Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Unintended Consequences

I feel very reluctant to write anything about The Pope's state visit to Britain. As a pastoral visit I am pleased and feel supportive for his traditional theology, his courage in fighting against relativism and the encouragement it will probably give to the British Catholics. As a 'state visit' I'm not so sure. This is primarily because there is a lot I don't really get about Catholic culture. For those who're baptised Orthodox, things are pretty simple: you're an Orthodox Christian if you say the creed and receive the sacraments. You're a culturally-Orthodox agnostic if you go to the occasional service to listen to the divine liturgy and meet people but can't recite the creed or receive the sacraments. And you're not Orthodox if you don't go to the services and hate the faith.

Perhaps because there doesn't seem to be such a thing as a 'lapsed Orthodox', I'll never get articles like this. 'I was baptised Catholic, I don't believe in God, couldn't recite the creed or receive the sacraments, but that's not to say it's none of my business. If I did go to church then I might not go to the church because I don't agree with the Pope so I'm entitled to be patronising towards people who do go to church and receive communion because I wouldn't agree with them if I did go to church even though I don't go to church and wouldn't go to church even if they did things the way I want them to'.

And because Benedict XVI is being invited on a state visit as a cultural figure, I don't really know what to make of it given that many people who feel affiliated with his culture don't seem to have much affiliation for the whole religion thing.

It's not entirely surprising that Johann Hari claimed that he got lots of praise from 'Catholics' for his piece of drivel here. Those who remember those 'secular cards' where white atheists use wisdom and rationality might want to read this. Or maybe even Hari's own links, which demonstrate that he's speaking drivel.

Speaking of which, Poly Toynbee tries to outdo him. I'm not sure which one of these intellectual midgets coined the term 'the religious', or indeed if either of them were (ahem) 'clever' enough to do so. But Toynbee plays it for all it's worth. Though she says something oddly illuminating:

'On Friday he meets the Archbishop of Canterbury, who ought to send him off with a flea in his ear for trying to seduce over to Rome Church of England clergy opposed to women bishops. His beatification of Cardinal Newman for converting to Catholicism is an affront, along with his claim that Britain's Equalities Act "violates natural law" for banning discrimination against women and gays.'

In case anyone doesn't get the politics of Anglicanism, I don't either really. But it generally breaks down to this: some Anglicans are Protestants who think that ministers are just people in general; other Anglicans are Apostolic and believe that the Priesthood is a succession carried down from Christ through men. Subsequently, a lot of the Apostolic Anglicans want to leave the Church. So why should that be of interest to Toynbee? Firstly, because the Protestant faith has given Britain a sense of being different and superior to Europe. Secondly, because Anglicans are uncle Toms in new atheist Britain who set a standard that other churches are judged by. Needless to say, it isn't as if they're respected or anything by the atheists (far less small-o orthodox Christians, in the Anglican communion and out of it) but they are a useful tool.

Also Toynbee has a curious obsession with women's bodies in the faith because it seems to me that oddly enough it's secular blokes who consider themselves feminists who really have a weird obsession. Take this article on Lady Gaga's latest stunt. If a bloke said 'I'm afraid of losing my creativity through my willy', would he be regarded as a silver-tongued wit, or maybe just a dysfunctional weirdo? But because a woman says this kind of thing it's clever to the secular feminist blokes.

Having said that, if anyone thinks that Blighty is a land of metrosexual drones, think again. Violence, rudeness and aggression are many-headed hydras that are omnipresent in our streets where pockmarked youths will start harrying anyone seen reading in public. Can we really feel so smug about secularism? Especially as they are outbreeding the (cough) middle class atheists. Yes, they might not have much more time for church than the Rationalist Association's archetypal atheist, but it's pretty clear that the Rationalist Association's ideal of an atheist wouldn't wear burberry and that their (cough) middle class atheist would be on their knees begging the vicar for a lift if he had a car and they were in an inner city region on a Friday night.

