Heaven: Are Atheists Welcome?

A couple of weeks ago Pope Francis stated during the homily of his morning mass that all people, even atheists, can ascend to heaven if they fulfill their duty to do good. “Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point.” he said. The tolerance and embracement implied in his comments are a departure from his predecessor, Benedict, who took a more conservative and narrow stance on people outside the Catholic faith. Francis’ words were interpreted by believers and non-believers alike as a positive sign for the future of the Church, insofar as it seemed to discard some of the more intransigent and exclusory rhetoric of times past.

Unsurprisingly, just a week after Francis’ benevolent remarks, Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, countered the Pope’s inclusion of non-Catholics and non-believers by saying:“All salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

Or perhaps more tersely: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Holiness? Atheists are bound for the inferno!”

So much for infallibility.

The politics are discernible. The Holy Mother Church doesn’t want the head of Christendom telling the faithful that they can circumvent the collection plate and still attain salvation. This isn’t about atheists, this is about remaining relevant. Even still, I find this exchange amusing for myriad reasons.

I’d give just about anything to be a fly on a Vatican wall, listening to the Pope and his minions debate, without irony, which fellow humans are eligible for “saving”. The thought of old men audaciously deliberating the after-life destination of us all, is something I find great humor in pondering; especially when they’re willing to overlook the majority of the world’s population because they are “willfully evading Catholic dogma” as the Vatican statement implies. This means that people born into Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Protestant, and irreligious cultures and families- if cognizant of the Catholic Church- are at odds with God and therefore cannot enter heaven, unless they convert. So if you’re a Sunni Muslim in Bahrain and you’re introduced to Catholicism by learning of the Crusades, you’re expected to understand that the Church is the one true path to God, and that if you do not become a Catholic you cannot be saved. Perfectly reasonable right? Just abandon your entire cultural heritage and everything you’ve ever known, and all is well. No big deal.

What are these men even debating?

If you think about it, they are arguing over a fairy land. And not whether that fairly land exists, and if so, what evidence we have to reinforce that claim, no. They are asserting this fairy land definitely exists, and that they also can determine who can travel there and how the path is properly traversed. This is akin to someone telling you that Zeus and Apollo are real and that they not only know where Mt. Olympus is, but if you believe what they say, they can guide you there. Just how credulous do they think we are? Pretty goddamn credulous apparently. And guess what? They’re right to think so. Because who would treat claims like this seriously, if these statements were being made outside of religion?

Picture the scene: an all male panel, ensconced in their own self-worth, obstinately quarreling over a fictional place. A FICTIONAL PLACE! Envision them in their flowing robes, many feeling death’s shadow creeping toward them with greater and greater celerity, telling their “truth” like Shakespeare’s idiot, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And yet even though we all possess the facility to rationally deconstruct these statements in this very way, because it is the Pope, the Vatican, and religion, this divergence is perceived to be meaningful.

The fits of laughter within must be unceasing. At least I hope so. That’s what I’d do if I was involved in the continuation of one of the world’s most enduring cons. But, knowing religion like I do, it’s safe to assume that this fatuous and illusory conflict is being argued with stoic solemnity. These men believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of this debate. Unless of course I’m mistaken, and the aforementioned politics are really what’s driving this internal friction, in which case the front of doctrinal nuance is actually a relief in a strange way. If nothing else it would mean they are aware of just how absurd this narrative really is.

As an atheist, I want to know! Which is it? Papal advocacy for my heavenly inclusion, or am I destined for an eternity in the underworld? Patience is a gift I’ve never received but I suppose I’ll have to endure the suspense.

I like to think they have agreed to settle this argument with an epic game of Papal Guitar Hero, and the Pope encores with “Stairway to Heaven” for the win. But then all of the Cardinals get upset because he didn’t check his infallibility at the door, which the rules demand. That’s clearly cheating. “Damn it!” the Pope says. “Oh well, more room for us.” And the room erupts with laughter.

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8 Responses to Heaven: Are Atheists Welcome?

  1. The Pope seems to be caught. If he says non-Catholics are all going to Hell, then he comes across as harsh and cruel. Yet if he says they can go to Heaven, then it implies the rules of the Church are pointless and don’t need to be listened to.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Or, and I know this is crazy, he could abstain from making claims he has no evidence to support and cannot possibly know, and stick to worrying about real world issues…like the investigation and prosecution of institutional child rape by the Catholic Church for starters.

  2. N. Friedman says:

    If you do not believe in God, I trust that you do not believe in the Afterworld. Why, then, do you care that Catholics may believe that they hold the one correct doctrine that provides a key to enter heaven (an imaginary place, on your theory)? Are you harmed by this belief?

    People take a wager when they live. Your wager appears to be that God does not exist and that, as such, belief in God leads nowhere. I tend, for what it is worth, to agree – although I am an Agnostic. I do not see fit to poke theists in the eyes.

    “And what doeth the saint in the forest?” asked Zarathustra.

    The saint answered: “I make hymns and sing them; and in making hymns I laugh and weep and mumble: thus do I praise God.

