Where to find a place to stand?

Where is one to find a place to stand in the face of the absurd polarity that has been set up in the media as a result of (and with the direct encouragement of) the pope’s visit?

The idea that we must choose between an extreme atheist position on the one hand and Christian virtue on the other demeans atheist and Christian (or Faithful) alike. Life is more complicated than that.

I find this passage from the Pope’s opening remark particularly disturbing:

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”

That comparison is just not on. Its specious and weasly. Atheism does not lead to Nazi tendencies. No more does Christianity make people automatically virtuous. It is an ugly polarity to set up and I’m disappointed to hear a case for it made in public by the Pope. Of course, its not that far rhetorically from the contrary position of Dawkins, who appears to believe that tyranny is the consequence of faith and that virtue is the consequence of atheism.

That kind of thinking is drivel whichever mouth it comes from. Life is more complicated than that and it should be open to people from many different perspectives to build an ethical framework for living. That’s likely to be a secular state, by the way, something that I’d encourage any people of faith to work and pray for.

We didn’t go to war with the Nazis because they were atheists.

If we are ever to develop the goodwill and genuine oikimene that the BBC has been trumpeting this morning as though it arrived when the Papal plane touched down, then we all need to find a better place to stand. The Holy Father should be welcomed with enthusiastic and generous hospitality. His ideas should also be subject to the greatest scrutiny and challenge.

[BTW, he was quoting his own Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, para 29)


  1. Let us also never forget how the inflicting of his idea of God, religion and “virtue” on public life leads ultimately to a oppression for half the species, truncated lifespans for more AIDS sufferers and the cover-up of abuse on more than one front.

    As one who seeks an undivided humanity, I’ll agree with those pointing out these issues of gross injustice, regardless of their creed-or-none.

    Perhaps echoing your point, I’d say that the answer lies not in arguing God-versus-no-God, nor in his-God-versus-my-God, nor in contempt-versus-partisan-siding, but in JUSTICE.

  2. Doctor F. says:

    I’m constantly hearing about how “scholarly” this Pope is and yet, he seems to conveniently dismiss the Reichskonkordat? And while a great many brave Catholic priests did speak out against the Nazis, the Vatican hung them out to dry. Hitler was never excommunicated.

  3. Perhaps echoing your point, I’d say that the answer lies not in arguing God-versus-no-God, nor in his-God-versus-my-God, nor in contempt-versus-partisan-siding, but in JUSTICE.

    Actually, I’d go further than that – the answer lies in our common vocation: our HUMANITY. Our vocation is to be the best person we can be, to make our corner of the world a better place, to heal the world.

    With Yom Kippur day after tomorrow, I think I’d like to say that our vocation is that of tikkun olam – healing the world – whether you believe in God or not; whichever God you do believe in; whatever your colour, creed, experience.

    We are one world, one humanity. And wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we believe – I think that’s the bottom line. xx

  4. Matthew says:

    The writer is supposedly a ”christian” yet he fails to understand what the Pope is saying. When God is removed from society then evil things happen. It’s just not on for a so called christian to attack his brother in such a manner

  5. Sebastian Kokelaar says:

    The link between Nazism and atheism is not as specious as you suggest. The Hitler regime was aggressively atheist. Although it had to proceed with caution, there is no doubt that it was determined ultimately to eradicate christianity, as it was viewed as an obstacle to the total subjugation of all aspects of public and private life to National-Socialist ideology (the process known as ‘gleichschaltung’). The young Joseph Ratzinger would have had first hand experience of this, so he can speak with some authority. There is a parallel here with the some of the militant atheism we see today, which deeply resents any intrusion by religion into the public sphere. That is what I think the Pope was talking about in the passage you have highlighted.

  6. Matthew – be assured that I am a Christian and also that I disagree with the Holy Father on this point. It would be a great discourtesy to him not to take his thinking seriously and work out whether one agrees with him or not. On this point, I understand him all too well and disagree with him.

    Sebastian – I was not attempting to make any attempt at saying what any Nazi believed. I do believe that atheists can live virtuous lives. I think its specious (and deeply foolish) to suggest that good ethical choices are not available to atheists and to use the Nazis as some kind of proof or justification of that position. One does not have to be a militant atheist nor any kind of atheist at all to realise that is nonsense and unworthy of a Christian leader.

