It has been reported that the Pope, in his latest encyclical, claims that atheism has led to some of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" ever known. On the face of it, this would seem like a rather cheeky assertion from a man who just recently beatified a group of priests who supported the fascist side in the Spanish Civil War. Is it possible that the press didn't capture all the nuances in the Pope's encyclical, since it seems rather obvious that religion has also caused a lot of "cruelty and violations of justice"? Could he really be claiming that religion immune from the problems that he identifies with atheism? And besides, does he think that atheism is a single, coherent body of belief? I decided to go to the source and see what he actually said.
Fortunately, the Vatican published an English language version of the encyclical on their website, complete with footnotes. Unfortunately, the encyclical is long and ponderous, and I can't say I had the patience to read large sections of it. I did find the pertinent section, #42, that was referred to in the news media reports. There, I see that the pope makes what seems to me to be a rather strange assertion, claiming that "the atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history." He goes on to assert that atheism was rooted in a protest against Christian theodicy, and thus offered its own moralistic alternative to a Divinely instituted eschatology by creating human-produced Utopian visions that had disastrous consequences.
My first reaction to that assertion is that, while I am sure that theodicy has played a role in some people's atheism over the years, there are almost certainly many other reasons for it as well. And in any case, this doesn't really address the question of why atheism experienced the rise that it did in that point in history, which just so happened to be in the wake of the Enlightenment. The problem of evil has existed a long time before that--just look at the book of Job. So it seems simplistic to reduce atheism to that cause alone.
It seems evident to me from the passage in that encyclical that when the Pope says "atheism", he really means Marxism in particular and all-encompassing social movements in general. But if his objection is to Marxism or other ideologies that seek to establish an ideal world order, why doesn't he just say that? Why does he obfuscate matters by equating atheism per se with political visions of an ideal world (which may or may not be atheistic in origin), as if they were all the same thing? Does he actually think that atheism is a single coherent social movement, or that all atheists have grand visions for building a better world? Similarly, does he think that there are not religiously-inclined people with visions of a creating an ideal world? Obviously, there is no direct correlation between trying to build a new world order and being an atheist, just as there is no correlation between atheism and atrocities--and we all know quite well the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion. And certainly one can either believe or disbelieve in God simultaneously with either supporting or opposing social justice. One need only look at the example of Catholic-infused Spanish fascism that I alluded to earlier to see how this works. The irony of all of this is that the Pope has in the past also vociferously attacked religiously based social justice movements within his own church, particularly Latin American liberation theology, the very existence of which would not seem to fit into his paradigm of radical social liberation movements being equivalent to atheism. In reality, his problem seems not to be with atheism but with the politics of radical reform. It is well known that the Pope turned against leftist politics during the student revolts of 1968, and it seems clear that, nearly 40 years later, these issues still get his panties in a twist.
The pope claims that "a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." While I do think that God plays an active role in building justice, I also happen to think that God does so through human agents who actually do the grunt work of building a better world. If we depend on God to magically bring about a better world from above without our own efforts, we will be waiting a long time. I would argue that God acts through us to build social justice, and that we are the ones who have to actually carry it out. Earlier in this same encyclical, the Pope seems to agree that humans do have a role to play in at least trying to make a better world. He writes,
What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future.But even if an ideal society were not achievable by our efforts, as the Pope suggests, and even if all societies have their flaws, I think we have to set our sights as high as possible. If we set our sights lower, I believe quite simply that we will also achieve less. We should never settle for anything less than our highest ideals, even if we can never achieve them perfectly.
I would argue that magical thinking and hopes for an eschatalogical rescue are not the ways to achieve justice. Later in the encyclical, in section 44, the Pope claims,
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hopeThe problem, as I see it, is not protesting against "God", but against complacency. Many atheists who might equate worldly injustice with God do so because they have been taught to believe that "God" is necessarily a theistic power who has the power to shape the world according to his whim and who has done so throughout history; such a God that they do not believe in because they would blame the current state of the world on him, and for that reasons they find such a God unsatisfactory. Whether or not all atheists look at it quite that way is another question. But where the Pope finds hope in the Last Judgment, I find the potential of despair--because it can easily lead to a sense of inevitable failure of human efforts and thus a shirking of responsibility for building a just world. Yet this is not inherent to the notion of God. I personally find the notion of a Last Judgment much less inspirational than the passage from Isaiah that was featured in last week's common revised lectionary:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.'
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
This is, of course, a well known passage, brilliant and poetic in its imagery. This is certainly an image of hope. This is the standard that we can set our efforts by. Just as God evoked the universe into being via slow, tedious evolutionary processes, we too cannot expect instant results, but we can always look to God's perfect justice as something that calls out to us. The beacon of hope as I see it is not in some mythical Last Judgment of the future, but in God's constant call to us in the present, one that offers us the best possibilities at each moment for building a better world.