Non-believers: Pope Francis is sorta cool, but the visit is a logistical nightmare

When Pope Francis arrives in Philadelphia later this month, officials expect more than a million people to flock to Center City for, among other events, Sunday Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. To them, it’s a moment of celebrating religious faith.


But what about locals who don’t share that belief in a God? To them, it’s a mixed bag.

They acknowledge the merits of community brought about by religion, but also shake their heads at the security and preparation hullaballo that Mayor Michael Nutter and other officials have started countering with a spin of once-in-a-lifetime positivity.

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Common threads emerged across several interviews in which they spoke for themselves (none purported to speak for their entire community), namely the fact that parts of Pope Francis’ message merges nicely with their world views.

Some vowed to ensure that the city (and by extension, taxpayers) is fully reimbursed for dollars spent preparing, and celebrating, the occasion.

While none said they planned on protesting during the week, counterprogramming will be offered.

Those events include author Annie Laurie Gaylor’s “Why Women Need Freedom From Religion” talk at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia (1906 Rittenhouse Square) the Thursday before Pope Francis arrives and the “Art For Justice” exhibit at several churches throughout the month.

They are also considering hosting an event on papal Mass Sunday, but logistics might render that idea impossible.

Below are highlights from interviews with four area non-believers.

Margaret Downey, non-theist activist, former president of Atheist Alliance International, founder/president of the Freethought Society:

We’ve been hearing from our supporters that it is a terrible inconvenience for the city to be shutting down streets and to make such major differences in traffic flow and even traffic patterns for the Catholic Church.

There seems to be a lot of pressure from the Catholic community to protect the pope.

We look upon the city as trying very hard to provide a safe atmosphere and to be welcoming to the pontiff, but we wonder if the Queen of England or another head of state would get the same treatment.

The Freethought Society is a watchdog organization. We want to make sure that the bills that are incurred by the government are reimbursed fully. We’ll probably need to use a Right to Know process, a Freedom of Information request, but we will stand strong to make sure those bills are paid by the responsible people and organizations.

I would like to see what the average costs are of hosting President Obama when he comes through, or compare that to the Jewish Federation. The Dalai Lama. We can gauge what expenses were incurred hosting the Dalai Lama and his followers compared to what’s being done for the Catholics.

We question whether the city should be so deeply entangled with the Catholic religion because government entities should remain secular in purpose. The government’s primary principle effect should be that it neither advance nor inhibit religion, but the government must also not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.

We consider that a very defined separation of religion and government. We would also call for justification of expenses should we see our city turned into a place for a so-called Mecca retreat.

We would demand proof that we have been reimbursed fully as taxpayers, and the reason that’s so important, especially in Philadelphia, is we’re suffering so with the homeless community, the closures of libraries and government entities and especially our school system.

We’re very concerned about the lack of improvement in our educational departments. Teachers need to be paid more. Schools need to be improved. Even the transportation system in Philadelphia is lacking. We see money much more needed in those fields than to be celebrating a religion.

We don’t want the Catholics to consider this over-the-top example of greeting the pope as an endorsement for Catholicism. And we don’t want to make it appear that Philadelphia is a Catholic city. It’s not. It’s diverse and it has a wide variety of beliefs, including non-believers. Our voice is sometimes silenced.

With all of the scandal and things disclosed recently in the news about the Catholic Church, why would the head of such an organization be treated as if the slate was clean? With all of the abuse that took place with the hiding of priests, the treatment of women, all of the abuses of the church in the past, the slate cannot be wiped clean simply because there’s a dynamic leader now acting as pope.

This pope seems much more humble. I was very pleased with most of his statements regarding global warming and helping the poor. The problem that I foresee is that he is full of talk but no action.

He will have to rely on the rest of the church to take the actions necessary to improve the human condition. It needs to begin with a few solid words like “use birth control” or “respect women.” Those are the types of changes that must be made in order for the church to become credible. And I don’t want to see the church become a cult of personality.

It is morally irresponsible not to address overpopulation when you’re talking about global warming. It is a crucial part of breaking the cycle. It’s irresponsible to talk about helping the poor without a discussion about how to control births with the use of contraceptives. It’s morally corrupt to talk about equality and leave out marriage equality because the church is against that.

There are a lot things I would like the Catholics to push back on at the grassroots level: “OK, you’re talking about these problems. Now, give us some solutions.” If the church doesn’t do it, the grassroots Catholics have to do it for themselves.

They can let the pope know what they want. They can filter these things to the pontiff through correspondence. The fact that they’re all showing up as if they are followers would lend credence to him being just a talker and not a doer.