    With singing, weeping, laughing, and mumbling do I praise the God who is my God. But what dost thou bring us as a gift?”

    When Zarathustra had heard these words, he bowed to the saint and said: “What should I have to give thee! Let me rather hurry hence lest I take aught away from thee!”—And thus they parted from one another, the old man and Zarathustra, laughing like schoolboys.

    When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!”

    Nietzche’s above quoted view (from the introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is, I think, the right approach to devout belief. As he noted, thoughts that move the world come on dove’s feet. Trying to take what others’ beliefs is wrongheaded and pointless. It is a form of evangelicalism except that it only moves those who already hold your viewpoint.

    • N. Friedman says:


      Strike: “Trying to take what others’ beliefs is wrongheaded and pointless.”

      Substitute: “Trying to take away what others’ believe is wrongheaded and pointless.”

    • Terry Adams says:

      First, you’re missing the point. The Pope said one thing and then the Vatican said the opposite. By commenting on that PUBLIC (emphasis on public) contradiction, I’m merely attempting to ask questions and point out the irony of a group of MEN, telling other MEN, where they are going when they die. That’s funny, but it’s also ridiculous. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, or poke theists in the eye, I’m sharing my opinion on what very public figures are saying to millions of people. You love this word evangelical…do you honestly not see that the expressing of my opinion is not “trying to take away what other’s believe”? How can I possibly do that? I’m not forcing anyone to read my blog. I’m not making people believe or not believe what they want. I’m expressing an OPINION. The Catholic doctrine is what it is, and that’s fine, but it appears that the Pope isn’t up to speed on what that is exactly, and that’s why I wrote this post. Because the “conflict” is hilarious.

      As I said in my other reponse, there are good and bad ideas. Challenging what you perceive to be bad ideas does not make you prejudicial or evangelical. No political, ideological, philosophical or religious idea should be beyond reproach. If this was a politician standing up in front of millions of people saying, don’t worry, we aren’t spying on you, only to then have the government come out the next day and admit that it is in fact spying on you (this analogy is relevant if you’ve been paying attention) would I be poking members of the politician’s party in the eye if I commented, questioned, and challenged the legitimacy of the varying statements? No. Religion in your eyes, should get special treatment. Why? Why should it? If you only answer one of my questions in all of this back and forth, please answer that one. What inherent right does religious belief have to not be offended?

      To answer your first question, no I don’t care, nor am I harmed by what Catholics believe. But think about a little kid who has doubts about his faith. Think about someone that really believes in Heaven, but might be gay or at odds with other Catholic doctrine, and is thinking of leaving the church because of it, but is scared to because according to the Vatican, they won’t reach heaven without belonging to it. Think about what these kinds of contradictory statements might do to such people psychologically. That’s what you and I have to understand. Because we aren’t “believers” we aren’t shackled to the superstition. But there ae millions of people who are. And so while these beliefs don’t harm me, you can’t possibly tell me that there are lots of good, honest people, that aren’t confused, scared, and damaged, as a result of not only these statements, but the doctrines themselves.

      With that said, I dig the Nietzsche quote. One of my favorite passages. Not my favorite of his books however.

      But this brings up another point. If all believers were like Zarathustra’s saint, then I’d have no issues. But that’s not how many believers and religions behave is it? They go out and try to use “God” to influence education, science, civil rights, politics, and in some cases they even kill and terrorize. This is who I’m talking to. This is who I’m challenging. I have no quarrel with the 21st century equivalent of Zarathustra’s saint.

      • Brian says:

        I was really hoping N. Friedman would return and answer your question regarding what he seems to believe is a special right that religion possesses, not to be criticized. I’m sure I would find his answer most interesting.

        I’d also love for him to expound upon his assertion that we all “wager” (a less eloquent and glaring allusion no doubt to Pascal’s hedging of bets) whether God exists. I strongly disagree, but I’ll leave it at that unless he feels compelled to elaborate.

  3. Neil says:

    Unfortunately, there *are* places where large groups of otherwise intelligent men engage in serious debate over the history and nature of an entirely fictional location. These are called ‘Star Trek Conventions’. Equally pointless but energetic debates can be heard at comic-cons and cosplay events, as well as in a near-infinite number of internet fora.

    Of course, the difference between these and the Vatican is that nobody at a Trek convention actually believes their favorite galactic federation exists. But in many ways this is a small and perhaps irrelevant distinction when considering how sentient beings can become so serious over fictional entities.

    The key thing to note is that the world of Star Trek fandom is full of politics and conflict, hidden agendas, fawning sycophants and plotting traitors. Much like the Vatican must be, and much like every other sphere where there is something to be the top dog of.

    That’s where the obviously absurd seriousness of this Vatican debate springs from – the fact that the debate over a fantasy has very real implications in the lives of the power-players in Vatican city.

    The real problem is the billion-or-so believers who grant these grasping schemers authority in the first place.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Yes, and not just real implications in the lives of the power-players in Vatican City, but in the lives of millions of people that desperately believe in it all.

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