Pope Francis’s efforts to reach out to non-Catholics have provoked a lot of comment, some of it from unexpected sources. This week, for example, the Washington Post carried a piece by Herb Silverman, an atheist praising the trail the pope has been blazing. Reactions like Silverman’s remind us that praise for the pope is not exactly the same thing as praise for Catholicism, and that some of the reactions the pope is getting are probably not the ones he intended. The thrust of Silverman’s piece is something like this: “It’s refreshing to see a pope who seems to be getting just how bad traditional religion is!” I don’t necessarily blame the Holy Father for such reactions, of course.
Silverman raises an interesting point about how Christians sometimes talk and how atheists might hear what we Christians are saying. Here’s his opening paragraph:
Many atheists and humanists have mixed feelings when someone compliments one of our good deeds by saying “That’s a Christian thing to do.” We know they mean well, but they falsely equate goodness with Christianity. Consequently, and because of Pope Francis’ recent remarks, I’m tempted to compliment him with “That’s an atheist thing to do.”
I understand Silverman’s point, but I think there is a reasonable justification for praising some behavior as “Christian,” without intending this as a form of intellectual imperialism implying that only Christians can be good. The reason you can say, “that’s a Christian thing to do,” is that Christianity includes within itself a set of ethical standards. Christianity basically means the teachings of Jesus. But standards of moral conduct are a prominent part of Jesus’ teaching, so much so that an account of his teaching that left them out would probably have to be considered a mutilation of them. Accordingly, when Christians–or anybody else–judge conduct as “Christian,” they may not be saying that Christians themselves are good as an empirical matter, but that Christianity as a system of belief contains a standard to which we ought to aspire. Of course, there are some Christians who self-righteously invoke Christian morality in order to make themselves superior to others, but these are precisely the people that both Christians and non-Christians can see are missing the point of Jesus’ teachings.
I think Silverman also makes a mistake when he actually praises the pope for “atheist” behavior. His first suggestion (in the quotation above) that he is tempted to compliment the pope by saying, “that’s an atheist thing to do,” is meant as a lighthearted joke. But he says it in all seriousness a paragraph later. He quotes Francis to the effect that people need to be open to others and seek the good as they understand it. Says Silverman: “This sounds as if he might be encouraging people to question Church dogma and then do what they think is right. That really is an atheist thing to do.”
I think that here Silverman is making a mistake in attributing to atheism a substantive content that it does not possess. At first it might seem that atheism will precisely encourage people to question revealed religion. But in fact it need not do so. One could be an atheist and still think that it is fine for people who are so inclined to submit themselves to religious authority. Atheism is the belief that there is no God. But from that belief you can’t derive any specific guidance about what to do.
I think this is true, too, if we take Silverman to be making a broader point. Contemporary atheists are often freethinkers, and Silverman seems here to be saying that, over and above encouraging questioning of religion, atheism calls for a spirit of rational inquiry. But, again, I don’t think that it does. One could believe that there is no God and think that we need to do rational inquiry into the nature of things in order to get a better understanding of the world and improve it. On the other hand, one could believe that there is no God and think that the nature of things is absolutely mysterious and that there is nothing to be gained by rational inquiry into it. This appears to be the position of Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, an atheist philosopher and one of the most vocal critics of Christianity in the modern world.
None of this is to say that atheists cannot be good, or that they cannot find any resources to support their aspiration to be good. It is only to point out that atheism as a theory on its own can’t give much guidance on how to act. You can speak of “a Christian thing to do” because Christianity includes a fairly detailed moral teaching, whether you agree with it or not and whether or not you think most Christians live up to it. But it makes less sense to speak of “an atheist thing to do” because atheism does not tell us what to do in the same way that Christianity claims to.