What I would like to see is that not only do people ask the hard questions but demand the right answers to improve the human condition. Prayer is not going to work. Only action is going to work to improve the human condition.

I think [the visit] will give people a lot of comfort in a world that is unpredictable. People need a little bit of pablum in their lives.

To me, it’s a crutch for the impending problems we’re going to have if society doesn’t take action. But, it’s a temporary fix. It’s a temporary feeling. It’s a temporary high. If people need that, I suppose they’re going to find that.

It’s just like going to a rock concert. You get into a world of great music, great times, friends. There’s this great high of being in a place and the place makes you feel good, but then you come back to reality. You go back to work. You have your family, and your problems, traffic and everything else.

So, it’s like going to a carnival. OK, we’re going to go have some fun, escape from the real world and here’s some platitudes that are going to make us feel good. Platitudes don’t solve problems.

When we first heard of the visit, the Freethought Society thought, “Hey, why don’t we try to get an audience with the pope? It’d be really wonderful if we could have a meeting: atheists and a pope.” I had wanted to do that. I thought it was a great idea.

My goal would be to find common ground to sit in front of the pope and say, “Here are our concerns. I know you have the same concerns. How can we help each other meet that end, solve the problems, create an atmosphere of acceptance, tolerance, friendship, common ground, a vision and a goal that suits the purpose of improving the human condition?”

But, I wouldn’t have that much time with him, so I scratched the idea of sending that letter to [Archbishop Charles Chaput] knowing that was an impossibility.

In my wildest dreams, that would be a wonderful experience because I want the pope, I want the entire Catholic church, to know that atheists are just decent people who want a better world, who want families and love in their lives, and friendship, and tolerance, and understanding the same as everyone else. We are not what we’re painted to be.

I would like the church to treat women better, both inside the church and out. The Bible teaches certain things about how women should be treated, even as chattel.

This is why it’s so important why we’re hosting this alternative to pope week, and bringing in a very famous author, Annie Laurie Gaylor, who will be talking about why women need freedom from religion.

The event takes place Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. Annie Laurie Gaylor will talk about different Bible verses. When you look at the Bible, you see so many passages that demean women and instruct women to submit, to be subservient, that they’re unclean.

When the pope says Mass and represents the Bible, does he represent those things, and endorse those things?

If he’s truly a kind human being, he wouldn’t. He would be outspoken against mistreatment of women. And if he doesn’t, then women should be leaving the church in droves, seeking respect, seeking equality, seeking a position of authority, which is well deserved.

Women need pride in their life, and I don’t think the pope can represent that when he’s standing there exulting the Bible and the Catholic church. It’s just not ethical.

In 1844, when there was discussion about bringing Bibles into public schools, there was a huge riot in Philadelphia. It was a fight over whether they should use the King James version.

An all-Protestant school board mandated the daily reading of the King James Bible and the Catholics got up in arms. Twenty people were killed. There was a huge riot with businesses being burned down, and homes, shootings, it was just an amazing civil disobedience over which Bible to use.

So, let’s not forget our history in Philadelphia when we cater too much to one religion.



Hugh Taft-Morales, Leader, Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia:

[Our community represents] all different flavors of humanism and atheism. Recently, there has been a lot more emphasis on working together.

We are non-theist. The Ethical Society focuses not on belief, but how you lead your life. We don’t entertain supernatural beliefs.

Most members are atheist. I’m atheist. [The Ethical Society] stands firmly with atheist community in protecting free-thought rights. Culture excludes and discriminates against atheists. So many issues we’re fighting with them, saying “I’m atheist, I’m proud and I’m not going anywhere.”

I’m looking [at Pope Francis’ visit] for what is it within a Catholic church that is moving in a positive direction.

There’s so much Catholic [construct] that I could spend a lot of time opposing: How they treat women, for instance.

[When it comes to the] hero worship of the pope, we all want heroes. Whether it’s a pope or a rock star, we tend to put people on pedestals. But from our perspective, everybody has got to step up to the plate and make world a better place. If we put people on pedestals, we’re waiting for them to do it.

Pope Francis has star power, but he places it back on those who adore him. It is up to you to make the world a better place. We’re all for that. We’re not about making individuals into gods. We’re about the response of everyone to heal a broken world. There’s a lot that Pope Francis is doing in that regard.

When it comes to criminal-justice reform, realize that these are human beings who are in jail. The system dehumanizes them, and, because of that, you see increased recidivism. We’re looking at how to treat families of those who are incarcerated in humane ways. We want to try to welcome back returning citizens looking for ways to survive, but we’ve made it virtually impossible.