  7. Irim: bingo. Perfectly said.

  8. James Mackay says:

    “Life is more complicated than that….” This is my key complaint to the simplistic answers that are prescribed as remedies to today’s ills (or those of any age). If we only have TV displays in the front of the church, singing will be better, attendance will be up, worship will be more vigorous. If we only use traditional language in worship (or Latin for Roman Catholic), people will lead holier lives. If only, if only, if only. Some politicians and religious leaders seem to be the prime exemplars of “if only” thinking–an obviously over-reaching, generalized statement which they hold forth as the final answer to the truly difficult questions of life. Any parent who has put together a toy very late on Christmas Eve knows this to be true: There will be more than two easy steps when there are a pile of parts and packets of nuts and bolts.

    • Yes, James, I agree very much. If is complex and wonderfully so. The fact that a complex world demands complex answers should make us all want to jump in and discover more, often from people who have a different perspective to our own.

  9. Lewis says:

    I find it very interesting how the Pope seems to equate Atheist and Close-Minded. Indeed Atheists are often amongst the most learned and more open members of society. There are closed-minded Atheists just as there are close-minded Christians and it is close-minded of the Pope not to be open to Atheists’ right to come to whatever conclusions about life that they wish to.

    Furthermore, the attempt to slur Atheists by bringing up Nazism is completely irrelevant and ludicrous. Nazism used religion to control people as nations have so often tried to do on History.

    There were Nazi-Christian movements like the “German Christians”, who wanted to reconcile (unsuccessfully) the views of Christianity and Nazism and there was a significant amount of German Paganism supported by the Nazis, which would not be in keeping with the views of the majority of Atheists.

    The idea that Nazi persecution of Christians came from Atheism is, in my opinion, incorrect as the Nazis wanted to introduce their own form of control – their own religion.

    The point is, there are good and bad Christians, and there are good and bad Atheists and the Pope is completely wrong to generalise an entire group of people.

  10. I was outraged by the pope’s claim (obviously not to the extent that I want to commit genocide 🙂 ). I’m glad to see that not all Christians share his view. It’s also sad to see a few commenters question your faith because you chose to speak out against such obvious nonsense. I don’t share your belief in God, and never will (unless he actually appears), but you seem to have an inclusive approach and respect for people that is all to lacking in many christians.

    For those posters here still claming the Nazis were atheistic. The Pope has really lost the plot if he implies a link between atheism and Nazism. The facts are that Hitler spoke of doing God’s work in Mein Kampf and he drew a lot of support from Christian groups who did his dirty work. This is no surprise as anti semitism has a long Christian tradition. Hitler also labelled atheists a threat. Regardless of whether Hitler really was a Catholic or not (Mussolini was), Christians enabled Hitler. There were also many atheists (and Christians) who fought against the Nazis. During this, Hitler’s Pope kept quiet! Let’s also remember that 90% of Rwandans called themselves Christian, so where is this correlation?

    Please note, this is not a Christians do bad things, atheists don’t comment. I write to point out that the claim is rubbish. Dogmatic and totalitarian beliefs can lead to people doing bad things – whether it’s a Nazi killing Jews because they are “Christ killers” or a Communist eradicating other philosophies.

  11. Bob Young says:

    Please could you offer an example of Richard Dawkins asserting ‘that tyranny is the consequence of faith and that virtue is the consequence of atheism’? Despite his provocative tone, I don’t believe he believes that at all. Your comment ignores the way the rhetorical odds are often stacked in favour of believers: whilst humanists are just casually referred to as ‘militant’ or ‘aggressive’, when a religious leader like the pope makes an insinuation as gross as the one you’ve cited, the most intelligent response I’ve read from a theist (yours) still feels the need to relativise, saying essentially that both sides are as bad as each other. They are not.

  12. I’m happy to provide an example:
    To fill a world with … religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.
    — Richard Dawkins, “Religion’s Misguided Missiles” (September 15, 2001)

    Its a similarly ugly and horribly violent metaphor from Prof Dawkins.

    As for the rhetorical odds being stacked against humanists, some of us Christian Humanists might just be feeling that our identity has been stolen from us in recent years.

  13. gezr says:


    Thank you for an excellent riposte to this nonsense and I speak as an atheist. I think this posturing by the pope very ugly and counter-productive.

  14. Patrick says:

    Most regrettable that you should attack the Pope on such a superficial and incorrect reading of his comments. He was talking about extreme atheism – relevant as among the new atheists there are those who are not pluralists and do not acknowledge any rights for faith to exist outside the closet. The Holy Father has always been interested in dialogue with serious and reasonable atheists, and has recently set up a foundation for such a purpose.

