Monday, 5 April 2010

The audacity of Pope

Pope Benedict XVI's plans to visit Britain in September are increasingly meeting with opposition. Now, a cursory knowledge of British history should suggest that this is perhaps not totally unsurprising. Even now, in 2010, a Catholic cannot be King (or Queen), and Tony Blair felt it necessary to wait until he left office to embrace the Church of Rome. The Northern Irish situation has only recently made breakthroughs in preventing Catholics and Protestants from acts of aggression towards one another. British history is predicated on a strong anti-European feeling, and the Pope represents within the British psyche a foreign tyrannical power.

What is notable about these protests, however, is that much of them have come from atheist and agnostic organisations, particularly the British Humanist Association (which, in the interests of disclosure, I confess to being a member of). Atheism and agnosticism are growing trends within British society. In 1990, around thirty percent of Britons stated that they were not members of any religion, which has risen in 2007 to slightly under forty-five percent. Admittedly statistics defining who is an atheist are notoriously difficult to trust, owing to the problem of what question to pose (for some reason, "Are you an atheist?" is not simple enough). We can see, however, that numbers of atheists and agnostics are increasing as numbers of church-goers declines. Numbers of 'atheists' and 'Christians' in the UK are relatively even, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2007.

Many of the arguments made by the British Humanist Association centre on the fact that religion holds a too-important role in present society. The BHA claim that religion, and religious issues are, for want of a better word, 'deified'. So far so noble. However, the protests over the visit of Pope Benedict expose a tragic hypocrisy within the atheist movement. Aside from the issue of endemic Church abuse, which emerged as a scandal after the protests to his visit began, there seems to be little justification for the atheist opposition to the Pope's visit. Increasingly, the BHA is playing into the stereotype of 'dogmatic atheists'.

If, as I suspect, the BHA wishes to show that the Pope is an outdated concept, based on superstition and overseeing what is increasingly emerging to be a network of pederasty, then fine. However, by protesting his arrival, it is they who are serving to 'deify' him. A true humanist would not protest the visit of a peaceful old man to any country. In doing so, they succeed only in emphasising his importance. By banning 'Mein Kampf', the German government tacitly implied that the book was so persuasive, that to allow Germans to read it would ensure the return of the Nazis. By protesting against the Pope's visit, the BHA is tacitly indicating that the Pope is so important he should not be allowed to come to the UK. Atheists and agnostics gain much of their strength in argument from refusing to be drawn into theological or scriptural mudslinging. By surrendering this high ground, they greatly inhibit their case.

In 1989, in the midst of the furore over the publication of 'The Satanic Verses', Salman Rushdie stated "It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it". Similarly, if you don't want to recognise the importance of someone, it's very, very easy. You just have to ignore them.

As an agnostic, I don't recognise the Pope's authority as either relevant or interesting. I'm sure many in the BHA would agree. But lots of non-relevant and uninteresting people come to Britain each year. It's not very humanist to prevent them. Let the old man come, I say.


  1. This post is right on the money. The best part is the title!!! SO FUNNY!

    Just one question for ya, buddy:

    Is it a good idea for the British government to invite the pope in the first place? Fine if he wants to come of his own accord, but why should governments get involved in matters of religion? Isn't this a step backwards?

  2. Hi Grassyllama, thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

    As for your question, I think it's an extremely valid one. Firstly, I don't think that the Pope would come if he weren't invited. I think that's a matter of diplomatic protocol. As for why he should be invited, there is a sizeable minority of Catholics within the UK who would appreciate his visit. Britain has a history of tolerance, and of pluralism, and the visit of Pope Benedict marks the latest chapter in this. The link between religion and politics is a difficult one, although I tend very much to a separation of the two. However, Popes have visited Turkey (a secular non-Catholic majority nation), suggesting that a government can invite him not because they feel he is important, but because some in the population do. Ultimately it boils down to tolerance, something which I feel is not being shown by the BHA at the moment.