Turning the pope into an Antichrist for atheists

The great irony of the campaign against the pope is that it uses the same process of demonology that the Catholic Church once excelled at.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

With just a week to go until Pope Benedict XVI arrives on British shores, the campaigning against his visit has become so shrill that soon only dogs will be able to hear it. And the great irony of this allegedly rationalist protest against the pope is that it is indulging in precisely the kind of demonology that the Catholic Church once excelled at. Campaigners have turned Benedict into a Satan for secularists, an Antichrist for atheists, against whom they desperately hope to define and advertise their own moral integrity.

As a radical humanist, I hold no candle for the Catholic Church (I held more than enough candles for it when I was an altar boy). But I also don’t like zealous moralism, the irrational demonisation of some Other for the benefit of the Self. And the current baiting of all things popish stinks to the empty heavens of just that kind of campaigning. The anti-papists are ironically utilising the Torquemada-ish tools of intolerance and fearmongering to turn the pope into a much-needed bête noire for their social set.

Pope-protesting seems increasingly unhinged. Pick up a copy of this month’s pope-bashing New Humanist and you will struggle to find either anything new (everyone from the English middle classes to the KKK to Ian Paisley has long considered the pope of Rome to be evil incarnate) or very humanist.

Asked what she would say to the pope if given half the chance, broadcaster and humanist Claire Rayner says: ‘I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature.’ Now, I like Claire Rayner, and respect her, but these sentiments sound more like the products of primal emotionalism than considered secularism. Rayner, it seems, has been struck dumb (‘I have no language’) by what she refers to as the pope’s ‘disgusting, repellent and hugely damaging’ views. ‘[T]he only thing to do is to get rid of him’, she exclaims, and in the midst of an anti-pope spread that compares Benedict to fascists and has cartoons showing him as a slobbering beastly midget perched on a throne, it’s not immediately clear whether she means kick him out of Britain or kill him.

Other humanists – seemingly forgetting the bit in humanism that promotes liberty and tolerance – say the pope should be excluded from Britain. ‘You are not welcome’, says that pope of New Atheism, Richard Dawkins: ‘Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality and don’t come back.’ Journalists Francis Wheen and Johann Hari both say that they would say to the pope: ‘You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court.’ Geddit? They’re going to perform a citizens’ arrest on him! (Quite how citizens’ arrests – which were once seen as the tools of busybody ‘swivel-eyed gets’, in the words of Alan Sillitoe – came to be seen as radical gestures is beyond me.)

Where government ministers campaign to keep people like Snoop Dogg out of Britain, lest his drug-praising and ho-baiting turn Britons into carbon-copy gangstas, today’s New Atheists want to keep the pope out in case his disgusting, repellent ideas turn Britons into anti-condom, Mary-worshipping hysterics. The same prejudices that drive our illiberal rulers to erect a forcefield against undesirables also fuel the pseudo-liberal campaign against the arrival of the pope. A ‘comedian’ called Nick Doody says he wouldn’t say anything to the pope – he’d simply put a condom over the pontiff’s head until he goes blue and dies. It’s meant to be funny (because the pope says condoms are porous, you see!) but it isn’t of course. It does, however, provide a glimpse into the emotionally troubled mindsets of the anti-pope lobby.

When they aren’t demanding that Britain be made a pope-free zone – with scant humanist or tolerant regard for what that would mean for the six million Britons who follow the Catholic faith – the Benedict-bashers use the politics of fear to exaggerate the wicked works of the Catholic Church. Now, I know and you know and everyone knows (in way too much eye-watering detail, thanks to the misery-memoir industry) that some Catholic priests sexually abused children. That is disgusting and where appropriate it should be punished. But there is no justification for describing the Catholic Church as a ‘paedophile ring’, which carried out ‘systematic rape and torture’, giving rise to a palpable ‘stench of evil’. You don’t have to be a friend of the Vatican – and I am not – to be able to state categorically that that is top-notch bullshit.

Once again echoing the tactics of our illiberal rulers, the New Atheists are deploying the politics of scaremongering in order to present their opponents as stinking of evil and themselves as purer than pure. This has nothing to do with principled secularism, and instead echoes the US and UK governments’ transformation of someone like Saddam Hussein into a creature ‘worse than Hitler’ in the run-up to the Iraq War. Indeed, the New Atheists also evoke the moral absolute of the Holocaust as part of their campaign to paint the pope as an uncivilised, non-Guardian-reading brute, reminding us at every opportunity that he was once a member of the Hitler Youth.

And of course, no fear-driven campaign of demonisation would be complete without double standards. Some are criticising Queen Elizabeth II for agreeing to meet the pope, saying he is an illegitimate state leader and potentially a criminal. I’ll just wait a second while that sinks in. Yes, Britain’s unelected queen, whose armies have wreaked all sorts of mayhem around the world during her 57 years contracting piles on the throne, is being called on to snub Mr Ratzinger. At least he was elected by smoke-making cardinals. In their rush to get their rocks off by posturing against the pope, the anti-papists implicitly and uncritically bolster Britain’s own, frequently warped political and moral systems.

Of course people should be free to say whatever they like about the pope and to protest against him to their hearts’ content. As the editor of a magazine that has argued vociferously against blasphemy laws and religious hatred legislation, I strongly believe that no religion or religious leader should be given legal protection from criticism, ridicule and even bad gags by Nick Doody. But let’s at least be honest about what the current outbreak of feverish pope-bashing in polite British society represents – not true humanism or intellectual secularism and certainly not Enlightened tolerance, but something like their opposite: a screechy, oftentimes weird attempt to turn one man into a catch-all demon for the secularist middle classes.

These pope-protesters threaten to drain the last drop of decency from old-fashioned humanism, turning a once-principled outlook into little more than a requirement to hate religion. Yet from Marx to Darwin, the great non-believers of old had little interest in bashing religions or demonising their leaders, believing, in Darwin’s words, that ‘freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds’. Today it is a powerful sense of lack within modern-day so-called humanist circles – a feeling of directionless and soullessness – that leads them to invent religious demons against which they might posture and pontificate. That is why they talk in such religious tones (ironically) about the Catholic Church’s ‘clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel’ – because this is about cynically cobbling together some sense of their own goodness and mission. And in the irony to end all ironies, they make use of the very religious tools that secularists once hoped to supersede with reason – intolerance, fear-stoking, demonology – as part of their self-serving campaign.

NEXT WEEK: To coincide with the pope’s visit to Britain on 16 September, spiked will be publishing a special on religion, atheism and tolerance in the twenty-first century. Don’t miss it!

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

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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