  15. Thanks for the comments, Patrick, I was unaware of that foundation. Can you provide an online link, as I’d guess that quite a few folk looking at this page would be interested in more details.

    All the same, I stand by what I said about him comments above. They were, at best, extremely careless and don’t seem to have done a great deal to get atheists and people of faith into meaningful dialogue.

  16. I tried and seemingly failed to post this comment yesterday:
    This visit seems misconceived in so many ways. Leaving aside the absurd and untimely expense to the British taxpayer and the Catholic faithful, the idea of a state visit as opposed to a pastoral one is surely questionable when the Pope is not really a political leader or statesman in any meaningful sense. In fact the Vatican has arguably failed to contribute positively in any geopolitical cause, least of all resistance to the Nazis. The present incumbent is far from having the common touch, let alone the rock-star popularity of his predecessor, and his advisors seem incapable of keeping him from appalling gaffes He seems to reinforce the idea of the Catholic Church as reactionary, uncompromising, uninformed and out of touch and would be the last person you’d choose to forge interfaith links or smooth over unrest. I wouldn’t be surprised if this visit, instead of advancing the acceptance of Catholics in Britain, sets it back a long way. Many moderate Catholics must be thoroughly embarrassed by the damage he is doing.

  17. Paul says:

    I agree with the fact “Atheism does not lead to Nazi tendencies. No more does Christianity make people automatically virtuous.”

    Unfortunately, contrary to what Kelvin asserts, this is not what the Pope said.

    The Pope asserted that radical-aetheism and moral relativism allowed the worst excesses of the Nazi regime to come to fruition. Obviously there were other factors that enabled such a regime, but there is no escaping the fact that the regime represents the most polar extreme of a failure of human compassion and tolerance. It is the polar extremes of history that teach and shape our future. “Drivel” is an intolerant and insulting description of the Pope’s words. I cannot believe in the same sentence the blog’s author calls for inclusive debate, after excluding the Pope’s reasonable observation.

  18. Jimmy says:

    The German army had a massive Corp of Christian Padres. The belt buckle said Gott mit uns. They played a huge part in the invasion of the Soviet Union. The fight of so called Christian civilisation against Bolshevism. The lie being put out by the Vatican for decades that the Nazis were atheist is despicable. Hitler was Catholic always.

  19. There is more info on the “dialogue” the pope wants with atheists here http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-national/vatican-excludes-richard-dawkins-and-christopher-hitchens-from-atheist-debate-guest-list it appears that those who vocally disagree with him. I think this sentence sheds light on the motives “He added that those kind of atheists meet the truth with “irony and sarcasm.” Clearly they have decided that they are right as they refer to there position as the truth – what sort of dialogue would that be then?

    A friend has suggested a plausible explanation for the Nazi remark – iit was planned to put protesters on the defensive instead of attacking the pope on the child abuse scandal. I find it hard to believe that the government/queen did not know what the speech would contain.

  20. Jimmy says:

    Billy. All the speeches are agreed and rehearsed in advance.

  21. James says:


    In 2004 the Pope (still Cardinal ratzinger at the time) engaged in a public conversation with Jurgen Habermas that was marked by intellectual rigour and the desire to understand one another’s position. The dialogue between the two has been published as The Dialects of Secularization. To be honest, if I were an atheist I would prefer to have philosophical heavyweights like Habermas representing the atheist position than celebrity atheists who, for all of their natural talents and achievements in other areas, have shown that they are either unwilling or unable to engage in respectful debate.

  22. Jimmy says:

    James. The Pope is a celebrity. Eh! atheist so called celebrities unwilling to engage. Get a grip James keep your integrity. I am sure Dawkins would willingly engage if invited.

  23. James, I would imagine that some of these “celebrity atheists” don’t think a man who will not make details of child rape cases available to the proper authoirities deserve respect.
    What do you make of the pope’s slur on secularisation – was that respectful?

