any meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death awaiting me?”
One of my political heroes is William Wilberforce, whose faith led him to a years-long crusade to end the British slave trade. Among other things, he was an animal rights activist. One can understand why he had purpose in his life. He saw his limited time on earth as an opportunity to do something eternal.
Wilberforce was, in his mind, at least, fulfilling an ordained mission. But the atheist must see himself more like Sisyphus, who is rolling the rock up the hill each day, for no apparent reason.
These philosophical/theological debates have been going on since the beginning of time, and I suspect, will continue long after I’m gone. Plenty of smart people disagree.
In any event, it strikes me as a good thing that Pope Francis is, in his very humble way, preserving orthodoxy, while simultaneously, communicating a refreshing openness. There’s something about him I like.