A little boy in tears told Pope Francis that he was worried that his deceased father, who did not believe in God, might not be in heaven. Pope Francis told him that God alone determines who is in heaven and since his father was a good man who respected the faith of his wife and children, God would surely be merciful to him.
Atheists may find little comfort in the prospect of being in heaven with the God whose existence they deny. Yet the Pope‘s words can clarify misunderstandings about the position of Christians regarding unbelievers. We do not condemn atheists. We welcome dialogue with them and we hope to profit from their thoughts. Perhaps that can be mutual.
Pope Benedict XVI had lively interviews with the atheistic journalist Peter Seewald which were published in the book God and the World. Both found their conversations personally helpful. The pope appreciated Seewald‘s acumen and sincerity. The journalist was impressed by the Pope’s knowledge of world events and secular literature. When he asked the Pontiff if there was anything in the faith of the church that could possibly enlighten unbelievers, he was struck by Pope Benedict‘s quick response, "Our saints and our art."
The militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book The God Delusion, "The imaginary god in the Old Testament has to be the most cruel and violent creature of all fiction." He debated that claim with Alister McGrath, a professor of religious studies at Oxford. McGrath explained how Dawkins' literalistic interpretation was a misreading of Scripture and concluded, "The God whose existence you deny, I also deny. The Old Testament God that I believe in is the God of Hesed." Hesed is a Hebrew word meaning "merciful, steadfast love." (cf. Hosea 6:6). Dawkins listened patiently, but was not convinced.
Modern unbelievers style themselves as the new atheists claiming original insights to disprove the existence of God and promote a purely secular life. Theistic philosophers have responded that their writings have added nothing significant to those of the classical atheists — Neitzche, Marx, Russell — who were, in fact, more cogent and had been sufficiently challenged by their contemporaries. Again, the new atheists were not convinced.
The sad reality is that while there are many benefits to open conversation, there are also limits, propositions on which we can only agree to disagree, amicably. Mutual condemnation is futile. A thoughtful atheist is not hostile to religious faith, nor a virtuous believer to deniers of divinity.
When asked about their destiny, the theologian Avery Dulles replied, "Atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives in the service of truth and justice." Atheists may not be interested in salvation, but they might appreciate that sincere believers neither dismiss nor damn them. Civil dialogue between faith and denial can be enlightening. It can promote mutual respect and foster a kinder world.