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Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate
Pope Francis greets the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience April 10 at the Vatican.
May 23rd, 2013
03:59 PM ET

Heaven for atheists? Pope sparks debate

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN) -– American atheists welcomed Pope Francis’ comments that God redeems nonbelievers, saying that the new pontiff's historic outreach is helping to topple longstanding barriers.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone,” the pope told worshipers at morning Mass on Wednesday. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

Francis continued, “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said that although he has been skeptical of Francis' outreach to the nonreligious, he welcomed Wednesday’s comments.

“I gather from this statement that his view of the world's religious and philosophical diversity is expanding,” Speckhardt said. “While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening."

He continued, “If other religious leaders join him, it could do much to reduce the automatic distrust and discrimination that atheists, humanists, and other nontheists so regularly face. “

Francis’ comments received a great deal of attention on social media, with a number of people asking whether the Catholic leader believes that atheists and agnostics go to heaven, too.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'"

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”

Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.

Although the pope's comments about salvation surprised some, bishops and experts in Catholicism say Francis was expressing a core tenet of the faith.

"Francis was clear that whatever graces are offered to atheists (such that they may be saved) are from Christ," the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a conservative Catholic priest, wrote on his blog.

"He was clear that salvation is only through Christ’s Sacrifice.  In other words, he is not suggesting – and I think some are taking it this way – that you can be saved, get to heaven, without Christ."

Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Zuhlsdorf, pointing out that the pope’s comments came on the Feast of Saint Rita, the Catholic patron saint of impossible things.

“The remarks about atheists show that there is even a saint for atheists,” Pecknold said. “Including all of humanity, on this day especially, remarks like that are almost called for.”

“To stress that the gospel redeems all people, including atheists, is the teaching of the church,” he added. “This is an objective fact that the church believes.”

Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, said Francis' comments reflect “the interfaith and inter-community work many of us nontheists are dedicated to.”

That said, Epstein hopes that lay Catholics are listening.

“I hope Catholics, and all people hearing the pope's statement, will recognize that his words about atheists need to symbolize much more than just a curiosity or an exception to the rule,” Epstein said. “If someone thinks there are only a few atheists out there doing good just like Catholics do, that's a major misunderstanding that can lead to prejudice and discrimination.”

The pope’s comments come a few months after he told worshipers that Catholics should be close to all men and women, including those who don’t belong to any religious tradition.

"In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition, feel, however the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation,” Francis said shortly after his election as pope in March.

Even atheists like David Silverman, president of American Atheists, who has had an antagonistic relationship with the Catholic church, welcomed the pope’s remarks.

“While the concept of Jesus dying for atheists is wrong on many levels (especially given that Jesus himself promised hell for blasphemers), I can appreciate the pope's `good faith' effort to include atheists in the moral discussion,” Silverman said.

“Atheists on the whole want no part in Catholicism, of course, but we are all interested in basic human rights.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope Francis • Vatican

soundoff (3,731 Responses)
  1. Jesus was a Space Alien

    Heaven for atheists is not having to go to church and put up with all of the hypocrites and other religious nonsense.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • RGE50

      Oh man, don't get them started on aliens!

      May 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  2. asdfasdf

    Personally i believe its a waste of time to ask "why am i here", or "is there a god".

    The question should be, "what is life, what is the universe". Understanding the universe is an amazing ride, the more you learn the more awe inspiring it becomes. IF there is a god, then by understanding the universe you will understand god. IF there isn't a god, its still an amazing ride.

    Asking the question "is there a god" in all its forms has jsut led to the worst atrocities imaginable. IE the dark ages, the crusades, terrorist attacks, you name the horror, and its been done in the name of god. History has demonstrated over and over that faith seems to be the easiest way to commit terrible acts.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  3. Robert

    A "tenant" of the faith? Who's renting it? You mean "tenet."

    May 24, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  4. rasko41

    Atheists the world over are breathing a sigh of relief today.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • snowboarder

      lol!

      May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Dan

      By the smell me thinks that was no sigh...

      May 24, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • RGE50

      yep, I've been laying awake at night worrying that god won't let me into his special place.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  5. Me

    Wow, what a lie. Being good has nothing to do with it, you can't be good enough to earn your way to heaven. It is by God's grace, which is his undeserved mercy he showered upon us when he sent his Son to die for our sins. You can't do anything to save yourself from your sin, only by his grace and through faith in what Jesus did on the cross. It's not by being baptized, taking any kind of sacraments, going to church, reading the bible etc. It is believing that Jesus is the Son of God and he died to pay for your sins and mine. Repent (change your mind about your need for Jesus) and believe what he did for you and you will be saved.

    Ephesians 2:8-9
    For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      You mistake doing good works with being a good person. There is a difference.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Alias

      Someone! Call the Pope!
      I think he needs to know this!!

      May 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Marty

      All Ephesians really needed was a good antihistamine, but no, chatty cathy Paul had to get everyone's panties uptight over silly stuff.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Topher

      Me

      AMEN!

      May 24, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • PeruvianCartel

      I think the Notorious BIG said it best when it comes to heaven:

      It don't make sense, goin' to heaven wit the goodie-goodies
      Dressed in white, I like black Tims and black hoodies
      God will probably have me on some real strict sh**
      No sleepin' all day, no gettin' my dick licked
      Hangin' with the goodie-goodies loungin' in paradise
      F hat sh**, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice

      May 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • RGE50

      The real way to heaven is thru brainwashing, or drugs.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  6. fosborne

    God the creator of man,creature and this universe..does not have to explain anything..on the day man takes his last breath.you/we will know. There will be praise or bitter weeping.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • RGE50

      yawn....

