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.
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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?
April 17, 2010