When the pope comes out talking about the people of color we throw behind bars, we’re trying to publicize that. In fact, there’s an Art For Justice event with a poster that commemorates this issue all of September.

Our leader emeritus, Richard Kiniry, will give a talk called “Francis the good guy, but how about the good?” It’s scheduled for Sept. 27, but we’re reconsidering that date [because of logistical concerns].

[Regarding the security measures surrounding the visit], I have a very different reaction. As the leader of the Ethical Society, I live in Washington D.C. and travel to Philly and Baltimore. In D.C., we’re constantly in this security state mode.

I want to know whether the words of Pope Francis will be translated into actual policy changes. I have hope that it will. If he gets people to begin to think about ties between capital, if they begin to see there’s something fundamentally wrong with our system, that would be a good thing, a way to build energy behind bringing about change.

Here’s the difficult part: If people are looking for the pope to change the world, it’s not going to be much different on Monday morning when he leaves.

If people are more open to inherent worth of every human being on the planet, and that awareness is deep enough that they change how they love and demand laws that are humane, without being idealistic, [realizing] what we’re doing to primarily poor people is inhumane, [the visit would be a success].

On our relationship to the planet, he’s right on the money. We cannot treat the planet as a commodity. If the visit [brings about the realization that] this is a problem we are in together, then the hero worship doesn’t worry me.

It’d be so easy that Monday to go right back to routine and nothing changes. That’s what worries me. It could be a significant factor, but a lot of things are going to have to change.

Take the Presidential election: We’re not focused on matters of consequence; we’re focused on celebrity and outrageousness. We need to worry about how to feed people and the school system. It’s atrocious how we’re treating our children.

An ethical commitment is what we need. We’re going to have to involve free thinkers and every denominiation. Hopefully, it’ll work, but it will take a lot.



Staks Rosch, Coordinator, Philadelphia Coalition of Reason:

I’ve talked to a bunch of fellow atheists about this. Most are annoyed that it shuts down the city more than anything else. I think that’s across the board, not just atheists, but across the city.

Even in the suburbs, people are worried about how they’ll get to work in the ‘burbs and vice versa. That’s a big deal. That’s with any head of state, I guess, so take that for what it’s worth.

One of the big concerns a lot of people had is the separation of church and state issues. Last time the pope was in town, that was a huge issue.

This time, it seems to be less of an issue because the group sponsoring the pope claims that they’re going to handle all the bills, so the taxpayers won’t actually be paying for anything, allegedly. People were concerned that that wouldn’t happen. I think that it probably will happen, but we need to have an independent accounting of how much it cost the city and whether or not the group actually paid the bills.

A lot of people like this pope. He’s definitely more positive than the last pope, and there are a lot of issues we can work with this pope on. We still have our disagreements, of course, and there are numerous ones, but for the most part, people like this pope.

He’s been very vocal about climate change, which is a big issue within a lot of the atheist communities. Poverty. Wealth inequality. We like those issues when he brings them up. We love that he’s been more vocal about evolution.

But, the Vatican still has a long way to go into the 21st century from my perspective. The issues of the child-sex scandal. I don’t think the pope has done enough to deal with that as he could have.

The issue of comprehensive sex education, the Vatican is pretty behind on that. The pro-life camp. They still are not that big on the birth-control issue. He’s less vocal on it, which is good, but he could alleviate a lot of suffering if he went to Africa, areas with high [sexually transmitted disease] rates and talked about how condom use is kind of important.

There are a lot of issues like that, but he’s definitely much better than the last one.

When the president comes to town, we’ve not had this much of a shutdown of the city, so it’s definitely a bigger deal. We have issues with Vatican every day, but these are more of logistical issues.

I think that some atheists will go down there. It’d be those who live in city; suburbanties won’t since it’s near impossible to get in there.

A few of the leaders did discuss whether we were going to have protests or events. None of the groups were all that interested in doing so. It was a matter of both logisitics and that we don’t feel the need to protest the Pope at this time.

Sure, there are issues of disagreement, but he’s free to his opinions. We would want to work with him on issues of overlapping interest. Of course, we would love a discussion where we could talk about issues disagree on, too: birth control; LGBTQ issues even though he hasn’t emphasized them; viewing being gay as a sin, and we object to that.

When it comes to Africa, if he told them condoms are OK, sex education could save millions of lives.

Of course, it would be great if he handed over information pertaining to child sex offenders within Vatican.

He’s better than the previous pope, but there’s still room for improvement. He’s speaking out in favor of some of the things we agree with, but not pushing things we’re very much against.