  24. Jam es says:

    My point is not that they are unwilling to debate – it is that they are unwilling to engage in a way that is respectful toward their interlocutor. Surely you would agree that a true engagement is hampered by name calling and innuendo.
    Regarding your suggestion that the Pope refused to hand over information about rape cases – are you referring to some of the bombshell reports earlier this year. Those sensational revelations about the Pope went nowhere because the stories about him didn’t hold up – they were poorly researched and written, made unwarranted leaps in the conclusions that they drew and were intended to ‘sell copy’. The media has played an important part in drawing attention to the abuse crisis within the crisis. No one would deny that the Catholic Church’s record has been very badly blemished by child abuse and the attempts to cover it up. The Pope has acknowledged this and I know of no Catholic who would disagree with this. However, I would say that the reporters passed up reporting facts in a level headed and clear eyed way and instead chose to ‘scoop’ the latest salacious suggestion.
    Is it wrong for the Pope to warn against a form of secularism that will not tolerate the beliefs of others? Is it disrepectful of the Pope to state that secular society should learn lessons from the example offered by extremist atheism in the Twentieth Century? Moreover, did you read any of the comments made by Richard Dawkins, Claire rayner and others? Whose voice was reasonable and respectful – theirs or the Pope?
    My point was that the Pope has shown himself willing to engage in reasoned debate with an atheism that offers substantive philosophical arguments. If I were an atheist, I know who I would want to be my spokesperson in the debate with the advocates of religious belief – it would be people like Habermass, who seems to me to be the true inheritor of the noble tradition of David Hume and others like him.

  25. ryan says:

    James, I suspect Billy (or whoever) might query whether Habermass is really any kind of atheistic equivalent to then Cardinal Ratzinger. Doubtless they had many points of agreements on the dangers of postmodernism.

  26. James, no I’m not referring to that. I’m referring to the fact details have not been handed over to the police. Who do you think is responsible for this? The head of the Catholic church perhaps?

    The problem is that you now appear to be blaming Dawkins et al to deflect from the fact the pope’s remarks were neither respectful or accurate. May I suggest you find out what the terms “Secular” and “atheist” actually mean. They are also NOT synonymous.

    You also seem to think we need to prove there is no god, when the proof burden rests on the person making tghe claim. Dawkins et al argue that the theistic arguments are not sound. It seems the pope doesn’t want anyone who might actually disagree too vocally.

    I still want to see what theis evidence of atheist extremism is. Why not also cite religious extremism too – like Luther’s burning hatred of the Jews. No, his words were carefully chosen to demonise atheists and secularists.

    Also, you are not an atheist, so I may suggest that you are not the best person to decide who the best representative of “atheism” is. I’m kind of curious what you think being an atheist actually entails

  27. James says:

    You are quite correct in suggesting that Habermas and Benedict’s discussions were able to establish areas of agreement and shared concerns. I do not think that that invalidates the legitimacy of their dialogue – I would hope that the establishment of common ground is the point of such dialogue and helps to strengthen the place of toleration within western society. I suspect that the initiative on the part of the Pope that has been called The Courtyard of the Gentiles would welcome dialogue with atheists of all philosophical stripes. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others like them tend to insult, ridicule and shock – rhetorical strategies that reveal little interest in engagement with those with whom they disagree and an approach that does not invite others to engage in debate with them. In many ways they simply ‘preach to the choir’.

  28. James says:

    Billy, it seems that you have information about facts that the police do not have: if you do have such information, it is your responsibility to inform the authorities of what you know. Again, when you say, “Who do you think is responsible for this? The head of the Catholic church perhaps?” you have established nothing. Asking a question does not, in itself establish, the truth. For example, “Did aliens build Stonehenge?” does not establish that Salisbury plain is the location of an ancient alien bowling alley.

    My earlier point about Dawkins, Hitchens and Rayner was addressing an earlier comment about who would be invited to take part in the Papal initiative known as The Courtyard of the Gentiles.

    Moreover, it was you who wrote, “What do you make of the pope’s slur on secularisation – was that respectful?” I responded to this by asking whose voice has been respectful. Claire Rayner has been reported as saying, “His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.” Richard Dawkins called the Pope, “A leering old villain in a frock”. I have heard nothing from the Pope that quite compares to such statements.

    Regarding what the Pope said about extremist atheism: I would have to say that I believe that it is quite possible to express disagreement and criticism in a way that remains respectful. I acknowledge that I am favourably disposed to the point that Pope was making about the marginalisation of religion within society and it is quite possible that his words were made more reasonable to me because of this. At the same time, it could be suggested that your dislike of the Pope and what he stands for left you hearing insults that were not intended.

