Interviewed by GMA News Online, Red Tani of the group Filipino Freethinkers (FF) said he finds Pope Francis' statement "condescending to atheists. Like they are guilty until proven innocent.”
Still, he said it's still good that the pope “used the word atheist," adding this "could send people online to look up atheists, and there the conversation can start."
"For an influential figure to use the word, people will want to find out more. Some people still have no idea what atheists really are. They think atheists are evil, that they worship Satan,” Tani told GMA News Online by phone.
Freethought is a way of thinking unconstrained by dogma, authority, and tradition.
Pope Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, made the comment regarding atheists in a private homily Wednesday.
According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists had been redeemed by Jesus.
"Even them, everyone," the pope answered, as quoted by the Vatican Radio. "We all have the duty to do good," he said.
Francis's reaching out to atheists and people who belong to no religion is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.
According to Tani, being an atheist or an individual who does not believe in god is prone to discrimination.
“It’s kind of obvious especially for atheists just how much discrimination there is. For me, if you do good, you are a good person. But they had to single out atheists. Atheists are simply people who don’t believe in god,” he said.
He also noted that while Pope Francis' statement can open conversation, it can also be a source of misinformation.
“It’s open to a lot of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. For example, some can take it to mean even atheists are saved. However, the Vatican has clarified that there is no salvation outside the Church,” Tani said, comparing Pope Francis’ statements to that made by his predecessor regarding the use of condoms by some prostitutes.
“I think this is similar to the comments Pope Benedict made when he said it was a step in the right direction for male prostitutes to use condoms,” Tani said.
“A lot of people took it to mean that the Church was now okay with contraceptives. But no, the Church still doesn’t think it’s okay,” he added.
Hearing Tani expound his view on the Pope Francis' statement, it seems Tani embodies the very good Pope Francis was referring to in his homily.
“I identify as an atheist. More specifically I am a secular-humanist. We’re not sure if god exists, but humans do. And I think it’s better to help human beings. This may be the only life there is and I want to spend it helping people,” Tani said.
But for the Catholic Church, Francis’ message was less inclusive than interpreted, suggesting instead that he was referring to “anonymous Christians.”
“We have what we call anonymous Christians. These are people who have never heard of God, who have been misinformed, or fooled into not believing, but without necessarily knowing Christ, they do good deeds,” said Fr. Francis B. Lucas, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Social Communications and Mass Media.
“The faith never entered their lives, but they do well,” Lucas added, an interpretation Tani sees as prejudiced.
“I think there’s definitely prejudice there. What he’s saying is practically the opposite of what Francis intended—for Christians to not prejudge based on what one does or does not believe,” Tani said. — KBK, GMA News