The White Atheists’ Burden: save the savages

The idea that the pope is responsible for spreading AIDS in Africa is built on some very dodgy, colonial-style prejudices.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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The idea that the pope is responsible for spreading AIDS in Africa has acquired the moral force of a chattering-class commandment. Say it in polite company and you will be greeted by vigorously nodding heads.

The pope’s criticism of condom-use ‘sabotages the fight against AIDS’, says a Guardian columnist (leading an online commenter to say: ‘the genocidal freak should be tried for crimes against humanity.’) The New Statesman reckons the Vatican has done more to spread AIDS around Africa than ‘prostitution and the trucking industry combined’. Stephen Fry, that unofficial High Representative of the chattering classes, says the pope has caused devastation in Africa by ‘spreading the lie that condoms actually increase the incidence of AIDS’.

There are two problems with this super-simplistic moral equation of ‘pope + anti-condom propaganda = death’. First, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, since AIDS is most widespread in minority-Catholic African countries, where most people are not in thrall to the men of Rome; and second, it is underpinned by some deep, dark prejudices of its own, prejudices that make the Vatican’s pronouncements seem relatively mild in comparison. The idea that a pope speaks and Africans die – or as one supposedly rationalist writer describes it: ‘the power of ideas to do great evil’ (1) – is based on a view of Africans as fundamentally incapable of judging the moral worth or factual accuracy of ideas, and as being little more than empty vessels waiting to be filled with popish bull. It ironically rehabilitates the old Christian-crusader view of Africans as needing to be saved, only disguised in anti-religion lingo.

The main argument behind the ‘pope spreads AIDS’ prejudice is that Catholics in Africa tend to be more devout than Catholics in the modernised West, and thus they’re more likely to bow down before Vatican dogma. In short, their Catholic faith kills them. As Polly Toynbee once put it, the Vatican’s edict on condoms ‘kills millions’; the ‘helpless Third World poor… die for their misplaced faith’. This overlooks one important fact: a great many of the Africans who contract HIV/AIDS are not Catholics, never mind super-devout ones who hang on every word that falls from Benedict’s condom-criticising mouth. In fact, the African countries most affected by AIDS have minority Catholic populations.

The five countries with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS are Swaziland (where 26.1 per cent of the population have the disease), Botswana (23.9 per cent infection rates), Lesotho (23.2 per cent), South Africa (18.1 per cent) and Namibia (15.3 per cent). Yet in Swaziland, 40 per cent of the population are Zionist (which has nothing to do with Judaism: it’s a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship), 30 per cent are ‘other’ (Anglican, Methodist, Mormon, Jewish), and only around 20 per cent are Roman Catholic. In Botswana, 71.6 per cent of the population are Christian, but the majority of these are Anglicans, Methodists or part of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. In South Africa, only 7.1 per cent of the population are Catholic; there is a far higher number of distinctly non-Catholic Christian believers. In Namibia, around 80 per cent of the population are Christian, but at least 50 per cent of these are Lutheran and the rest are a mix of other Christian faiths, including Catholicism. Lesotho has the highest rate of Catholics out of the five countries most affected by AIDS – but even there it’s only around 36 per cent of the population.

Are we really expected to believe that the people in these countries – where there’s a mish-mash of Protestantism, indigenism, Mormonism, Zionism, Catholicism – are slaves to Vatican edicts? That the reason many of them choose not to wear condoms during sex is simply because the pope of Rome – whom millions of them do not even recognise as a religious authority – told them not to? This is palpable nonsense. Millions of people in Spain, Italy and Ireland, countries with substantial Catholic majorities, ignore the pope’s preaching on contraception day in, day out; so do millions of American Catholics. Yet we are continually told that in African countries with Catholic minorities, the people are so religiously slavish, so unthinking, so fundamentally dim, that all it takes is for the pope to spout some nonsense about condoms being porous and – bam! – condom-use declines and AIDS spreads everywhere.

