Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 28 May 2013

So atheists are people too?

Progress in reaching common ground between what appear to be irreconcilable viewpoints often happens in slow increments. But our attention spans and fondness for hyperbole gets in the way of recognising this, and perhaps perpetuates unnecessary disagreement.

Context is often a key factor in determining what something might mean. Not only what someone might have meant in saying something, but also what it might end up meaning – in other words, what its likely effects might be. We forget this all too easily in a short-attention span world of headlines and attendant hyperbole.

Whatever you might think, for example, about Democratic Alliance policy, any analysis of its “Know Your DA” campaign is incomplete – and potentially incoherent – if it fails to address the campaign’s effects on its intended audience. Analysis of how the campaign is received on Twitter, Facebook, or even the Daily Maverick is likely to tell a small part of the story. So small, in fact, that it might not be worth telling.

Every week offers examples of columnists, presenters, editors and presidents taking individual cases out of one context and placing them into another, to make a point that might bear little relation to the point you might have wanted to make, or to the point someone else might take away from the same event.

Another example worthy of far more attention than I’ll give it here is the Woolwich murder last week, where a British soldier named Lee Rigby was hacked to death by two machete-wielding Islamists. Some responses treated this as a justifying instance for Islamophobia, while others couldn’t see beyond a “chickens coming home to roost” analysis, arguing that Britain (and the US, of course) deserve all the terror they might get.

A more plausible analysis than either of those extremes casts the murder as an instance of “degenerate nihilism”, largely unconnected to Islam. Or, if you don’t think that analysis more plausible, you’d nevertheless hopefully agree that it might prove more useful for understanding why these things happen, and (perhaps) for minimising the chances of more of them happening in future.

The truth often – even usually – lies in-between the extremes, despite how much we struggle to see it that way. This struggle is precisely because of the competition for attention, and the limited time that we have to win that competition among our readers, listeners or dinner-table companions. So instead of nuance, we offer caricatures that are more likely to tap into the existing prejudices of the audience.

We can also fail to see outside of our own caricatured manifestations of the subject in question. Objectivity is neither something we’re very good at, nor arguably something that we’ve often got time for in the attention economy, where earning a moment of your time is such a significant return on investment that it feels like achievement enough.

A more trivial failure of objectivity than reactions to Rigby’s murder occurred last week, after the Pope dared to suggest that atheists might find their way to heaven, or at least be capable of being good people. The church was quick off the mark with damage control regarding the heaven bit (insisting that it’s still only via Christ that you can be issued with a visa), but that was never the interesting bit of Pope Francis’s sermon in any event.

Francis is quoted as saying: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! 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.”

It’s not plausible to read Francis as claiming that faith is now optional for salvation. Besides the obvious point that atheists could hypothetically be redeemed once they become believers, the important thing in the sermon is the fact that he explicitly allows for atheists to be, and to do, good.

Most atheists I discussed this with were dismissive, asserting that they don’t need the Pope’s endorsement of their moral virtue, or questioning what the Pope might even mean by “good”. In other words, most reactions missed the point by a mile.

We know, from Gallup polls and other research in the US that atheists are distrusted and thought to have no foundation for moral principles. We see that politicians constantly name-check faith, and that Julia Gillard is an exceptional case in being an atheist who has managed to become elected to the presidency (of Australia). In other words, we know that in the PR battle around moral issues such as trust, integrity, charity and the like, atheists struggle to compete with religion.

We don’t struggle to compete in reality, of course – but exploring that is not the point of this column. The point of this column is to say that when the leader of the Catholic Church tells adherents of that religion – one of the largest in the world – that they don’t have a monopoly on virtue, that message directly contradicts an existing and powerful stereotype.

You don’t have to like the Pope, or respect him and his Church, to regard it as a good thing that this influential person makes a statement undermining the idea that you can’t be morally decent without religion. That idea keeps atheists from speaking out, declaring their non-belief to family, friends, or the electorate. It is used as a form of pressure to get people into faiths in the first place, because who would want to be perceived as an immoral (even evil) person?

In other words, there’s a big picture here, beyond our egos. There are in fact various big pictures, competing with the ones describing child abuse in the church, or the sexism of Catholicism. Progress is possible at various rates, at various times and through various forms of strategy – but to deny that this is progress of any sort is as blinkered a reaction as we like to accuse religious folk of falling prey to.

As a friend remarked on Facebook, “change in the views of those who are opposed to ours is, after all, a vital part of progress. It doesn’t mean that the Pope isn’t still part of the opposition to reason, and he continues to promote hateful and dangerous views, but we can be happy about a change for the better without needing to like the person who has changed.”

Amen to that. DM