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21 September 2010

Shock News: Leader of Biggest Church in The World Implies That Atheism is Bad

The last post was my way of putting the Pope’s visit in some context. In this one I want to say a few things about the Pope’s first speech and about the critical reactions.

In fact, “critical” is hardly the word. Many of the reactions to the speech to the Queen at Holyrood were indignant and outraged.

The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis (who were mostly not atheists in any case) that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.
(Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association)

The suggestion that Hitler and Stalin were atheist extremists is a terrible canard. Hitler was born a Catholic and sent his Wehrmacht into battle with Gott Mit Uns [God with us] stamped on their buckles.
(Philosopher AC Grayling)

I think these comments – a small sample from a tide of complaints heard across the media, blogosphere and social media – are disproportionate. It’s useful to remind ourselves of what the Pope actually said:

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny.”

Now, I don’t believe that atheism necessarily leads to the extremism of the Nazis, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot – but neither does the Pope. To him, atheism is undesirable and potentially dangerous, and was an essential aspect of those extremisms. This is what he was expressing; this is what “atheist extremism” means. He did not say “extremist atheism.”

Why should it surprise us that he believes this? And why should we worry? Is atheism under threat from the Pope? Those who think so must be living in a fantasy world.

I’m An Atheist And The Pope Hurt My Feelings!

I normally call myself an atheist, but unlike Andrew Copson I do not feel I have been libelled by the Pope. In fact, the Pope’s comments show remarkable restraint given the level of insult that has been hurled at religious people recently. I would expect him to react to this, and he owed it to his church and its billion members to do so.

Religion, the “heart of a heartless world” as Marx called it, offers many people a meaning in life, one that cannot be supplied another way. The vitriol flowing from Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, requires a response from somebody rather more authoritative and representative than the Creationists.

And the “...notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others” seems to be a notion that Copson himself created, simply so that he could knock it down. But again, it is legitimate – and to be expected from a gung-ho Holy Father – to point out that atheism has characterized acts of oppression and violence, and also that Christianity has been important in fighting for freedom and against human rights abuses such as slavery.

I seem to feel the need again and again to point out that the campaign against slavery in the UK was waged by pious Christians. They were not simply religious by default but were motivated by their religion: it was central to what they were doing, and it is not difficult to find the messages in the Bible, and in centuries of humane and sensitive Christian philosophy, that would have inspired them.

It is painful to witness the contortions of militant atheists when confronted with this fact. They demonstrate their intellectual dishonesty, and their dogmatism, with outright denial that religion can do good. Of course, not all atheists are so hidebound as this, but even one so reasonable as AC Grayling persists in that farcical slanging match over the atrocities of the afore-mentioned atheist extremists by saying “Hitler was born a Catholic and sent his Wehrmacht into battle with Gott Mit Uns [God with us] stamped on their buckles.”

Debating Advice For Theists And Atheists: Enough About Hitler

I wish that both the atheists and the theists who lock horns on this point would do the rest of us a favour and start acting like grown-ups. Here is my suggested formula:

THEIST: Granted that most of the tyrannical régimes and violent movements of history have been religious in some way, it still does not follow that religion necessarily leads to tyranny and atrocities. We can see that tyranny and atrocity, carried out by the ruling class, happen where religion has been banished and suppressed, for example in Stalin’s Russia, and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It is worth noting also that the suppression of religion was a central part of their policies.

This all indicates to me that these evils are aspects of human nature, society and history which have deeper roots than either religion or its lack. Furthermore, there are abundant examples to demonstrate that religion can be prodigiously helpful in the great humanitarian project of ridding the world of these evils forever.

As for Hitler, I do not believe that his evils stemmed from atheism per se, though I would argue that a stronger adherence to Christian values could have prevented his rise to power.

ATHEIST: Granted that atheist régimes commit atrocities, I think it is still the case that these irrational and violent impulses most often find their expression in, or gain their justification from, religious certainty. Looking at history this is obvious, as you have conceded.

This all indicates to me that we should, as a starting point, attempt to rid the world of the particular form of irrationality and fanaticism that has so far been dominant in our history and which shows no signs of abating – just look at the rise of Islamism.

As for Hitler, I do not believe that his evils stemmed from religion per se, and I accept that the Nazis were attempting to supplant Christian tradition with a new mythology, but I would argue that Catholicism, with its conservatism and hierarchy, was inherently unable to prevent his rise to power.

From this reasonable exchange a theist and an atheist can go on to have a fruitful debate without feeling the need to swap contradictory quotations from Hitler about Christianity trawled from the web. I happen to think that any reasonable and knowledgeable atheist must admit that the Nazi project was essentially anti-Christian (it’s certainly a shame on the Church that Pope Pius didn’t point this out to him at the time), but it really doesn’t matter.

The Pope’s Speech on papalvisit.org.uk
AC Grayling quoted in The Daily Mail
Andrew Copson’s reaction on the BHA web site

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