This exposes what really lies behind the ‘pope spreads AIDS’ theory: a deeply patronising, borderline colonial view of Africans. Contemporary secularists’ belief that the pope’s words, his very ideas, are capable of killing people in Africa suggests that they see Africans as simpletons, automatons, canine-like followers of orders, including orders that will ultimately destroy them. The idea that there are the pope’s cranky beliefs on one side and then death and destruction on the other suggests that there is nothing in the middle. But there is something in the middle: human beings; individuals capable of weighing up arguments, capable of rational thought, capable of making choices, even if they sometimes must make those choices in desperate or dire circumstances. It is striking that today’s so-called humanists cannot see these human beings, instead seeing unthinking self-destroyers whose heads are easily filled with dodgy Vatican propaganda.

The science writer Ben Goldacre sees a seamless link between anti-condom propaganda and death in Africa, detailing in a recent piece the number of people who have died from HIV/AIDS and then saying: ‘That’s quite a death toll, for an idea.’ (2) Other commentators indulge ‘Heart of Darkness’-style prejudices, writing about bishops dissing condoms ‘in rural African churches where illiterate villagers often had no other source of information’. These illiterates apparently believe everything they are told because ‘[Africa] is still overwhelmingly patriarchal’. The men in robes speak, the people obey. According to atheist activist Peter Tatchell, ‘Millions of people in developing countries are orphans, having lost their parents to AIDS because of the [Vatican’s] anti-condom dogma.’ There you have it – dogma kills, especially in those parts of the world where people are illiterate, unnaturally obedient to authority, possessed of a ‘misplaced faith’.

Whisper it: Africans are gullible, fickle, easily led astray by powerful men making scary speeches. When today’s shallow atheists simplistically say that dogma kills – that dogma, as if it were an active, sentient force, causes disease, devastates villages and makes orphans of children – what they are really saying is that Africans lack the wherewithal, the moral and intellectual resources, to withstand dogma. So it washes over them and it kills them. In the view of these Vatican-bashers, the dogma itself is only half the problem – the other half is the uneducated, unworldly nature of those on the receiving end of the dogma. Clearly they must be saved, but this time by scientific missionaries distributing condoms rather than Christian ones wielding Bibles.

This is an utterly empty form of ‘humanism’, for it is incapable of seeing the very human, often difficult decisions that people in Africa must make every day. It isn’t because they have been brainwashed that many Africans choose not to wear condoms. It could be because, in a continent where there are still high levels of infant mortality, they want to have as many children as possible, since children are frequently needed to work on the farm, earn money and care for older generations. Or it could be because they want to express their love for each other in the most intimate way possible, without a sheath. Or – and I know this will be hard for the Home Counties humanists to comprehend – it could be because in countries where life is short and expectations low, people have different attitudes to risk than we in the West do. There are many reasons why Africans – both Catholic and non-Catholic – might choose not to wear a condom, and they are not irrational. And, of course, there’s the very basic fact that in very poor countries with little medical infrastructure, diseases spread faster and have worse consequences than they do in the developed West, with or without papish propaganda.

As a radical humanist and atheist who had quite enough Catholic doctrine as a child, I passionately disagree with the church’s teachings on contraception and abortion; in both the developed and developing worlds, everyone should have access to these things. Yet the New Atheists have achieved the remarkable feat of promoting prejudices that are even worse than the Vatican’s, since they are based on a view of Africans as incapable of moral judgement and as irresponsible breeding machines (one anti-Vatican commentator has written of the church’s ‘sheer irresponsibility [in] rejecting population control, on a continent where each year brings another 10million mouths to feed’). Worst of all, the pope-bashers’ treatment of certain ideas and words as simply evil – as the killers of innocent people – speaks to an alarming level of intolerance, and ironically echoes the Inquisition’s similar criminalisation of thought itself as destructive and murderous.

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.

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