The Secular Inquisition

The campaign to arrest the pope is the product of an increasingly desperate secularism, which can only find meaning through ridiculing the religious.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The New Atheist campaign to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested when he visits Britain later this year exposes the deeply disturbing, authoritarian and even Inquisitorial side to today’s campaigning secularism. There is nothing remotely positive in the demand that British cops lock up the pope and then drag him to some international court on charges of ‘crimes against humanity’. Instead it springs from an increasingly desperate and discombobulated secularism, one which, unable to assert itself positively through Enlightening society and celebrating the achievements of mankind, asserts itself negatively, even repressively, through ridiculing the religious.

Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, first came up with the idea of arresting the pope. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and generally the Chosen One amongst the New Atheists, has backed the idea ‘wholeheartedly’. Together they are consulting Geoffrey Robertson, the human rights lawyer, on the legalities and logistics of cornering His Holiness in Britain this September. Numerous columnists are cheering them on, one wildly fantasising that the angelic Hitchens/Dawkins/Robertson trio will wield the sword of justice in the name of all those ‘victims of sacerdotal rape’ and show the whole world that ‘the powerful’ cannot hide from justice.

It’s worth asking why otherwise fairly intelligent thinkers get so dementedly exercised over the pope and the Catholic Church. What exactly is their beef? What are they objecting to? Very few (if any) of the pope-hunters were raised Catholic, so this isn’t about personal vengeance for some perceived slight by a priest or nun. And despite their current lowdown, historically illiterate attempt to equate a priest fondling a child with a state’s attempt to obliterate an entire people – under the collective tag ‘crime against humanity’ – the truth is that some of these pope-hunters don’t really think child abuse is the worst crime in the world. In 2006, Dawkins criticised ‘hysteria about paedophilia’ and said that, even though he was the victim of sexual abuse at boarding school, he would defend his abusive former teachers if ‘50 years on they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers’. Yet now he wants to put abusive priests on a par with genocidaires.

Also, while of course one incident of child sexual abuse by a priest is one too many, it simply isn’t the case that the Catholic Church is a vast, institutionalised paedophile ring wrecking the lives of millions of children around the world. One pope-hunting columnist describes the Vatican as an ‘international criminal conspiracy to protect child rapists’, yet the facts and figures don’t bear that out. If these anti-pope crusaders really were interested in justice and equality, there are numerous other, even worse crimes and scandals that they might investigate and interrogate and try to alleviate.

Yet despite the lack of any obvious, sensible reason why they break out in boils at the mention of the words ‘Benedict’, ‘priest’ or ‘Catholic’, the pope-hunters’ campaign has acquired a powerfully pathological, obsessive and deafeningly shrill character. It is screeching and emotional. It talks about ‘systematic evil’ and discusses the pope as a ‘leering old villain in a frock’. It uses up almost all the intellectual and physical energies of men and women who consider themselves to be serious thinkers. What is going on here?

The reason this crusade is so hysterical is because it is not really about the pope at all – it is about the New Atheists themselves. The contemporary pope-hunting springs from a secularist movement which feels incapable of asserting a sense of purpose or meaning in any positive, human-centred way – as the great atheists of old such as Marx or Darwin might have done – and which instead can only assert itself negatively, in contrast to the ‘evil’ of religion, by posturing against the alleged wickedness of institutionalised faith. It is the inner emptiness, directionless and soullessness of contemporary secularism – in contrast to earlier, Enlightened and more positive secular movements – which has given birth to the bizarre clamour for the pope’s head.

Secularism is in crisis. In Enlightened times, progressive secular movements, those which eschewed the guidance of God in favour of relying on mankind to work out what his problems were and how to solve them, were all about having a positive view of humanity. Their vision was both terrifying and extremely liberating: that man alone could master the complexities of life on Earth and improve it for himself and future generations. Today, however, we live in misanthropic, deeply downbeat times, where mankind is looked upon as a greedy, destructive, unreliable force whose behaviour and thoughts must be governed from without.

Indeed, one of the newspaper writers who cheered on the vengeance of Hitchens and Dawkins against Benedict used the very same column to argue that ‘ecocide’ – otherwise known as mankind’s impact on the planet – should also be made a ‘crime against humanity’. It perfectly illustrated that it is not faith in humankind that drives today’s ‘muscular secularism’, but something like its opposite: a profound confusion about mankind’s role, a discomfort with the world we inhabit today, a powerful sense of isolation amongst contemporary New Secularists – isolation from other people, from any coherent ideas, from any stand-up system of meaning. Driven more by doubt and disarray than by a desire to Enlighten, the New Secularists come across as alarmingly intolerant of any system of meaning which, unlike theirs, appears to have some coherence and authority.

This is what drives their war against religion: an instinct for ridiculing those who still, unlike contemporary secularists themselves, have an overarching outlook on life and a strong belief system. That is really what they find so alien about the Catholic Church in particular – its beliefs, its faith, its hierarchy. An atheism utterly alienated from the mass of humanity and from any future-oriented vision can only lash out in an extreme and intolerant way against those who still seem to have strong beliefs: the religious, or the ‘deluded ones’, as the New Atheists see it.

As a consequence, their campaign against the pope really does have the feel of a witch-hunt to it, even, ironically, of the Inquisition itself. Firstly because, in order to endow their campaign with some logic, the pope-hunters must vastly exaggerate the scale and impact of the Catholic Church’s crimes against children. Secondly because they are implicitly seeking to create a policing, repressive climate in relation to what they see as a problematic religion, to the extent that religious leaders might no longer feel free to travel the globe to visit their followers. And thirdly, and most importantly, because their hunting of the pope is designed to satisfy themselves, to provide them with a feeling of power and purpose and legitimacy which they cannot secure through their own ideas or vision.

No doubt some will accuse me of ‘defending paedophile priests’ in contrast to the New Atheist campaign on behalf of ‘powerless victims’. In truth, my only concern, as an atheistic libertarian, is with analysing the emergence of a new form of hysterical and repressive atheism. And the New Atheists are not the first group of people in history to pursue their own, deeply problematic, fearmongering, illiberal agenda under the guise of trying to win justice for ‘the powerless’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill explained why humanists shouldn’t engage in Catholic-bashing. Michael Fitzpatrick discussed the Irish elite’s paradoxical attitude to clerical abuse and said New Atheists like Christopher Hitchen’s should follow the example of Marx and Darwin instead of baiting the devout. Nathalie Rothschild refused to hop aboard the atheist bus and reviewed a book that took a novel approach to New Atheism. 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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