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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. valeria Joseph

    If we belive in a Mercyful God , there is nothing to criticise the statement of our dear pope, thank God he is above formalities and retuals and humanbeings are more important to him an atheist is also a humanbeing and who are we to judge him ?

    May 25, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
    • Dippy

      Mercyful? Try merciful next time. Only a religious nitwit could make a mistake like that. Get up off your knees and study English.

      May 25, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    I am losing my mind. Please help.

    May 25, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Guess prayer didn't work for you.

      May 25, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    May 25, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Observer

      Read the Bible to see how totally destructive God was to children and living things.

      May 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  4. Angel Moronic

    The pope is trying to make the catholic church to return to the center of the road. Which is great , unfortunately only after many innocents were killed and many women and young boys were abused.

    May 25, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  5. faith

    cnn likes words like c, f, s, c, mf, etc. when posted by their own.

    report these animals

    May 25, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • faith

      bye bye cnn

      May 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • LinCA

      @faith

      Do you mean words like:
            arse
            bastard
            bitch
            clit
            cock
            coon
            cracker
            cum
            cunt
            douche
            effing
            fag
            ftw
            fuck
            goddamn
            gloryhole
            homo
            hooters
            horny
            hump
            jackass
            jap
            jism
            kinky
            kooch
            necrophilia
            nipple
            nigger
            orgy
            pis
            poon
            porn
            prick
            queer
            rape
            sex
            shit
            slut
            smut
            snatch
            spic
            tit
            twat
            vag
            whore
            wonderful us
            wop
            wtf
            xxx

      May 25, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
  6. GodFreeNow

    To my fellow atheists:

    Sorry about the spam, but I have some recommended reading. "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern"
    by Stephen Greenblatt

    There's a lot of historical insight into christians renunciation of knowledge and pleasure in the struggle against Epicureans, how the catholic church was originally structured, and so much more. I highly recommend it.

    May 25, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • The real Tom

      I have not yet read it, GFN, but my husband has and also thought it was excellent.

      May 25, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • chrispipkin

      "The Swerve" is irresponsible history written with a polemical agenda, and roundly denounced by all real medievalists (which Greenblatt is not). So sure, if you want to have a few more half-baked arrows in your ideological quiver, read it–but all it does is read a caricature-ish picture of the modern religious right into history, flattening the world and ridding it of any nuance. That is why Dawkins-ites and other fundamentalist American atheists love it so. Don't take my word for it: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=1217&fulltext=1&media=#article-text-cutpoint

      May 25, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      @chrispipkin, No doubt you have actual non ad hominem evidence to the contrary, not just speculation and conjecture? I'm always interested in hearing all of the evidence. Please share.

      May 25, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Funny. My husband is a historian and pretty critical of revisionists. He's also not an atheist or a "Dawkinsite", whatever the fuck THAT is.

      May 25, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  7. Reality

    In the 21st century, the Pope's words are empty words . And why is that? Scroll back to p. 27

    May 25, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  8. faith

    “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."

    christians never say that, danny boy? what a patronizing jack as z.

    May 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Queen

      Do you deliberately misrepresent the quoted word, or is that an unconscious "talent" of yours? Or do you simply lack reading comprehension?
      It isn't the person you quoted who is being patronizing.

      May 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • faith

      notify fox, wsj, congress, fbi about threats and discrimination on freedom of speech.

      thanks brethren

      we will teach these animals to ovey the law

      May 26, 2013 at 2:28 am |
  9. faith

    report kfc

    more evidence in their ads they have developed and are cloning boneless chickens

    do your part to get these criminals locked up

    May 25, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • LinCA

      Sorry. You're not fooling anyone, fake faith. You clearly have a brain, which is something that is obviously missing from the real one.

      May 25, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  10. faith

    report science anvil tom

    they r criminals.

    they are perverts

    the r sick

    criminals

    they will be jailed for longer terms

    report them now

    they r criminals

    real criminals

    May 25, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
    • Akira

      Jailed for what, exactly?

      May 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Jailed because they are big meanies and they hurt "faith"s feelings.

      May 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Queen

      Are children supposed to be on the Belief Blog? Because faith surely sounds like a small child.

      May 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  11. Deadeyes

    The Pope is a guy who doesen't read the bible giving catholics think that they're the church that Christ founded, even though I doubt that. If you read the bible, didn't Jesus say when he returns he would take vengeance on those who didn't believe in his Father or follow the gospel. Plus it's written that God loved the world that he sent his son to redeem it that those who believe in him would not die but have eternal life. So even though Christ died for our sins, he was still crucified for the sake of those who would believe that he is the son of God and died for our sins. So I'm guessing that atheists don't get off the hook.

    May 25, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Sammy

      If those who believe in Jesus would not die but have eternal life doesn't that mean that the rest of us just die, with no Hell involved? That is what we believe happens anyway.

      May 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  12. A poem

    Were all in the same game
    Just at different levels
    We're all in the same hell
    Just with different devils

    May 25, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  13. Science

    Hey freed you to...........go now you are free to take a wild walk where the BEAR sh-its fred !

    soundoff (2,965 Responses)

    faith

    say good bye perverts

    May 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply

    faith

    sambo tom science bill nye

    u r finished u filthy animal

    May 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |

    Scienec

    You know faith you are stuck in a big pile GREEN SLIME with NO horn-y red devil to save your ass.