Still, back to the Pope's visit. Things are getting stupider by the day. This letter, however, is in its own way interesting for demonstrating how wrong Matthew Arnold was in his Athens/ Jerusalem dichotomy. Look at what a meagre bunch this lot generally are: Steven Fry is a likable and affable chap, but his achievements don't really go much further than being a famous Brit who's more likable than Anne Robinson or Simon Cowell. I was sorry to hear that Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, but really, is this writer of abysmal, adolescent farce really the best arts figure they can conjure up? And look at their points of condemnation:

'Opposing the distribution of condoms and so increasing large families in poor countries and the spread of Aids.'

What? Not supporting efforts to stop poor people having children and instead supporting the surest method of stopping AIDS? The horror.

'Denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women.'

I think this really sums up a lot of the creepiness of many 'new atheists'. Are they saying they support abortion for 'the most vulnerable' but they respect the Vatican's view that unborn children shouldn't be disposed of if they are inconvenient? Of course not: they like to keep a foot in the camp of self-righteousness without going against the consumerist status quo about life.

'Promoting segregated education'

This hits home the suburban cosy view that secular schools are morally neutral and that it isn't the case that they will be exposed to values which have been pumped into other kids through the internet and TV. Maybe it's all very well for the Dawkins and Pullmans to send their kids to public schools in the 'burbs. But many working class Catholics might not want the same thing for their kids.

There are some criticisms of the Vatican I would find it difficult to dispute. But it seems to me that the open letter is notable for having two children's writers as its most popular literary figures.

Could it be that as it becomes increasingly obvious that secular Britain is a dangerous kindergarten that Titus Oates style hatred of a certain minority might be less appealing? Of course, it will be appealing to the childish people that our society lionises: but maybe the rest of us can't be bothered getting on our high horses. Furthermore, as a historian I see anti-Catholic predjudice as a great evil in British history that has never been addressed.

Of course, that isn't to say that the Roman Catholic Church is above criticism. But in an atomised and cold society, brutal demagogues find it easy to incite hatred at a close-knit diaspora. It is precisely because fundamentalist Protestantism had failed to unify British society that it found such ugly outlets. I suspect one can say the same thing for fanatical atheism.


  1. Great post, Gregor. I miss the days when Marxists had a lot of clout among atheists and agnostics because at least they made interesting and sometimes correct observations about the world and could sometimes helpfully critique society.

    As we’ve discussed before, and as you mention in this post, the secular humanists are firmly in support of consumerism and other facets of advanced capitalist society without providing much serious critique. An exclusive focus on the “here and now” (heaven is just a silly fantasy to keep the peasants quiet) will always end up favoring the rich and powerful.

    Pope Benedict XVI pretty much argued the above point in his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” arguing that narrow this-worldliness was essentially Nietzschean. In fact, if anything has injured the more historically significant versions of socialism or social democracy, it has been their acceptance of the pure materialist ethos that tends to also dominate capitalist thought. One of the problems with the Soviet Union was that it tried to out-capitalist the capitalists. When this failed, much of the Soviet leadership dumped central planning for neo-liberalism, sensing that they could do well as the reformed technocrats of the new order.

    If you are interested, American historian Eric Foner has an old article from 1990 where he talks about the “Soviet Yuppies.” It is a pretty interesting article, even if it is dated: http://www.ericfoner.com/articles/romancemarket.pdf

    Perhaps more on topic, as a Roman Catholic, I do realize that many people are rightly upset with some of the terrible things that have happened in the Church, and I do think there are some legitimate critiques that can be thrown the Vatican’s way. But I really do wonder why the Church gets singled out for such treatment.

    At the risk of being controversial, if people looked inside the history of the gay clubs out of which the homosexual rights movement sprang, they might not like what they would see. Yet, if one pointed out the nasty things that happened in some of those gay clubs, in that subculture, you would be branded a homophobe. However, if you call Catholicism or religion in general a scourge of mankind you will be declared a progressive hero. It is all very weird to me.

