Updated: Can An Atheist Be Holy?

We see praiseworthy works all around us. We little acts of charity – St. Thèrese’s little flowers – throughout the day. We see aggressively secular people acting in ways that put many Christians to shame. They do so outside of the Church; indeed, many deny the God even exists. Are these acts good? Are these acts holy? It seems at the very least churlish and disagreeable to say so, but if they are holy, is there anything special about Christian charity?

Over the centuries, there have been numerous profound responses to this question. The Holy Father himself addressed it in his first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est.

Here is a simple thought that seems to cut into it.

Holiness consists of loving obedience to God’s will. An atheist may act consistently with God’s will. But it can be neither loving nor obedient because he does not acknowledge the One to be loved nor the One to be obeyed. We can see the act and praise it because we see God’s will being effectuated. We can hope that those works will generate a greater awareness of God’s love in his heart. We can then look in the mirror and ask what is God teaching us, ask if we are lovingly obeying His will in our lives? And that’s what it is about, after all?


Pope Francis’ recent comments have brought this topic to the fore again. I think the whole issue presents a philosophical dilemma, but is of little practical significance. We know for certain that Christ came to save everyone. We know that we have the freedom to say “no.” Pondering who is “in” and who is “out” changes our focus from seeing, loving, and following Him to figuring out and applying membership criteria, which He can waive. All we can do is to share God’s desire that all be saved and work toward that end in accordance with our particular vocations.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your provocative statement.

    You state the act of the atheist cannot be loving since he does not acknowledge the one to be loved. Is the act of the atheist who does great works of love, mercy and charity for his fellow man without acknowledging God worse than the Christian who says he loves God with his whole heart, soul, mind and spirit but does little for his fellow man (and therefore does not really love God)?

    Do we know what God thinks in this situation? I would think that God would love the atheist greatly, as He loves us all of us. Should we judge the atheist? How do we know that he may not find God on his death bed or perhaps even after physical death? Should we judge the atheist or just give God praise for his good works and pray that he may one day know the Creator of love?

    • I would say that the response to the first comparison is that they are the same as the same element is missing – authentic love of God. The Church consistently teaches the works apart from God, no matter how praiseworthy from a human perspective, are sterile. The same is true of the believer – the Pharisee- who is blinded by his own self-regard is in far worse a state than the tax collector – “O God, have mercy on me a sinner” – for whom God is the standard.

      As for God’s love for an atheist, it is infinite. God’s love for us is constant; we’re inconstant. So, yes, God constantly invites each of us into a relationship, but He respects us to respect our “No” if that is what we say.

      As for a deathbed conversion – even the slightest – is enough. In the end, we know the God is all-loving and that He will ultimately give us what we want — forever.

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