    Turning to your question about how I might define atheism, I would suggest that it is a worldview that is fundamentally materialist, in that it posits that there is nothing that is not contained within the material universe or is reducible to ‘matter’ (i.e. it rejects the possibility of the supernatural). The most notorious materialist ideologies of the Twentieth Century were Soviet Communism and Nazism. The Bolsheviks and their successors were explicitly atheist in their Marxism. Nazism was less explicitly atheist but it should be remembered that that project was thoroughly ‘this worldly’, fusing a ‘socialist’ vision of society with a robust German nationalism. Moreover, it also drew heavily upon racial theories derived from social and anthropological Darwinism. Nazism, as an ideology, was opportunist, and, taking advantage of the weaknesses of anger over the war guilt clause contained in the Versailles Treaty, the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic and the financial collapse of 1929, successfully manipulated different parts of German society, including individual Christians and their churches, in establishing and maintaining their supremacy within Germany. While leading Nazis were quite willing to employ Christian terminology and symbolism and while a number of Nazis continued to identify themselves as Christians, the ideology itself remained thoroughly materialist and treated Christian theism (among other things) as something to be manipulated and used to further the Nazis’ vision of German society. You may disagree but it is this materialism and manipulation of different symbolic systems that has led to the charge that Nazism was, at the very least, implicitly atheist. This suggestion is also nothing new and should come as a shock to no one.

    Turning to the point that the Pope was making: it seems to me that he was not suggesting that atheists are Nazis or that atheism is Nazism in another form, unless you assume that he understands all atheists to be extremists, which I would suggest is not borne out by his record.

    What he was warning against was that in Nazi Germany, dissent and criticism of the Nazis by Christians and others was thoroughly suppressed and he suggested that there is a vision of secular society that seeks not to promote diversity but instead seeks to impose an exterior uniformity and he warned that Nazi Germany might stand as a warning against such a vision. It should not be too surprising that he was suggesting that Christians had something positive to contribute to British society and warned against the marginalisation of that contribution. Moreover, in contrast to his warning against uniformity, he spoke in praise of the historically tolerant character of British society.

    As a historian of the rise of toleration within Early Modern Britain I am quite aware that ‘secularism’ and ‘atheism’ are different from one another but I would agree with the Pope that there is a form of secularism that is functionally atheistic in that it seeks to banish religious voices from the public realm seeing them as divisive, destructive or simply unsuited to public debate.

    In all honesty, I think that this was a case of some commentators looking for something to complain about and others being quite willing to find offense where none was meant.

    Finally, your point about theists needing to provide proof seems beside the point to this particular discussion. Again, my point was that the Pope had entered into a conversation with Jurgen Habermas that was respectful and sought to elucidate points of difference and establish points of agreement and I cannot help but say that this strikes me as something commendable in a society that seeks to promote toleration of others and mutual understanding.

  29. ryan says:

    James, my point is that Habermas agreeing with then Cardinal Ratzinger on some points is not surprising, indicating that their debate was possibly closer to a meeting of minds than a debate between those who occupy different ideological poles. I agree about the importance of respectful dialogue towards the establishing of common ground, but I’m not sure that inviting philosophers with obvious points of agreement with religious thought is the same thing as a genuine atheism v monotheism in depth joust. Although I understand that Dawkins somewhat embarrassed himself when he tried to do philosophy in the God Delusion, and ‘famous modern philosopher’ seems to me to be a bit like ‘famous skijorer’ , so I confess that I can’t identify a candidate best suited to fighting the atheist cause. I’d pay good (well, some) money to see a Stephen Fry vs Pope Benedict XVI debate tho 😉

    I agree that the Pope can be far less fiery than some of his opponents, but many of his pronouncements (e.g. on homosexuality) have been ‘offensive’, despite being made in respectful academic language.

    There is no defence for the puerile ad homs dished out by Raynor and others.

  30. James, I’m busy and on my coffee break, so please dont take my brevity as a sign of rudeness.

    1. Asking a question – this is a fallacious analogy – not least for the fact that we have no real evidence aliens exist. The pope does however exist, he is head of the organisation. The police already know crimes have been committed and the church is not helping – so, I ask you again, is the pope responsible?
    You mention the police, do you then agree with the pope on condemning the raids in Belgium to obtain information regarding to child rape.

    I asked you if the pope’s remarks were respectful? You attacked Dawkins instead of answering that directly so, please drop the apologist mode and answer the question honestly.
    It appears you are claiming that two wrongs make a right here.
    The pope grouped atheists with Nazis. He was making a clear point there linking “godlessness” and not “agressive godlessness” with “atheistic attrocities”.

