Today I received a letter from the Pope (the one in the Vatican).
That’s nice, I thought, a letter from the Pope. It’s not every day I get one of those.
I opened the letter with great excitement. The letter was in a copy of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which is a mite unconventional.
To be honest, the letter wasn’t just for me. It was for atheists everywhere, non-believers in general.
Atheists and the Pope don’t have much in common. What could he have to say?
He might say, we disagree, but I respect your position. I respect your ability and right as adults to make up your own mind about the big questions in life, as we ought to respect all differences of belief. It is not something that needs saying, but I was stretching to guess what the letter might contain. Whatever it was, the Pope apparently took 2,500 words to express it, so it must have been profound and important.
The part of the letter, the point that seems to be the crux of the thing, the thought that the Pope has for us non-believers is this: “the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience.”
Yes, let’s dwell on that: “the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience.”
What the fuck does this even mean?
This knob of wisdom is significant and striking for the following reason: it means absolutely nothing.
Whose conscience would non-believer be following? Snoopy’s?
The Pope might like to be told that following one’s own conscience is pretty strongly implied by not having opted not to have religion.
The fuller context of that quote is: “Given – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart, the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience. There is sin, also for those who have no faith, in going against one’s conscience. Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”
I include that fuller context to demonstrate, that even with more to work with, there isn’t a single meaningful thought there.
“Listening to it and abiding by it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.” Well, thank you. I think we had that figured out already.
“[T]he question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience,” is not a question. It’s a grammatical and conceptual mess.
One of the questions the Pope sought to answer in this letter was whether non-believers can go to heaven. The answer is no, which is, again, not something that needed answering.
I don’t think the average atheist is lying in bed at night worrying about being admitted to heaven or whether it will be necessary to dodge round St Peter like a naughty child trying to sneak into a fun fair without paying.
The thing is, Mr Pope-man, atheists don’t believe in fucking heaven so thoughts about going there don’t figure. At all. Not even a little bit. Not even as a hypothetical.
Regardless, Pope Francis tells us “God’s mercy has no limits, if He is approached with a sincere and repentant heart”. The key word there is repentant. What this statement means is God’s mercy is infinite but not to the point of accepting to himself people who don’t believe in him unless they repent; unless they change their mind and get on board the god train. It is fair to infer that the Pope means you are free to go through your life unbelieving as much as you want (but doing nice things that God would approve of we learn in other passages of the letter) and then repent on your death bed. That’s OK. You can repent at the last minute, or better, become submitting and obsequious at the last minute and still get to enter heaven on your knees.
Well, thanks for the letter, Mr Pope. I appreciate that you took the time and energy to compose the note, but I think you could have more productively have spent the time learning what it is to live without faith and discovering that non-believers are actually pretty much aware of what they are doing. You might like to learn that we are capable of making decisions about morality and how to live our lives without being told what to do by a church we have chosen not to follow, and that patronising little scribbles like the letter to La Repubblica are not going to cause us to rush wholesale into your irrational bosom.