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I disagree with George Weigel – you don’t kick an atheist while he’s down

If our bishops put the boot in to the New Atheists now, wouldn’t that rebound on us?

By on Wednesday, 6 October 2010

George Weigel says the secularists are in danger of becoming a Paisley 2.0. Above, the Rev Ian Paisley protests against the Pope's visit in Edinburgh (PA)

George Weigel says the secularists are in danger of becoming a Paisley 2.0. Above, the Rev Ian Paisley protests against the Pope's visit in Edinburgh (PA)

“Benedict XVI’s success in the UK,” writes George Weigel, “challenges the often supine British hierarchy to be as humanly compelling and intellectually forceful as the Pope. If the bishops of the UK gather their nerve, they may eventually recognise that the New Atheists are in danger of becoming Paisley 2.0: people so perfervid, so over-the-top in their antipathies as to be dismissed as fundamentally unserious. The virulence of the New Atheists’ pre-papal visit commentary suggests they may fear this fate for themselves. In which case, to use another local phrase, it’s time to put in the boot.”

I would like to know what my readers think about this. My own instincts often tend towards putting in the boot: for instance, what are we to make of Bishop Kieran Conry, who, when an interviewer asked him about the ordination of women (on which the Catholic view has been clear for centuries), and whether the Pope should “change his mind”, replied with that (he thinks) winning twinkle: “Well, according to Pope John Paul II, this was a definitive statement, wasn’t it, so… [laughs] I couldn’t possibly comment.”

This is not the first time that Bishop Conry has inspired in me a certain twitchiness around the boot area: but of course, what George Weigel is saying is not that what he calls Britain’s “often supine British hierarchy” (which strictly speaking, of course, doesn’t exist: there are at least two “British” hierarchies) should have the boot put into it – and one would have to say anyway that the Conryite tendency is not universal among our bishops – but that they, the bishops, should be putting the boot into the New Atheists.

Well, there are two reasons why they won’t and probably shouldn’t try. The first is that they are probably too frightened of them, even now, to do anything of the sort. Archbishop Peter Smith even went to plead with them beforehand not to be too nasty, thus handing them a propaganda triumph. It was unnecessary anyway; it was the Pope who sorted them out, simply by the loving kindness of his gentle but powerful personality, by a charisma which attracted crowds so large that their own puny demo was simply swept away. He made only one reference to the “aggressive atheism” which had by then already discredited itself, and the agressive atheists were utterly routed; job done.

That brings me to the real reason why the bishops shouldn’t put the boot in. The Pope’s secret weapon, as I also wrote just after the visit, was British fair-mindedness: if we put the boot in now against the “protest the Pope” mob, who are still prostrate and licking their wounds, that would rebound on us: you don’t kick a man when he is down. Just ignore them is my instinct. They are harmless now: their own sheer futility has finished them off.

  • Ratbag

    Yes – William! Ignore these poor, misguided people when they start mouthing off. The militant atheists will come back but with a fraction of the 'fire' (or should that be 'pfft'?) they once had.

    When Ian Paisley mouthed off to Pope John Paul II in Liverpool in 1982 (JP2's response was to look him in the eye and bless him – good move!), there was little about Mr Paisley for a long time after that. He was effectively drowned out in Scotland by the crowds who cheered Pope Benedict XVI.

    We are smiling with joy, our heads held high. The Holy Father showed us an example – love, dignity and confidence in ourselves.

    Steel toe caps, sharp knees and smugness is not an option. It never was and never will be.

  • GFFM

    I completely and unequivocally agree with George Weigel. (And by the way “both” British hierarchies are supine). I am skeptical about either of them leaving the supine position. Who says the New Atheists are “down?” What Weigel is calling for is some muscular and out spoken defense of freedom of conscience, religious toleration, and religious freedom in the UK. It really is not that difficult, if one has an ounce of courage, to defend the these freedoms and to defend the transformative power of Christianity and its view of the person in the public sphere. This is what he means by the boot. Nichols et al should take a pages out of the book of Archbishop Chaput who has written convincingly and movingly on these issues. Chaput truly uses the Pope's example when speaking in the US and throughout the world.

  • Keane

    I would disagree with your fundamental assumption that atheists are “down”. Was it the Pope that came out swinging against atheists by mis-representing the relationship between the catholic church and Nazism? If anything, it warmed my heart to see that the same revisionist history and distortion of atheist moral values are still held so dear by the Catholic church.

  • Capirote

    Aside from anything else, the hierarchy of England and Wales, and indeed, English Catholicism full stop, lacks both the intellectual muscle and the will to 'put the boot in'. We'd make fools of ourselves if we tried, and have the bonus of throwing ourselves into the gutter right alongside those who use less gentlemanly tactics.

    You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, after all.

  • Philip

    Our own Bishops should behave exactly as the Pope – with charity and patience explaining the Catholic case in a scholarly and comprehensible manner. It is not so much putting the boot in as steadily pouring water into the foundations of the arguments that oppose us. Both the intellectual integrity of the Catholic case and the obvious charity with which it is delivered will be what draws people away from the vitriol of our opponents. The problem is that I don't know whether our Bishops are able to do that (with a couple of notable exceptions). I am not sure that the intellectual rigour is there to enable most of our Bishops to explain the Catholic case in a way that is comprehensible to the layperson – this is why the default position is to compromise their views under difficult questioning.

  • Mndrwdn8

    Um, didn't Our Lord say something about not kicking anyone, ever, whether up or down? Surely that is the source of the Holy Father's success when he came to our country – that he bases himself on Christ, and leads by example. Perhaps the Catholic Press/Blogosphere should simply follow the man we purport to admire so much…

  • Duncan

    I think there are ways of dealing with the New Atheists. I think aggressively putting the boot in is not one of them, regardless of whether they are down or not. As you point out, William, the Pope demolished them through his characteristic gentleness, charisma and moral authority. However, the assault of secularism is far from over, the dictatorship of relativism remains and may well grow. This needs to be resisted in an effective, intelligently reasoned,fearless and non-agrressive manner. The hierarchy as well as ordinary Catholics need to speak up and defend freedom of conscience as well as the veracity of theri religion.

  • lowbackpain

    What strikes me the most about the New Atheists is pray, pray, pray. Offer Masses and Novenas for them. Only the Holy Spirit can truly touch their hearts plus the anti Catholics. Their hearts are often quite hardened so sacrifices too may be called for! Then when they are 'stood up to' they will listen. We need to pray for an increase in the gift of courage for all Catholics to stand up for the Truth!