    You are wrong on atheism – it simply means that one does not believe in god. It does not affect any other philosophy. All you have done is point out Marxists are atheists, not that atheism makes you a Marxist . Claiming that would be like saying religion ultimately leads to 9/11 or the crusades. Although, this highlights a difference, religion CAN make you fly a plane into a building in the belief that you are doing God’s work. Being an atheist does not force you to choose marxism. Do you believe at having a “non materialisic” world view prevents you from committing genocide? 80% of Rwandans are catholic – genocide was preached from the pulpits. The pope could have attacked this too but did not and I would suggest that was because he wanted to demonise atheists

    The problem with Nazism is that Christains joyfully played their part. Many believed they were doing god’s work. You may disagree with their theology, but you cant claim their outlook was non materialistic

    Whether you believe that Hitler – who was never excommunicated really was a catholic doesn’t really matter as he was into all sorts of supernaturalism – thereby, by your definition, not atheistic in outlook.
    Was hitler responsible for the Holocaust or were those who failed to oppose him responsible?

    Please define materialim – and then material and then supernatural….

    Interestingly he mentioned Wilberforce who oppsed slavery (invented by the catholic church) when he was still a deist. Religion does not predispose you to good deeds and I like to see it as people doing good deeds, but the pope wants to polarise. I would also ask how moral an act really is if you feel you are doing it out of religious duty (yes I know, some christians WANT to do doo- as do many non christians).
    The Pope implied all secularis/atheism was the same- he could have cited good examples – like Sweeden or Japan, or other secular societies that consistently score higher than “religious ones” on scores of “societial health”, but he didn’t .

    You claim there is an agressive secular campaign to banish religion from society. I would say it is more to do with preventing special privilages – eg a compulsory number of bishops in the house of Lords or compulsory christian worship in schools and puting everything else on a par. I can understand why the religious would see that as a threat – especially given declining church attendences and numbers calling themselves christian, but they should accept their place in society and not seek to gain unfair advantage.

    Understanding is good, what is not good is when you demand adherence to dogma.

    Sorry for being so brief

  31. Ryan, Stephen Fry would be a delight to watch – as would Hitchens who tells it like it is. For a more philosophical approach, I would suggest Stephen Law http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/ Bu there are manygood candidates

    Oh, and James, the church of Scotland wanted to bring charges of infidelity a gainst Hume, who I think you consider a better example of an atheist – it appears that even he was considered too extreme

  32. James says:

    Dear Billy,
    I will begin by saying that this will need to be my last posting on this subject. In spite of the stimulating nature of this discussion I must acknowledge that I have not the time to spend on this.
    My point about a question, in itself, being unable to establish the truth relates to my suggestion that if you have information that the Pope is implicated in the covering up of sexual abuse scandals then you should divulge that information to the police. Your questions, “Who do you think is responsible for this? The head of the Catholic church perhaps?” suggest that you think that the Pope is responsible but they do not establish that he is. Suggesting something by asking a question, without backing it up with facts, is a common rhetorical strategy but is one that has no place is reasonable debate. Your objection that aliens don’t exist leaves my point intact in that I was purposefully asking a ridiculous question. I could easily have asked whether Richard Nixon was related to my mother. Both exist and could, plausibly, be related but the question does not achieve anything in itself. For myself, I believe that as Pope and as head of the CDF before that, Benedict XVI has sought to deal with the problem of child abuse within the church. Sensational news reports have suggested that the Pope is linked to the covering up of abuse but, when examined, the arguments fall apart. This is not to deny that abuse has been covered up by members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy but is said because I believe that it should be the facts and not innuendo that guides our thinking.

    Regarding the abuse scandals in Belgium. Of course, the abuse of children is unacceptable and I believe that such acts should be universally condemned. I believe, however, that the Vatican deplored the manner in which the raids were carried out, which included the desecration of tombs. I am including a link to the official communique issued by the Holy See http://www.zenit.org/rssenglish-29713

    You seem to suggest that I am simply in apologist mode and am not answering your questions honestly. However, I would say that I answered your point when I said that it is possible to criticise and disagree with others in ways that remain respectful. My point about Dawkins is that he lacks civility and the willingness to listen to and try to understand those with whom he disagrees. I have been making a point about seeking to respect the other when engaging in debate but I have not been making a point about avoiding offering criticism (that would seem like a poor debate to me). You obviously feel that to describe the Nazis as atheist extremists lacks respect for atheism and I must say that I disagree with you on this. Again, you suggest that I seem to be saying that two wrongs make a right but that would require my thinking that the Pope was being insulting. I do not think that the warning that he offered was disrespectful and I do not think that it was a slur on atheism. If you look at transcripts of what the Pope said you will see that he speaks of atheist extremism. I take no offence at warnings about Christian extremism since I will acknowledge that it can occur. Moderate Muslims often warn against Muslim extremism. I am left to suppose that the Pope’s words about atheist extremism can only offend if it is believed that atheists cannot be extremists or if you believe that the Nazis (and I would also include Marxist-Leninists and Stalinists) should not be classified as atheist extremists.

