Time magazine has named Pope Francis its person of the year, saying that “rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly—young and old, faithful and cynical—as the new leader of the Catholic Church." The accolade recognizes the “speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.”
I hope the atheist movement is listening.
Since becoming Pope, Francis has been the subject of fascination and attention among believers and non-believers all over the world. Not only has he taken a more open approach to the papacy and a softer tone toward gays and atheists, he has spoken to the heart of the most pressing moral crisis of our time: wealth disparity. He has not pulled his punches in attacking what he views as the excesses of capitalism and the failed economic theories of political conservatives.
Francis wrote in a papal statement, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.... Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
When the Pope washes the feet of convicts while calling for greater efforts to lift up the world’s poor, he makes it possible to establish meaningful partnerships with other moral communities, secular and religious. Of course, when Francis speaks about the “idolatry of money” and “growing income inequality,” you know, the things Jesus spoke about, you can set your watch in waiting for someone on the Right to accuse him of being a Marxist. Hello, Rush Limbaugh.
Atheists like to talk about building a better world, one that is absent of religiosity in the public square, but where is the atheist movement, as defined by the some 2,000 atheist groups and organizations in the U.S., when it comes to dealing with our third-world levels of poverty? Not only is the atheist movement absent on this issue, it is spending thousands of dollars on billboards that make atheists look like assholes, at the same time Catholicism is looking hip again. The Pope has changed the perception of the Church in the minds of millions while the atheist movement has been sucked into the Right’s fictitious "war on christmas."
American Atheists is the largest non-believer network in the country. It is a national 501(c)(3) organization that defends civil rights for atheists, freethinkers and other nonbelievers, which is all good stuff, but I question the allocation of resources and the expenditure of intellectual and emotional energy when it comes to fighting the good fight. Last week, the group launched a major billboard display that declares Christmas is better without Christ. The huge 40’ x 40’ digital billboard is located in Times Square. Using motion graphics, the billboard proclaims, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A hand then crosses out the word “Christ” and the word “NOBODY” appears. The commercial ends with a message from American Atheists and displays the organization’s website.
One can only imagine the Cheshire cat-like grins on the faces of Sarah Palin and the entire Fox News network when they saw this billboard. Over the popping sound of champagne corks, you might’ve heard Roger Ailes shout, “Hook, line and sinker!” Unwittingly, American Atheists delivered credibility to the Right’s war on christmas narrative, and in turn, helped the former Alaska governor sell another truckload of books.
Atheists remain the most “distrusted” demographic in American society, at least according to some polls. There’s no doubt atheists suffer an image problem, and snarky self-righteous billboards don’t help. Now, there are many reasons why Catholicism should have a more troubling image problem than atheism given the recent and highly publicized scandals of the Church. But the Pope hasn’t tackled it by launching a billboard campaign. Instead, as Time wrote, “Pope Francis has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power."
In fighting for truly meaningful social justice, such as income equality and the rights of minorities, the atheist movement can form partnerships with communities that share common causes. Building a bridge with certain religious communities that are equally concerned with fighting against class inequality and social injustice would broaden the appeal of the atheism movement, and might just get people to like atheists a little more.
Walter Bristol, an atheist interfaith activist, wrote, “Economic inequality is one of the most imminent issues facing Western society today. Any progressive movement that chooses to dismiss it is and will be rightfully dismissed themselves.”