      May 24, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Pascal's Wager Catcher

      I smell that funny smell...http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pascal-wager/

      May 24, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  7. Daniel

    I don't think it's all that big a leap to say "Without any actual evidence proving otherwise, it is safe to say that wherever it is humans go or don't go after death, we will all likely be going to the same place."

    We will not have some reincarnated while others go to nirvana or purgatory or head to heII or heaven. There is but one truth, and that truth is that no one alive today knows where we go if we go anywhere at all. Beyond that is opinion and supposition that isn't worth the time spent contemplating it.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  8. asdfasdf

    After ratboy, the child molester apologist(at best)....im glad the new pop doesn't seem stuck in the dark ages. Too bad the Vatican backpedaled on what he said.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  9. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Dan Dennett on the Mind (4/8/13)
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbJHOnkFimg&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  10. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Peter Millican – Debunking the Kalam Cosmological Argument

    May 24, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • .

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35WVf6Uvk8U&w=640&h=390]

      May 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    I want to be a monk. I really do. The problem is I would miss my two children too much and be too sad to meditate properly. In additional, I don't believe in any of it. I want to become a modern atheist monk. I must figure out. Ideas welcome.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Apple,

      The basic rule of Benedict by which most monastic communities and hermitages operate is "Ora et Labora" Pray and work. Whether you enter into community or not does not prohibit you from practicing these principles as life choices. Some people have a romanticized views of monastic life where they get to live in an Italian castle and have Gregorian chants piped in. The reality is somewhat different. But, the rule is available to you without the habit and without the cloister. To help your path, you can simplify your life by reducing exposure to worldly influences. Eliminating TV and other distractions leaves more time for playing uplifting music or reading good books. I know you are a writer and I believe painter, you could compose deeper thoughts or works of art on your path and relation to the world. Reducing possessions and simplifying your diet helps meter the hectic pace of life. You can begin to see the people around you as a community to serve instead of commodities to be exploited.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Jesus

      Bill you fvcken coward, you let Topher win, the same excuse as always...Oh, I could not find the thread, be gone you hypocrite, you are not of me.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      If by win you mean that I left him in his moronic conclusions then yes, he won. Otherwise, I went to lunch.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Jesus

      Bill what an arrogant piece of crap you are, you dare call yourself a christian, you would never be welcome assuming I were real and there was an afterlife. You are an educated fool, which is much more disgusting than an a poorly educated person.

      May 24, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  12. FLAFREETHINKER

    As a lifelong atheist, I find this hilarious. I'm completely baffled how anyone in the 21st century can still take seriously religious beliefs of any kind. Until the day comes when religion is eradicated from our planet, and the killing, torture and atrocities associated with religious beliefs are ended, this planet will continue to spin out of control because of beliefs in a mythical deity. Reality check is needed for a lot of people. There is no god. Accept it.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  13. Brave Buck-I

    About time we got a little respect. I doubt it'll last.long, though. Who would have thought the devotees of the original liberal could be so filled with intolerance?

    May 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  14. Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim

    Sam Harris demolishes Christianity
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt6M8Hs-keo&w=640&h=390]

    May 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  15. Marmaduke

    Of course atheists don't go to heaven. They don't believe it exists. Shees.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Dan

      Would it be possible to put a flat earth believer on a plane and fly them around the globe?

      May 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  16. Bobbie Jones

    whata laugh , the Catholic i church is such a joke, making up their own rules, the Bible clearly states you must belive in God and be saved then be baptised by immerson only, and must be of age so how can athesit go to heaven, if they dont even believe in God
    so how can even Catholic go to heaven, when the dont even follow the bible

    May 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Billy

      The Catholic church as a joke is only surpassed by the Bible as a joke.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  17. Dyan S

    Seriously can't believe this is a topic worthy of discussion. I have no problem with what anybody wants to believe in but it's this constant rehashing of the same garbage over and over that really frustrates everyone else that doesn't believe in a supreme being. This constant need to shove Christianity or any other religious belief (but mainly christianity) down everyones throat has to stop.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  18. Mike

    Heaven used to sound like an awful place because it was apparently filled with a bunch of people I couldn't stand to be around on earth. But now that I know non-believers will be there too, I think I'll have a much better time.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Ronnie Harper

      Nietzsche said all the interesting people are missing from heaven.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  19. Dan

    It appears that the entire 4% athiest population in America is on this message board.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Daniel

      No, I just think there are a lot more atheists than admit it on surveys. It's like a country of secret Santas, only we all not only disbelieve in Saint Nick but also disbelieve in the big jolly fat man in the sky.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • sam

      It appears to bother you.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • RGE50

      Count me too I'm here

      May 24, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  20. retired wheezer

    Sorry, Jesus. Odin is my go-to guy.

    May 24, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Valhalla sounds like way more fun than Heaven.

      May 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Yggdrasil

      Hey now, don't go telling everyone, we are supposed to keep our Norse relgion Lo ki...

      May 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Science

      Chomp on that foot print !

      Discovery Channel Mega Beasts – Great American Predator

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UHQZVQvBkU&w=640&h=390]

      May 24, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      @ science – I am SO disappointed! I thought the ti-tle of the video was "Discovery Channel Mega Breasts".

      May 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      Sure not the 666 beast or you know that red horn-y devil !

      May 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Science

      hey Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear and of course bigem foot print is found where ?

      May 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.