No human being is a perfect human being. We don’t feel anyone should be worshipped. There are people atheists admire, like Richard Dawkins, and even within the atheist community, we’ve held him to task. We’re critical of those we admire.

Nobody is perfect and that’s fine. We just don’t think people should be worshipped as gods.



Paul Moffett, secular humanist:

At one point, I described myself as a militant atheist but in my evolution, I’ve changed that. I’m much more of a secular humanist, much more of a live-and-let live type of person then I was. I totally understand where militant atheism is coming from and how they see the world as more black and white as religion being evil. I understand that. But I’ve moved away from that.

For me, it was more about the exploration and looking for that spiritualness. Eventually, it came down to this: I just had to be honest with myself and say I’m not an agnostic; I’m actually an atheist. I don’t wonder anymore. I now know with incredible certainty that there is absolutely no God.

I don’t hold it against anybody else if they do have that capacity for finding a God. More power to them because the community it brings obviously can be very great, to be able to go to a place and have that community to fall back upon, who have shared beliefs, that all sounds great to me. But I’m not a hypocrite, and I never could be one.

I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are religious but who probably are atheists, or at least severe agnostics and still go to church mainly for the community aspect of it. I think that is interesting, but I’m not going to call anybody out on that. When you’re sitting around talking to people about what they really believe in and they don’t, sometimes it can be more enlightening to think that they’re into it more for the social aspect of it than the religious.

My brother doesn’t believe in a personal God, but he does believe that there’s an energy which connects us all. I can understand where he’s coming from but at the same time, I’ve gone a step further: We are all the universe. We are the stuff stars are made of, but that doesn’t mean it’s a God. That just means it’s energy. If you want to put a label on that as God, then, sure, but it doesn’t work for me.

I find it much more magical, enlightening, hopeful that we are actually the universe observing itself.

All the atoms that we came from came the inside of stars. The universe at the beginning, there was just hydrogen and helium and now all these extra elements that make us up.

We literally came from the depths of stars, and we awoke, have consciousness and can look at ourselves in the universe and contemplate ourselves. We are the universe contemplating itself.

To me, that seems very magical and making the choice to be good, and do the best that you can for every human out there because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re going to be punished with eternal damnation, that’s a greater calling, a greater thing to be doing.

To be good for its own right: That in a nutshell is what secular humanism is, a moral foundation on what’s right and wrong.

If someone is not killing someone else, if someone is not raping someone else, because God might damn them, that doesn’t necessarily seem like someone I necessarily want to be friends with. I’d rather be friends with someone who thinks, “Well, that’s bad. I’d much rather be good and do everything I possibly can for people not because of a God, but because that’s the right thing to do.”

I think [the pope’s visit] is great for Philadelphia. We are the City of Brotherly Love. We have a ton of Italians, a ton of Greeks, a ton of people who are Catholic in this city. And, he is someone who is still very much Catholic, but surprisingly moderate.

Best thing about Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount and what Jesus said about love. I think a lot of Christians get caught up in all these other things that are extraneous to the core message of love.

It seems like the pope is interested in taking care of the poor, those who are the least among us, and really focusing his message on that. I can totally get behind that because, as a secular humanist, that’s exactly what I think we should be doing.

He’s a socialist, a Democratic socialist. He doesn’t necessarily believe in capitalism as an end-all be-all of goodness in and of itself.

I like the focus of his message. He could be focusing much more on a Catholic-past thing: The main issue we’re going to talk about is only birth control. Or, the only thing we’re going to talk about is how homosexuality is bad. Instead, he said “Who am I to judge?” That, to me, is great. Who am I to judge if you’re Catholic or if you’re Christian or whatever, you know?

As far as Philadelphia having to spend money and whatnot to bring him in, I think it’s a spotlight that can only do us good nationally and internationally to see the pope here and see how great Philadelphia is.

We’re on the verge. We finally turned the corner of keeping graduates in. There used to be a brain drain; now, we’re starting to keep them.

I moved here in 2001 and have seen the city turn around. Northern Liberties and everything, it’s just a much more hip place to be. It’s much more affordable, much nicer than New York City and the other places you could go to.

Having the Pope here will only focus more attention on what great strides Philadelphia has made.

I understand where [the militants] are coming from with the “We’re spending a lot of money to trump up something that’s a fallacy.” I don’t look at it that way.

I look at it from the opposite perspective: We’re spending all this money to let everyone celebrate life and to bring someone into town who wants to stand up for the poorest in society.

Now, whether or not I agree with him on his other stances and the church’s long historical campaign against certain issues is neither here nor there.

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