    Hey Chad/faith too.................Thanks Bob peace

    add it to your favorites tool bar !

    https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N

    Peace

    May 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |

    May 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/23/heaven-for-atheists-pope-sparks-debate/#comments

    May 25, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Science

      Oops meant for fredie on other thread !

      Fvcked UP I did !

      Peace

      May 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  14. faith

    say good bye perverts

    May 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • faith

      sambo tom science bill nye

      u r finished u filthy animal

      May 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • Scienec

      You know faith you are stuck in a big pile GREEN SLIME with NO horn-y red devil to save your ass.

      Hey Chad/faith too.................Thanks Bob peace

      add it to your favorites tool bar !

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N

      Peace

      May 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |

      May 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  15. One one

    A preacher was talking to an Eskimo about hell.
    The Eskimo asked "are you saying that a person will not be sent to hell if they never heard of hell?"
    The preacher said "that's correct"
    Then the Eskimo asked "then why did you tell me?"

    May 25, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Max

      Makes missionaries the most terrible people in the world, doesn't it?

      May 25, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • Sammy

      Yup, it's like a group of people going to a bunch of strangers and telling them that they've just infected all of them with a terrible disease, one that only they can cure, and for a price.

      May 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  16. faith

    "The real Tom
    So, is that what your b ut t looks like, a n o?

    There is no evidence that a god created this or any other universe."

    se x u al references like this are common among the nazi god-hating fascists who post here regularly. they r sick. they r s e x u al p er v e rts and a s sa ult others in real life s e x u ally.

    keep reporting them 4 their terr ori stic threats. u will learn they were guilty of s e x cri me s as well. mark my words.

    May 25, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • faith

      their control of this cnn endorsed blog is gonna cost em

      hide n watch

      May 25, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  17. Jason

    Ephesians 2:8-9 and John 3.

    May 25, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Angel Moronic

      Jason 0:0 – In the beginning There were a lot of delusional and ignorance people so religions came into existence.

      May 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • Sammy

      Grace requires a prepayment of faith, so what kind of "gift" can it be?

      May 25, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  18. thnidu

    "Francis was expressing a core tenant of the faith"? NO, NO, NO! The Pope may say "I live in my faith", but this word is TENET, not TENANT.

    May 25, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  19. Lamb of dog

    A preacher was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned to her and said, "Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger."
    The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger, "What would you want to talk about?"
    " Oh, I don't know," said the preacher. "How about why there is a God, or Heaven or Hell, or life after death?" as he smiled smugly.
    "OK," she said. "Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?"
    The preacher, visibly surprised by the little girl's intelligence, thinks about it and says, "Hmmm, I have no idea." To which the little girl replies, "Do you really feel qualified to discuss why there is al God, or Heaven or Hell, or life after death, when you don't know crap?" And then she went back to reading her book.

    May 25, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Vic

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/comment-page-100/#comment-2333852

      Also, the answer to the girl's question above is: God created each that way, simple as that! Every Christina knows that!

      May 25, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Vic

      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/05/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority/comment-page-100/#comment-2333852

      Also, the answer to the girl's question above is: God created each that way, simple as that! Every Christian knows that!

      May 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Science

      Hey Vic you too !

      You know faith you are stuck in a big pile GREEN SLIME with NO horn-y red devil to save your ass.

      Hey Chad/faith too.................Thanks Bob peace

      add it to your favorites tool bar !

      https://www.zotero.org/colleengreene/items/5XRFKX8N

      Peace

      May 25, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |

      May 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  20. Sadler

    An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned to her and said, "Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger."
    The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total stranger, "What would you want to talk about?"
    " Oh, I don't know," said the atheist. "How about why there is no God, or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?" as he smiled smugly.
    "OK," she said. "Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?"
    The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl's intelligence, thinks about it and says, "Hmmm, I have no idea." To which the little girl replies, "Do you really feel qualified to discuss why there is no God, or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death, when you don't know crap?" And then she went back to reading her book.

    May 25, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Aiden

      Ha Ha! Funny!

      May 25, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • The real Tom

      Only if you're 12.

      May 25, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Quip

      Humorless elders are 'principled' up their asses!

      May 25, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • faith

      I live on a big blue ball
      I never do dream I would fall
      But even the day that I do
      I'll jump off and smile back at you

      We don't even know where we are
      But they say that we're circling a star
      Well, I'll take their word, I don't know
      But I'm dizzy so maybe that's so.

      I'm riding a big blue ball
      And never do dream I would fall
      But even the high may lay low
      So when I do fall I'll be glad to go...

      waylon jennings

      good joke sadler
      u've got 'em fixed

      May 25, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • mama k

      I can see how that's amusing. But the flaw with that story is that mainstream atheism does have a high degree of agnosticism, and so knowledge of something claimed, such as God, versus belief, is of paramount importance to the atheist. So the mainstream atheist would not say "no God", etc., since mainstream atheism does not make knowledge claims of such and relies on knowledge. Just google atheism and the flaw becomes quite apparent.

      May 25, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • HotAirAce

      And it's trivial to find at least four other versions with christians, congressmen, strangers or Obama being the butt of the joke.

      May 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • She Told Him

      BWWAAAHAAAAHAAAAAHAAAAHAAA!! Boy, that little girl sure put it to that ol' atheist didn't she!! Pretty smart little girl compared to those feel-they-know-it-all atheists!!

      May 25, 2013 at 2:21 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.