Atheism is making strides in some unlikely places--first, in the Arizona House of Representatives, and then, in a radio address by the Pope himself.
Earlier this week, Democratic Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez was invited by a Republican-controlled House to give the day's opening prayer. What Mendez, an atheist, said was less a prayer than an invocation of the First Amendment, and the separation of church and state:
Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all the men and women here in this moment, sharing this extraordinary experience of being alive, and dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state. This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my secular humanist traditions stress, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences...Let us root our policy-making process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans, regardless of religious belief or non-belief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.
Fellow Arizona Rep. Steve Smith, however, didn't seem to think Mendez's prayer was adequate; the next day he led the Arizona House to join him in a prayer of repentance for it. The Speaker of the Arizona House, though appreciative of Smith's concern, said he saw no issue with Mendez's prayer.
The Pope too seemed to soften the Roman Catholic church's stance on atheism Wednesday in a weekly radio address. As msnbc's Lawrence O'Donnell said in Thursday's Rewrite, His Holiness "got all performance art and inserted an imaginary atheist in a dialogue" about doing good.
"We must meet one another doing good," the Pope implored, to which the fictional atheist in his speech said: "'But I don't believe, Father. I am an atheist!' But do good," the Pope replied, "we will meet one another there."
This exchange, said O'Donnell, "is a very big improvement on 'you will burn in Hell forever,' which was the official Catholic position [on atheism] through the first half of the 20th Century."