Pontificating

18 September 2010

The Pope is visiting the UK. I have been toying with the idea of writing a post about him for a while and couldn’t quite decide what to write. A lot of the people I follow on twitter are very anti-pope. Be they lapsed/reformed-catholics, gays, atheists or humanists. But I don’t have the same problem with him.

He’s been invited as a Head of State by the Queen. We’re footing the State-related bill – he’s paying for the church bits, to put it simply. And yes, his state is a little odd, but it’s still, formally, a state. So if the Queen had invited another Head of State who was doing things people may disagree with – say Bush, or Mugabe – yes, being irritated about that is fine.

Similarly with the Pope’s treatment of gay people, women, his views on condoms and child abuse in the church. Protesting this is fine.

But when it all gets mixed-up with anti-religion feelings I start to feel uncomfortable.

In a speech at Holyrood, Benedict urged Britain to guard against “aggressive forms of secularism”. He said: “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’.” (This was in stark contrast to his strongest comments to date on paedophillia in the church and depoloring of the church’s failure to act swiftly and decisively in the past).

I have a problem with what I, too, would term aggressive secularism for a number of reasons:

  1. Aggressive secularism is wholey negative. It is an argument against religion more often than an argument for secularism. Any argument which is in the negative always makes me uncomfortable. I find people who argue for something FOR more convincing.
  2. People like Richard Dawkin have turned his form of secularism into a quasi-religion, and sought religious-type following of dogma under the auspice of science in the same way the church does under the auspice of faith.
  3. The aggressive secularism arguments are often mis-directed at faith, not the church and ignore the fact that while the two are linked they are not the same. Religious people are the first to acknowledge people are fallible – Priests abuse children, just as Doctors kill (e.g. Harold Shipman). It happens. It is the responsibility of the church to ensure it is handled properly, it is not a fault of faith.
  4. Aggressive secularism is as dangerous as aggressive religion. Indeed one will breed the other.
  5. Religion is, generally speaking, understanding. Christians understand people may have other faiths. Aggressive secularism – by being wholey negative – causes resentment from all faiths.
  6. For all it’s faults, and there are many*, religion has formed a positive basis for the way this country is run, with laws on murder, encouragement of families who care for and look after each other, and rules for how you should treat others.
  7. * = many of the faults of ‘religion’ are not the fault of religion itself, but a fault of the Church’s teaching of it. Such strong animosity towards homosexulaity, for example, or the anti-condom stance of the Catholic church.

I guess my key points are these: If you want to protest, get it right as to what you’re protesting about – the church, or religion? And, that whatever you believe should be fine. You should be allowed to believe whatever you want. But when you start arguing against what other people believe, rather than for what you believe, then that is – quite rightly – called ‘aggressive’.

As the Dalai Lama’s said: “Perhaps the most significant obstruction to inter-religious harmony is a lack of appreciation of the value of others’ faith traditions.”

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