I had dinner last night with an enthusiastic returnee from World Youth Day, which has received ample coverage from many media outlets, with a few all too predictable exceptions. I asked whether he had seen any of the anti-Pope protesters, and he said he had not – which is hardly suprising, given that the people at World Youth Day outnumbered the protesters by about a thousand to one.
And what were they protesting about? It seems the cost. But, as this article from the New York Times shows, WYD will actually benefit the Spanish economy. Besides which, since when did protesters actually protest anywhere about government spending? Forgive me if I doubt their sincerity.
It seems we must get used to the idea that wherever the Holy Father goes the usual suspects will round themselves up and stage a protest, indulging their love for synthetic rage. First London, now Madrid…
But just think about it for a minute. These people do not like the Pope and they do not agree with his teachings. Well, I feel no real empathy with Buddhism, and I strongly disagree with Buddhist teaching on reincarnation. So, whenever the Dalai Lama rolls into town, should I organise a protest? Of course not! And why not? Because I believe in freedom of conscience, and I fully respect the absolute right of the Dalai Lama to believe what he chooses and to teach what he believes. End of. And I also believe that people who want to hang out with the Dalai Lama have an absolute right to do so, part of their basic human right to freedom of association.
It is this freedom of association, and the freedom of expression that goes with it, that contemporary secularists simply do not “get”. Dr Evan Harris’s secular manifesto makes no mention of these rights, but seemingly sees religion as something relegated to the private sphere alone, as it was in the Soviet Union: “None of it [the manifesto] engages with what families get up to in their home, or religious leaders within their own families.” And yet, ironically, freedom of association and freedom of expression are secular values.
And herein lies the problem: our modern secularists are not really secular enough; they are simply people who dislike religion and want it out of the way. A true secularist would welcome the Pope to Madrid, acknowledging his right and the right of his fellow Catholics to do as they please in conscience and within the bounds of the law, a right they share with everyone else.
If none of this cuts any ice, perhaps I could introduce another idea. Protesting about the Pope coming to your city (if indeed these protesters were Madrileños) is simply rude, a case of appalling bad manners. It is against all the rules of hospitality. Last year we had the King of Saudi Arabia here in London as a guest of the Queen. I can’t honestly say I warm to King Abdullah, or that I approve of his government and its policies, but if I had met him I would have been polite, greeted him as protocol demands, and wished him well. That is what civility demands. Civility: another great secular value. The expressions of infantile rage that we saw when the Pope came here were in fact very damaging to the so-called secular movement, and revealed the forces of anti-religion for what they were. We need to reclaim the word “secular” for proper use, and we need to stop using it to mask the ugly face of anti-religious prejudice.