I can only assume that the media is short of other news, since the visit to this country of Pope Benedict XVI, or Benny the Ball as those of us who don’t know him from Adam have come to call him, has provoked universal hysteria, acres of comment and the allocation to the story of a number of reporters that will probably suggest to those owning newspapers or TV channels that there remains scope for cost-cutting. I’m not a Catholic myself, and tend to take the view that the immediate troubles of the Catholic Church that have occasioned much of the hysteria are simply a specific illustration of the overall problem of a religious institution that hasn’t properly reformed itself since the Middle Ages. However, if the Catholic hierarchy were interested in my views on their flaws, apart from being frankly miraculous it would also be rather a late conversion, since people like Erasmus and Luther were saying roughly the same in the sixteenth century. The result of their failure to reform Catholicism is that claims that the Catholic Church is run by a bunch of secretive, ultra-conservative, authoritarian oddballs, some of whom clearly have unacceptable sexual habits, whilst not wholly inaccurate, are largely irrelevant. It always has been; it’s just that much of the world has changed, so that after the Reformation, normal religious views came to look backward, after the French Revolution, normal political views came to look authoritarian and ultra-conservative, and likewise normal views on women and sexual morality after the Sexual Revolution. As for paedophilia (oh, the humanity!) I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that even the child abusing priest protected by his bishop is not an entirely new development.
However, even given those prejudices, some of the coverage of the Pope’s visit seems to me to have gone beyond the bounds of acceptable criticism and into the realm of generalised anti-Catholic and even anti-religious propaganda of a depressingly mean-spirited kind. As Catholics are a cultural minority in this country and Catholicism is often linked to particular minority ethnic groups like the Irish or Poles, frankly some of it borders on religious and racial prejudice. One expects the response of the victims of paedophile Catholic priests to a Papal visit to be strong and negative, but the enthusiasm to pile on their bandwagon from people who haven’t been abused by anyone, let alone a priest, and don’t even know anyone who has, would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. Partly it comes from the status paedophilia (oh, the humanity!) has acquired in recent years as the ultimate in evil deeds, so that no-one likes to seem anything other than utterly condemnatory of it and anything is acceptable as criticism of those who even tolerated it. At a deeper level, however, it is disturbing to come across journalism by professed liberals who not only don’t believe in God, which is fair enough, but seem incapable of any empathy for anyone else who might. In one way, it’s going a step beyond even the Richard Dawkins approach, which is that science has so comprehensively refuted religion that any religionist is just stupid. It’s adding to this, “And I have an utter contempt for the stupid.” No-one’s yet added, “Who should be stuck in gas chambers for the good of humanity”, but even so it’s clear that traditional liberal tolerance can be a thin skin with these people.
Some of this attitude really seems no more than the manifestation in written form of the smart, shallow, cynical nihilism that is an occupational hazard for the sort of over-educated smartarse who ends up writing an ineffectual commentary on everyone else’s business (the loser!). However, the usual atheist organisations like the National Secular Society have also been busy providing the smart-alecks with quotage. WIth regard to those guys, I think it’s worth pointing out that whatever their philosophical arguments, you have to question the judgment of anyone who, by ensuring they don’t have to go to church/synagogue/mosque, creates extra free-time and avoids having to meet worthy middle class do-gooders at boring services, then chooses to spend said free-time at boring meetings of an atheist society with worthy middle-class do-gooders. These bodies are to some extent the mirror image of the ones they attack, and whilst they can be relied on to rejoice publicly over the shrinking numbers of those attending church, I would bet my grandmother’s dentures that they struggle to get members under pensionable age and fill committees themselves. More fundamentally, were I to wake up one morning and decide I was an atheist (which more or less happened once), I would consider that the behaviour required as a result would be (a) not going to church or taking part in any religious practices and (b) telling anyone, if the subject came up, that I didn’t believe in God. I wouldn’t think it necessary to join an atheist group. After all, it’s not as if I need protection from someone forcing me to go to church. The only result of being a card-carrying atheist, in this country, is that you waste time looking around for things to campaign about to justify the continued existence of your group, and usually hit on issues of tangential importance to your fellow citizens, such as:-
(a) The persecution of atheists in other countries
This is worth protesting about, but in reality the sort of regimes that persecute atheists invariably also persecute minority religious or ethnic groups, not to mention political dissidents. What’s wrong with Amnesty International?
(b) The disestablishment of the Church of England
Again, not an unimportant matter, but its degree of interest to the average person can best be judged by the fact that it hasn’t happened already, and it would in any case, be supported by other religious groups and even some Anglicans. Also, atheists tend to assume that without the monarch as its Supreme Governor and bishops in the House of Lords, the C of E would just roll over and die. Sorry, could you remind me who that guy visiting this week and getting all the attention is?
(c) Religious schools
Many atheists object to their taxes supporting the teaching of religious beliefs, right up to the point when they realise the local Church of England school gets better exam results than the local state school, when social aspiration/snobbery gives principle a kicking and they’ll do anything to get them in there, even attend church. The howls of protest from middle class parents if anyone tries to mess with this ridiculous system makes it unlikely anyone ever will. The atheist groups would be on more popular ground if they raised concerns about fundamentalism in Muslim schools, but there really aren’t many of them and, like many other people, atheists are afraid of Muslims because a few of them are prepared to murder people who criticise their faith. They know Catholics won’t do this – which is another reason for the fuss around the Pope’s visit.
(d) Religious broadcasting
Oh, come off it! Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing, both of which I hate, have been far more omnipresent across the media than any religious content and I wouldn’t campaign for people to be forbidden to watch either. Learn to use the remote control.
In summary, the key religious symbol for the Pope’s visit should perhaps be the manger; not so much because of the Infant Christ, but because of those who, faced by tens of thousands of their fellow citizens expressing a faith they do not share, seem determined to make like a dog in it.