    Your description of atheism is, of course, the simplest translation of the word, however, I would have to say that it is a little too broad in that it would include agnostics (who do not know whether to believe in God or not), Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, Sikhs, and people of other faiths who do not believe in the God worshipped by Jews, Christians or Muslims under the umbrella of atheism. We might widen out your description and state that it involves the rejection of all religions that worship deities but that would still include religious systems like Confucianism that engage in ancestor worship, certain forms of Buddhism and many traditional religions. My description of atheism as a materialistic worldview might be inexact (in that I acknowledge the possibility that an atheist might believe that the physical universe and the forces and laws that formed and maintain it cannot explain everything) but it seems to me to be more useful than yours. I would maintain that most atheists believe that the material universe is sufficient in answering questions about things like the origin and purpose (or lack thereof) of life and they would generally say that an ethical system can be justified without reference to something beyond the material world.

    I did not say that atheism makes you a Marxist. My point is that atheism is integral to the worldview of the Bolsheviks and Stalinists and this commitment to establishing state atheism led them to imprison and execute Christians and Muslims within the Soviet Union. I do not think that your average atheist intends to imprison or kill those with whom they disagree but that does not invalidate the point about atheist extremism and it does not make it disrespectful to say that those who seek to establish a situation in which religious voices are excluded, effectively creating a public realm that is atheist in character, should think about previous attempts to do just that.

    I do not believe that non-materialists are superior to materialists. I am quite aware of my own failings and, if you will forgive me, sinfulness, and, while I cannot say for sure, I suspect that the Pope would say much the same thing.

    Your point about Hitler is an interesting one. Hitler was interested in astrology and certain forms of mysticism. Astrology might seem to be ruled out of court for an atheist (although I suggest that you speak to Bill Maher before you do that) but it could be argued that it is, in the end, a materialist superstition, in that it is the belief that our lives are affected by the heavenly bodies. In the end, I would agree that Nazism was not an explicitly atheistic political philosophy but I would continue to suggest that it cynically manipulated religious and mythical symbolism to further its recreation of German society and I would say that its view of religion as something that can be used to manipulate others is implicitly atheist (in that it sees religion as having no ‘other worldly’ significance). Your point about Christians cooperating joyfully with Nazism simply demonstrates that the Nazis were very good at manipulating their fellow Germans.

    It might be quibbling but Wilberforce didn’t take up the cause of abolitionism until two years after his conversion to Evangelicalism in 1785. It was his relationship with Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton that led him to take up this cause.

    Regarding your point about morality and duty being incompatible: Immanuel Kant would violently disagree with you and would suggest that an act is only moral when it is done out of a sense of duty. In this way, he claimed that Christians did not have a monopoly on morality (although I should say that Kant was, as far as I am aware, a devout Lutheran). The Catholic Church has inherited from the Classical world an emphasis upon the cultivation of the virtues and it would therefore emphasise the view that in ‘doing the right thing’ we cultivate a virtuous character and what was once done dutifully becomes ‘second nature’.

    I would say that materialism holds that the material universe is the only reality and that everything, including the mind, the will, emotions etc. can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena. Material applies to all thing that are formed out of matter. I employed the term supernatural to designate the claim that the material universe is not all that there is. I was employing the term as it would be used in discussions about the philosophy of religion rather than simply its popular usage.

    Your point about the prevention of special privileges in society sounds all well and good, however, the evacuation of religious voices from the public square actually privileges an atheist conception of society. Surely a society in which Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and other voices can be heard along with those of atheists is a society that can truly claim to be tolerant.

    Regarding your comment to Ryan, I am glad that you have found Stephen Law who strikes me as being a better reference point than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

    Finally, I hope you were aware that your phrase, “Understanding is good, what is not good is when you demand adherence to dogma.” comes across as not a little ironic.

    If you will forgive me I will end this by offering you my blessing (or good wishes if you prefer)


  33. James says:

    It was wrong of me to suggest that your comment about dogma is ironic and then not explain myself.

    It has been my experience that atheists are no less dogmatic than other people and I suspect that not a few would quite happily see a society in which religious dogmas were excluded and the only dogma that found expression is that which holds that religious belief has no place in the public square.

