Since I don't believe there is any plan or cosmic justice, I think the responsibility of caring for one another and providing our existence with any meaning falls squarely on us. My philosophy is we should try to leave the world better than we found it, and to err on the side of compassion whenever possible. The Golden Rule is a good idea, regardless of where you think it originated. I honestly believe we are happiest when we are being our best selves, and when we help others instead of behaving selfishly. Ethics are important to me, and I believe love is at the core of what matters.
The problem with a label like atheist, however, is that I'm lumped in with people based on what we don't believe, not what we do, so we aren't really a group. We're a vague category at best, and not organized or unified by anything in particular. There are atheists out there with whom I do not agree on much. Many people of faith jump to conclusions about what being an atheist may or may not be based on what they assume we lack. Most of the time the assumptions are negative, so I have found myself in situations where I'm careful not to offer that information about myself. I don't like being prejudged.
In turn I try my best not to prejudge others. I've known people of varying faiths who I thought were admirable, and others who were horrible. There are people I love dearly who find comfort and inspiration in their religions and I would never begrudge them that. There are those who cling to their faith out of lazy habit, or to prop up their egos with a sense of superiority, and for that I have little patience. I don't care what you call your belief system. I just care that you come to it with intellectual honesty, good intent, and that you don't use it to inflict harm.
My biggest frustration with organized religion is when people allow themselves to become distracted by dogma and details to the detriment of the big picture and kindness. There are contradictions in religious teachings because there are contradictions in life, and people can get bogged down in such details with disastrous results. There are very few (if any) absolutes that cover everything. We have to be willing to use compassion and good judgement to know when a greater good is more important than a common rule, regardless of how holy you believe that rule to be. There are too many examples of custom and belief being taken to perverse extremes throughout history all over the world. People of all belief systems need to be better than that.
The ways in which I think organized religion succeeds is in the comfort it can provide to individuals who need direction, and in using strength in numbers to collectively help others. On an individual level most people of faith I know are decent at heart and strive to do good, and involvement in a religious community is a way to maximize those efforts. I've met a few believers who have admitted that the threat of divine punishment is all that keeps them from intentionally hurting others for their own selfish pleasure, and to them I say, yes, by all means, you keep on believing, for all our sakes.
My father was raised Jewish and my mother Christian Science. My brothers and I briefly attended Sunday school as small children, but for the most part were taught about different religions, not taught to follow any of them. Having spent my life observing other people living with such traditions I'm glad not to have been raised in one myself because it allows me some perspective that I think people with particular emotional attachment to such ideas lack. I believe all religions are worth study because of the insight they give us about humanity; what about ourselves we think we need to control or encourage or condemn is always interesting.
We share this world with one another. As much as one group's philosophy shouldn't have to impact mine or yours, that's not how the world functions. The majority of the members of the Supreme Court of the United States are Catholic. I can't escape that influence if this is where I want to live, so what Catholics believe matters to me whether I like it or not.
I have mixed feelings about the Catholic church. Getting past the supernatural elements in the stories and ceremonies, the Catholic focus on helping the poor and the needy reflects admirably the most important concerns and teachings of Jesus. When they put their energy into serving the weak and the vulnerable without judgement they are at their finest. When they let preserving the mechanics of the hierarchy come before compassionate goals, they are disgraceful. This is true of all institutions, religious or otherwise, but in recent years the dichotomy between what the Catholic church supposedly is and what it actually does is something I have found particularly troubling.
So much so that as I researched places to volunteer my time to help the needy in my neighborhood I found myself struggling with the fact that the organizations that seemed to be most accessible and doing the best work were part of the Catholic church, and I didn't know what to do. I was reluctant to assist with the good works of the church for fear of inadvertently representing that organization. The last pope, with his expensive habits and focus on adherence to rules over more important priorities, offended my ideas of what a pope or any good Catholic should be, and did not present an image of something I could support. The last pope, frankly, made me angry.
I didn't want to be associated with him. This created a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, because the charity work is still needed, regardless of who gets the credit. I continued to seek out secular outlets for feeding the hungry and helping the poor but to no avail. I worried that vanity was preventing me from doing what was right, but it's not a small thing to assist a group that you think is in some way causing pain to others through potentially harmful teachings.
Enter Pope Francis. How does this man matter to an atheist? More than many Catholics might realize.
Pope Francis strikes me as compassionate, humble, and kind. I like him.
I have followed his story with interest since he assumed the papacy one year ago, and I am impressed. He's not living in the most lavish surroundings available. He's not dressing extravagantly. He still finds ways to go out and help the poor directly. He seems to be approachable and have a sense of humor. He does not project an air of superiority, but of fellowship. He wants to make helping the poor and the vulnerable a priority and seems to want his followers to not get mired in the minutia of ancient doctrine when there is more important work to be done. This is a pope who seems to me to be walking the walk, and it's inspiring. His actions so far appear to follow the admonition of Francis of Assisi to "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."
There will be points on which I will never agree with this pope and his teachings because I am not Catholic and I have drawn different conclusions about what's best or possible based on my own experience in the world. However, I don't feel threatened or excluded. I feel accepted. That's new, that's remarkable, and that strikes me as the way a decent church should make everyone feel.
I still await a conclusive statement from Pope Francis about the horrific history of child sexual abuse in the church and how he plans to deal with such issues going forward. If I want to get angry to the point of distraction I only have to think about the priests here in Milwaukee who raped boys in their school for the deaf and specifically targeted those who could not communicate with their parents. That those men weren't punished.... This story always makes me cry or want to hit things if I dwell on it for very long so I have to move on, but something must be done. The pope's few official statements on this topic so far are not encouraging, but I have hope for the first time in a long time that maybe the head of the Catholic church will at some point publicly condemn such crimes in a manner befitting their severity. He could make a difference in how such things are viewed and handled. I hope and believe this is a man who would put the well-being of children before an institution. We'll see.
In the meantime, when a friend down the street said we could go with them to serve food once a month at St Benedict's downtown I finally decided to go. And we've been back. And we plan to go as often as they'll have us. It means a great deal to me and my children to do something. It's not much, but it's a start. It's the one event each month that my kids look forward to over any other. They are good people who want very much to do good in the world which makes me prouder than I can say. I'm glad we've found a place to go where we feel we are helping.
I don't think we would be if the last pope were still heading the church. I did not want to project some kind of tacit approval of that man and his public statements. But Pope Francis? I may not be Catholic, but if someone wants to conflate my efforts to help my community with what he has had to say so far, well, that wouldn't bother me. Pope Francis essentially got an atheist to start bringing her kids regularly into a church to help feed the hungry.
That's the kind of difference a pope can make. That's the kind of difference I like to believe we all can make if we lead from a place of compassion.