(Well, for symmetry’s sake I intended to write on the topic, and then the Pope stuck his nose out again today, which made it apt.)

Today, Pope Francis said that it’s better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic. I used to be nominally Catholic (my father’s side was Catholic French-Canadian; my mother’s side mixed Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic from Scotland). I had a First Communion, although I have to say I didn’t quite grasp (nor do I still) what terrible sins I might have committed at the age of six that required confession, let alone penitence and absolution. Once I left Catholic school, and we had moved to the US, we didn’t go to church even more than we hadn’t before; and I was never confirmed. I didn’t really miss it; it was yet another place that I didn’t feel I belonged, so I just shrugged it off.

When I was in college, I would probably have described myself as a Catholic if it came up, but the more I learned about the Church, and organized religion in general, the less I liked it. When the then-Pope refused to allow or encourage condom use in Africa during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, that was my last straw. When saving lives is in your power, and you choose not to do it, your soul will not be saved. I mean, the litany of horrors perpetrated by the Catholic Church even in the 20th century — ignoring those that came before — is awful. And most Christian churches have policies that strike me as not particularly Christian.

There are a few that live up to their billing that I know of, but I came to the thought that I didn’t need the fear of hell to be a good person any more than I needed the promise of heaven. You can aspire to be a kind, considerate, tolerant person (the qualities I think of as “good”) without someone in a pulpit instructing you. You might not always get there, but I don’t need 10 commandments to tell me that killing someone or bearing false witness is a bad thing. The intolerance and hatred of so many “moral” or “religious” people who claim Christian values in the public sphere angers me. To no end, but angers me nonetheless.

My husband subscribes to the Wil Wheaton credo: “Don’t be a dick.” That covers most things. It can be enlarged to encompass things like helping others less fortunate to the extent you can (without proselytizing, see my Charity post of the other day), trying to understand others’ points of view, and in my own personal case, trying not to have an aneurysm when contemplating how some people treat others based on really tangential stuff like who they like to sleep with or what color their skin is or which god they pray to.

I was part of a discussion about what they call cultural competence, which includes being aware and tolerant of cultural differences, being empathetic to others’ experiences, being nonjudgmental, and just basically being sensitive and attempting not to insult people out of your own ignorance. I think for many people this is an ongoing process (it certainly is for me), but my epiphany on this particular day allowed me to articulate that with respect to someone’s gender/sexuality, maybe it doesn’t matter whether I understand it, it just matters that I respect them and address them as they wish to be addressed.

As far as Christ goes, everything I’ve read about him leads me to think that he would be pretty culturally competent. So, like, high five, Jesus.

And while the Pope still embraces certain tenets that I find so, so wrong, I certainly agree with him that a person can be a good person and not religious, and being so, be a better person than a so-called religious person who doesn’t practice what they preach.