  2. I should probably note that I am not trying to smear all gay people in my last post, just trying to point out what I see as media hypocrisy towards the Catholic Church. I know that bad behavior on the part of some gay folks does not automatically extend to all gay people in toto. The same goes for Catholic priests.

  3. I took a quick peek at CiF yesterday (something I almost never do these days) as I do have a weakness for cheap controversy.

    What a mess.

    "But he's an old man in a dress er..er.. he believes in fairies... er.. they're all paedos and they have committed genocide in Africa by er... saying condoms are bad er...er.. Spaghetti Monster!"

    The sad thing is that it is perfectly possible to criticise a lot about the Pope and the Church just by sticking to calm, factual arguments but simplistic (or downright untrue) arguments and childish slurs were the order of the day.

    If the Catholic Church is responsible for all those AIDS deaths, how come South Africa has such a big problem with it? It's not a Catholic country. Ukraine? not very Catholic either.Could it be that there are other, multiple, complex factors behind the AIDS epidemics in certain countries?

    As for paedos, the Church does deserve criticism for every cover-up which is discovered. It would be interesting though, to have a look at paedo per priest stats in comparison with paedo per social worker or paedo per swimming coach stats. If they are similar will we see all social workers and swimming coaches tarred with the paedo brush?

    The problem with these arguments is that they involve a bit of complexity and nuance and are therefore obsolete in today's public discourse which is set at around 6th form level (seemingly the Guardian's target market nowadays)

    It's much easier to take the traditional English/British attitude of self-satisfaction and decide that those in favour of or ambivalent towards the Pope JUST DON'T GET IT and are therefore deserving of nothing more than derision and scorn.

    We are also living in somewhat historically illiterate times so the obvious shadow of old-fashioned anti-Catholic rhetoric which pervades so much of this current palaver is not unsettling as many people as it should.

    So in today's liberal, tolerant Britain the fact that someone whose rather old-fashioned values and opinions do not concur with the general mainstream of educated opinion has been invited for a visit by the government / Queen is seen as something worth getting worked up about.

    These overly-precious folk should try living in Poland. The pseudo-Catholic pseudo-nationalists would really give them something to shout about, what with their crazy conspiracy theories and Nuremburg-lite rallies.

  4. Good post. It's funny how so many 'tolerant' people instantly lose it when they find out that someone is of a different lifestyle and wolrdview to them.

    I'm certainly not making a big deal about it, but there was nothing wrong with the Pope coming to Glasgow, the event went of peacefully and civilly and people in Scotland of many or no faiths welcomed the papal visit.

  5. @John
    I don't know much about Marxism but I do agree that atheist 'intellectuals' are getting appalling. I'm reading The Birth of Tragedy, and think Nietzsche is a great writer and thinker even if I disagree with him. However, it seems that modern atheists use a lot of terms as if they are synonymous: atheist/rational/moral/humanist/good

    The very fact that Britain is not a rational society doesn't seem to alter things.

    I do also agree that there are good reasons to criticise the Vatican, but these people don't want to do that. There's a weird carnival attitude in the 'rationalist humanist' circles. The mirth that a lot felt over Christopher Hitchens' 'no child's behind left' comment just demonstrates how much they want a sensitive critique of the sex scandal.

    Absolutely agree over Guardian message boards; whether I agree with posters or not, so many of them come up with adolescent cliches that they think are so original and daring, when in fact they are really tired.

    Sad to hear about nationalism in Poland; such an odd country in some ways: having contributed so much to world culture yet seeming to be open to surprisingly backward political movements which in the end hurt themselves (especially their demonisation of Russia). Still, interesting news about their arresting Zakayev. Maybe this signals a move to improved relations?

    It sounds like overall, the visit to Glasgow meant a lot to many Catholics and a lot of non-Catholics as well. Strange how the Orange Order seems to have been eclipsed by new-atheists in terms of angry protests.