Why they love to hate Mother Teresa

The radical-atheist assaults on the late sister of Calcutta are the intellectual equivalent of mugging an old woman.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

You know how some cowardly muggers target little old ladies because they’re usually slow, frail and unlikely to fight back? Well, the exact same dynamic, though in intellectual rather than bag-grabbing terms, can be seen in the radical-atheist assaults on Mother Teresa. Attacking the wrinkled, hunched-over sister of Calcutta, accusing her of being a goggle-eyed fanatic and a mad and disgusting celebrator of poverty, is the atheistic equivalent of mugging an old woman. And a dead one, to boot. These anti-Teresa tirades reveal far more about the bluster of contemporary atheism than they do anything surprising about the antics of old Catholic women.

Hating Mother Teresa has become a de rigueur dinner-party prejudice. As the Vatican speeds up its canonisation of Teresa, having already beatified her in 2003, feminists, atheists and liberal commentators are engaging in games of Teresa-denouncing one-upmanship, to see who can slate her in the shrillest, most outrageous terms. She was a ‘charlatan’ and a ‘master of her own mythology’, said Ian O’Doherty in the Irish Independent last week. No, she was a ‘wicked fundamentalist’, said a feminist contributor to a BBC TV debate last weekend. In fact she was a ‘disgusting fraud and a hypocrite’, says a columnist for the UK Independent, and ‘if there is a hell, Mother Teresa is already there’.

Much of this Teresa-baiting springs from the work of arch atheist Christopher Hitchens. In his 1995 book The Missionary Position, Hitchens described Mother Teresa as a ‘religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser and an accomplice of worldly secular powers’. He exposed her backward beliefs on poverty – it is ‘beautiful’, she said, and the poor should embrace it – and her shoulder-rubbing with dictators and other dodgy individuals. She should never have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Hitchens said, or granted audiences with US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, because she is little more than an ‘untouchable in the mental universe of the mediocre and the credulous’.

Of course, much of the criticism is justified. I am an atheist who has no truck with Mother Teresa and her kind. Having been schooled by nuns who thought Mother Teresa was the best thing since sliced bread (and thus that her patronising pieties were a better thing for poor people to live on than actual sliced bread), I have suffered my fair share of BS about this woman’s saintly wonderfulness. But why is atheistic criticism aimed so squarely at Mother Teresa these days, rather than, say, at the Vatican itself, or at other religious leaders like the Dalai Lama or Bishop Desmond Tutu?

Mother Teresa is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only religious leader to have sipped tea with dictators or to have been more interested in promoting her self-image than in seriously helping poor people. The Dalai Lama has done adverts for Apple, for Buddha’s sake, and once guest-edited French Vogue, which I don’t think is a widely read publication in the poorer parts of his homeland of Tibet. Teresa is also not the only religious figure to have bigged-up poverty as beautiful and life-affirming. Ever since Jesus wandered around Palestine in rags and described riches as ‘thorns’ which ‘choke up the good seed’, Christians have promoted poverty as something godly. Mother Teresa’s celebration of poverty in Calcutta sprang not only from her own religious fanaticism, but also from the dire social and economic conditions in that city: like so many Christians before her, she was effectively adding a religious gloss to a social reality, which is not a nice thing to do but it doesn’t mean she was somehow to blame for poverty.

No, the reason Teresa has been elevated by radical atheists above everyone else in the League Of Evil Religious Crackpots is because she’s an easy target. Today’s New Atheists, more interested in getting their religion-hating rocks off than in actually Enlightening anyone, love crusading against Teresa because she indulged in a so-unsophisticated and foreign form of Christianity. Religion in the Third World, with its old-fashioned figureheads and its sometimes desperate adherents, makes for a far easier, and far more fun, target than the subtle religious practices of modern Western society. For today’s campaigning atheists, the sight of a little old woman in an off-white habit providing hammocks for poor, wide-eyed Indians is too bizarre and backward to let pass by. And lacking the intellectual faculties and old-style atheistic humanity to explain such practices, they merely mock them, denounce them, laugh at them over their £3 lattes.

Indeed, much of the Teresa-baiting is aimed not at the woman herself, but at her thick and gullible followers. Hitchens described his book about Mother Teresa as an argument ‘not with a deceiver but with the deceived’, her ‘credulous and uncritical’ followers. ‘In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjuror is only the instrument of the audience’, he said. A favourable review of Hitchens’ book, written while Mother Teresa was still alive in 1996, said ‘one can only be appalled by the lack of intellectual sophistication of her admirers who hold her in such high esteem and who seize upon her every asinine comment as a sign of her astuteness and philosophical depth’. This is not a serious or intellectual dismantling of the meaning, impact and structures of religion; it is fundamentally fun-poking at dumb Indians.

The ongoing war on Mother Teresa reveals what lies at the heart of the New Atheism. A million miles from the humanistic atheism of Marx, Darwin and others, today’s screechy anti-God squad is more interested in hectoring the religious – those stupid believers in anything they are told – than it is in creating an Enlightened culture that might give people something else, something more profound, to think about and contribute to. Darwin, the hero of so many of today’s New Atheists, refused to partake in cheap Christianity-bashing, believing that ‘direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public – and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science’. Today, lacking any serious attachment to freedom of thought or any belief in their ability to illuminate men’s minds, gradually or otherwise, the New Atheists not only spend their whole time directly attacking Christianity, but take aim at its crudest forms.

The lack of Enlightened thinking in the mugging of Mother Teresa can be seen in the way campaigning atheists seek to replace Teresa’s backward beliefs with their own. So one critic attacks Teresa’s opposition to contraception and abortion on the basis that it inflamed one of the alleged great evils of our age: overpopulation. ‘Overpopulation is one of the factors that can lead to war, [and therefore] Mother Teresa’s opposition to any effective limitation on the growth of population [implicated] her in war rather than peace.’ This is a battle of misanthropies. Where Teresa held to the misanthropic belief that women should be forced to take every conception to term, the Teresa-bashers believe that unchecked population growth – whisper it: too many black and brown babies – gives rise to madness and mayhem. One side seeks to limit poor people’s choices, the other demonises poor people’s breeding habits as the harbinger of doom.

In their cheap assaults on Teresa and fundamentalist religion, campaigning atheists completely overlook, yet again, some of the more powerful backward trends in our society. Take the celebration of poverty. At a time when wealthy Westerners buy Fairtrade chocolate and fruit because they love the thought of eating earthy stuff produced by back-broken Africans, at a time when buzzphrases like ‘sustainable development’ are used to justify hard labour over economic progress in the Third World, and at a time when we are frequently told by greens that our greedy habits of consumption are bringing about the fiery and flood-ridden end of the world, it seems pretty clear that the Mother Teresa-style celebration of poverty has not a patch on the contemporary secular elevation of the eco-life. Today’s mainstream, insidious and grotesque justifications for non-progress in the poverty-stricken Third World make Mother Teresa’s sermons look like the silly ramblings of a daft old nun.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) This article was first published in forth magazine in Dublin.

Previously on spiked

Stuart Derbyshire reviewed Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?. Nathalie Rothschild refused to jump on the atheist bus. Catholic atheist’ Michael Fitzpatrick was repelled by Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, and critiqued the secular intellectuals who are baiting the devout. Dolan Cummings wanted to be counted out of atheism’s creed. Neil Davenport argued that it’s not the devout who are the real enemies of reason. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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