  34. Hi James,
    We appear to be talking about different things her – I am talking about the resistence to handing over details and the pope is the top man.
    I was not implying anything by the question other than asking the question in a Socratic style.

    Thankyou for the link, but it doesn’t seem to say anything unreasonable and gives no details of what the act of desecration actually was. It all sounds like fairly standard procedure – it’s, how you would treat a drugs raid for example. People have didden things in all sorts of places.

    My question was not about respectful disagreement. It was about the pope’s comment.

    My point about two wrongs was in relation to the fact that you answered the question with a question about Dawkins. I unbderstand you disagree on the popes remark, but you replied using an example you did disagree with.

    Let me quote from the pope’s speech “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” He says exclusion of god leads to all this. Do bear in mind that the Nazis did promote god and hitler used a concordat in his election campaign. The rot had long set in before SOME christians were persecuted. As for marxists etc, you define atheism as materialistic, but you get maxists who are superstitious, so how is materialism responsible? If a marxist is an atheist, it does not mean that he is a marxist because he is an atheist as I have tried to point out. Many atheists reject marxim and many christians adopt anti semitic ideologies. The difference is that they adopt that BECAUSE they are religious. The poes conclusion makes no sense.

    I agree that the Nazis used religion (unlike the personal beliefs of Nazis which are often debateble) but it is not an exclusively atheistic thing to do – popes used religion to mount crusades and Islamic fundamentalists use it to manipulate people into suicide attacks.
    Hitler also believed in “prophecy” and consulted mystics. This is not a materialistic outlook (Maher gets a lot of justified criticism, but does show that people can have inconsistent beliefs).

    Wilberforce actually wrote letters to papers on the subject when a deist, but the point I was making is that the roots of his anti slave campaign pre-dates his christianity, so that can not be given full credit for his actions.

    I didn’t say morality and duty were incompatible. I meerly questioned the link. As a sceptic, I dont consider an argument from authority an argument. Surely the truly moral person is the one who acts because the want to, not because they have to. There may be be a feeling of duty, but only in the sense that they “know” it is right. However, I was suggesting it more in the sense that doing something to avoid punishment is not doing it because it is right and therefore of questionable moral value. Is morality something that you train, or is it a set of internal values that define right and wrong because they are right or wrong? (or as you may believe external)? I do find morality a very strange topic as people have different moral values and there is no obvious examples of an absolute law and if one did exist, I dont think we would be able to recognise it – but that’s a digression.

    My question about materialism is more directed at what is matter? If the supernatural is that outwith matter, then how do you define it and what excludes it from being part of nature? Is energy naterial for example? If so, why – I’m a bit tired and am probably not being clear hers, but to define a set as something that is out with another set, one must define what the set is. God couls hypothetically be materialistic in nature as no such distinction in sets may exist. I would also say that atheism need not dismiss supernaturalism out of hand, it just doesn’t see any evidence for it, which I think is a subtle and important difference (again different atheists will disagree).

    I agree about what defines a tolerant society. Removing religions special privilages does not mean you are silencing it. It means you are letting other view points have equality and everyone is heard. I was forced at school to observe christian worship. I dont consider that to be tolerant of other views. Now, you can opt out, but surely the non forceful way is to opt in.

    Finally, I don’t think that the statement was ironic. It was reached through consideration of the evidence of what dogma does (Crusade, no contraception, Stalinism….) and is also open to changing based on evidence. Dogma on the other hand stays the same despite the evidence.

    Thankyou for the discussion and best wishes

  35. Vinny says:

    I’d just like to say that I’ve spent the last hour or so looking at various websites linked to by the BBC News page on this controversy. Out of all of the sites I visited, this one had the most respectful comments, even while heated debate was going on, and didn’t drop to the levels of idiocy I’ve seen on the other blogs. (Aside from a couple of the earlier posts by idiots claiming that disagreeing with the Pope meant that Kelvin’s faith was false). Everyone involved, especially Kelvin, well done.

    A Pleasantly Surprised Atheist

  36. John says:

    Yet another uneducated response from another uneducated clergyman. No wonder everyone is laughing at the Scottish Episcopal Church these days.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kelvin Holdsworth and Briony Ryles, Juliette Harrisson. Juliette Harrisson said: RT @thurible: blog: response to Pope's opening remarks: http://bit.ly/an7tUj #atheism #papalvisit #pisky #ethics […]

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