So, yesterday a bunch of us went to protest against the Pope’s state visit to the UK. You may have heard about it. Suffice to say, there was a wonderful and good-natured atmosphere – and on a totally unpolitical note, it was actually just really nice to be able to stroll through central London without being surrounded by the usual traffic. But before we get to the photos, I want to say a few words about what I felt the protest was all about, especially for those of you who don’t count yourself as one of us ‘friendly atheists’ (as my sign proclaimed).
I am serious about what I believe – and don’t believe – and certainly don’t subscribe to the view that religious topics should banned from polite conversation for fear of causing offence. In fact, I find it rather insulting to the human spirit to think that atheists and believers are incapable of having friendly debates about God without it becoming personal and nasty. Some of my best friends are committed vegetarians, communists or Tories: surprisingly enough, it is precisely because I consider them all intelligent and interesting people that I enjoy discussing such differences of opinion. Religion should be no different. The ‘each to their own’ attitude is ultimately facile, because we all have to get our ideas from somewhere – if you’re not allowed to argue your case with others you meet over your life, we will all grow up shielded from anything that might conflict with the views of our parents or immediate communities, and never have the opportunity to explore the big wide world of ideas.
But these are intellectual debates: the stuff of blog posts, books and drunken chats in the pub. It’s not that a big march designed solely to argue that God didn’t exist would be wrong as such – and might indeed be necessary in cultures where atheism has no public recognition or acceptance. But that’s hardly the case in Britain, and there’s an obvious limit to how far chants and slogans can effectively convey a set of arguments about metaphysics. So Protest The Pope was not an ‘anti-faith’ rally, even if some of those participating would have felt that way. Protest The Pope was just that: taking a stand against a tax-payer funded ‘state’ visit of an influential man with vile views, an obnoxious agenda and – most importantly – a huge legal case to answer for his own role in covering up the systematic sexual abuse of children within his organisation.
Let’s take them each in turn. On an astonishing range of issues, Joseph Ratzinger has set himself against many of his own followers in his intolerance and dangerous irresponsibility. He refuses women access to the priesthood. He believes that gays and lesbians have an inclination towards evil by dint of their very orientation, even if they never have sex. He chose to welcome back an unrepentant Holocaust denier into the Catholic church. He opposes stem cell research. He is against contraception in all circumstances – even to prevent the spread of HIV or to limit the size of exceedingly poor families in developing countries. Indeed, he even believes that condoms are ineffective and make the problem of HIV worse: a position so utterly devoid of either evidence or empathy that I find it breathtaking that he can actually hold it.
The argument that these views are – in practice – not widely shared or followed by Catholics in this country is irrelevant. In other places, much poorer places, they are taken very seriously indeed. And even if they weren’t – what other leader with such repellent ideas would our state, in our name, welcome with such fawning adulation? We are told that the Pope is different – special – because his stance is ‘theological’ rather than political, as if he would secretly really like to embrace feminism, gay equality and contraception but is prevented from doing so by the eternal edicts of God. What I am never clear on is why I should care. Seriously… what interest is it of mine why you’ve come to believe something I consider appalling and immoral? If you hold those views, I will oppose you, full stop, end of. Clearly, thousands of people at Protest The Pope felt exactly the same.
Secondly, there’s the matter of his agenda in the UK. His argument – trotted out again and again – amounts to a withering condemnation of secularism. Secularism, need I remind you, is not atheism, but merely the separation of religion from the official life of the nation state. All religious views and forms of worship should be permitted, so long as they do not conflict with the law (and that’s one, equal law for all citizens), but the state should remain uninvolved. Atheism I will argue for, but secularism I will go out into the streets to march for, because it is one of the single most important achievements of human history. We may not have it perfectly in Britain, but in effect – most of the time – we do have it, and I firmly believe that the vast majority of religious people support its basic tenets as strongly as unbelievers.
They have very good reason to. The Pope asserts that an ‘aggressive secularism’ leads to moral decay and, astonishingly, even likens it to Nazi Germany. Only religion can provide the state with a moral backbone, he says. His detachment from reality is stark. My family on my mother’s side is Jewish – my grandfather left Germany for Britain as a boy. If he had stayed, he would have been killed. He would not have been murdered by secularists. He would not have been murdered by people who believed passionately in the separation of church and state. He would have been murdered by those in power who were about as far from indifferent to religion as it is possible to get – by people who ended up directing the entire state apparatus towards the attempted extermination of one particular religious group in the name of another.
But secularism isn’t just a response to the atrocities of the past. Can anyone seriously look around the world today and claim they’d be happier living in a theocratic state over a secular democracy? Would the moralising power of religion really prove comforting as you awaited death by stoning in Iran? Do you think you’d be able to preach from your Bible for very long in Saudi Arabia? Even where the power of religious institutions is only partial, it can be devastating. Go have an abortion in Brazil. Even in the constitutionally secular United States, the explosive controversy over the Islamic centre in New York was a terrifying reminder that any deviation from secularism usually hurts religious people the most. (If would be nice if people such as Alexander Tefft, who rails against secular society on an almost-weekly basis, considered for a moment that the fight – and it really was a fight – to free the state from religion is the only reason that he is allowed to preach Orthodox Christianity in the UK in peace. A little gratitude, even, wouldn’t go amiss – but then again, secularism protects the ignorant as much as anybody else.)
So when the Pope takes advantage of his (secular) rights to free speech to insult and belittle the very foundations of the society I want to live in, I absolutely will protest. But the spark which really ignited Protest The Pope is the sick joke that, whilst he comes over at our expense to declare us to be immoral, his organisation continues to take advantage of its theocratic status at the Vatican to protect child abusers by not handing over its full archives to civil authorities. He may express his sorrow, but that does not exonerate the Pope of his personal role in the cover-up of the affair, a story which is rather too long for this already over-long post but which, if you’re interested, is fully explored elsewhere. It’s grim reading.
This is the case against the Pope. It’s not an atheist case per se, although it is an assertion that atheists refuse to be marginalised in society as ‘aggressive’ or ‘immoral’, and will not shut up just because we are told to. It’s certainly not ‘anti-Catholic’: indeed, one of the most significant speeches came from a Catholic priest from New York, who came out as gay after witnessing the death and loneliness inflicted on his flock by the Vatican’s attitudes to homosexuality and contraception. But it is secular, and proudly so. I hope that as many people as possible feel able to get behind it, and reject Ratzinger’s pious condemnation of a society which – for all its faults – is a thousand times richer than his dark vision of a return to religious supremacy.