Mormons, for instance, are known to baptize dead people. Many Jews, myself excluded, are upset that Mormons have sometimes focused on Jewish Holocaust victims (perhaps even my dead relatives) for posthumous baptism. This practice, however ludicrous, is fine with me. It does no harm to my deceased relatives or to me. In fact, I take this as an expression of good will, much like, “I’ll pray for you.” I believe in its positive sentiment, if not its efficacy.

Another positive sentiment recently came from Pope Francis, who spoke of finding common ground with those outside the Catholic faith. He even implied that atheists who do good works are good people and might get to heaven without passing through the “Go” of Christianity.

The pope sounded a bit like the Dalai Lama: “I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” The pope even came dangerously close to sounding like a humanist. The elevator definition of Humanism is “Good without a god.”

Perhaps Pope Francis forgot to run this concession by the papal censors, because the following day the Vatican announced a do-over. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that those who are aware of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”  This sounds like damage control for Francis’ offhand remarks, much as official spokespeople often “clarify” embarrassing remarks made by politicians. So Rev. Rosica is simply reiterating the traditional Catholic position that atheists can go to hell.

Speaking of heaven and hell, I once gave a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist Church, a human-centered religion with which I find much common ground. I began by telling the congregation that I had more in common with Christian conservatives than with them. To puzzled looks, I explained: “Unitarian Universalists believe everyone goes to heaven, Christian conservatives believe very few go to heaven, and I believe nobody goes to heaven. So I’m closer to them than to you.” The audience laughed, since most didn’t believe in a heaven and many had never thought about what the “Universalist” in their name used to mean.
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Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.