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The papal visit gave a boost to Humanism

Catholics were thrilled by Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Britain. A leading Humanist journalist tells Ed West that secularists were too

By on Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A scene from the Protest the Pope march last September (PA photo)

A scene from the Protest the Pope march last September (PA photo)

Last month two groups of people met in a church in central London to discuss gay adoption, abortion and religious schools. On one side were representatives of Catholic Voices, on the other a group from the Central London Humanist Group.

The point, says Paul Sims of New Humanist magazine, was “to experiment with the idea of Humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner”.

It was the second such event. The first took place in October, at the instigation of the Humanists, following a blog post by Sims in which he expressed concerns about the tone of the discussion during the Pope’s visit to Britain. That tone was evident during a pre-visit debate in Conway Hall, where “Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling”.

Alan Palmer, chairman of the Central London Humanist Group, then invited Sims and 23 others to a smaller debate. Catholics were represented by Austen Ivereigh, Jack Valero and Fr Christopher Jamison. Sims was happy with the courteous nature of the meeting. As he wrote at the time: “Given the way Catholics and Humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Millwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day.”

But not all atheists were happy. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, criticised Sims for speaking to a group he holds in contempt. Sanderson said Sims was “obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices”, which was “an activity surely worthy of King Canute”. Is Sanderson right? Is there any point in talking to the other side?

I met Sims last week near the Gower Street home of the magazine, which was established in 1885 (three years before The Catholic Herald). It was originally known as Watt’s Literary Guide, and its founder was Charles Watts, founder of the National Secular Society.

I asked Sims what the meeting with Catholics was like.

“It was very interesting to meet the people and get to know some people you wouldn’t meet at Humanist events,” he replied. The gathering was cordial, although “it got most heated over abortion”. Humanists don’t have to be in favour of abortion, he said, but “in gay rights and gay adoption Humanists are generally pro. I don’t think there’s an anti-gay rights branch of Humanism.”

The Catholics and Humanists found little common ground, but Sims said the tone of the debate was refreshing, especially in contrast to that during the papal visit.

“People get carried away with themselves on all sides,” he said. “In some of the newspaper columns the oppositional language being used at times didn’t reflect the reality. On the Friday when the Pope was in town I went to the pub with a few friends and they didn’t even realise the Pope was around. The idea that the country was divided into two camps was not true. As is often the case with anything to do with religion now, most people fall in the middle.”

The Church was very happy with the papal visit. Not only did most people warm to the Holy Father but his opponents often seemed shrill and intolerant. Church attendance jumped and The Catholic Herald’s website got record traffic. But perhaps it’s easier, in the echo chamber of likeminded company, to overstate the popularity of one’s own views; talking to Sims I realised that the other side saw it the same way.

“Both sides claimed they had a PR victory and isn’t that always the case?” Sims asked. “The Catholic Church was in the public eye for four days and there was lots of positive PR, but the Protest the Pope side were on the news, and Humanism and secularism was in the public eye as well. We had lots of new subscriptions and record web traffic during September, and the British Humanist Association had a nice spike in membership. It pushed people into camps. Who won the PR battle? It was a draw. It had benefits for both sides.”

So what about the argument, put forward by journalist Brendan O’Neill, that the anti-papal protests were a perversion of John Stuart Mill’s Humanism? Sims said he disagreed.

“There was the odd sign that said: ‘F— the Pope’. But as a rule it was mostly jolly and tongue in cheek. Brendan said the march was about closing down discussion but they weren’t calling for the Pope to be kicked out of the country. They just said they didn’t agree with a state visit and they were going to voice their opposition. But I don’t think if you say the Pope is ‘an enemy of the state’ or ‘an enemy of humanity’ there’s anything to be gained by saying that. It’s just going to annoy Catholics who look up to the Pope.”

New Atheism arose in a fury following the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. But its real spark was 9/11 and I’ve often thought it was a displaced fear of Islam. Sims didn’t agree with me. He said it had more to do with gay rights.
“Humanism has not used religion as a proxy for Islam. A lot of the opposition to the Catholic Church was specifically over Vatican-related things. I wouldn’t say Protest the Pope was using the Vatican to protest Islam.”

I asked him if he thought Dawkins was sometimes a liability to his cause.
“No,” he said. “He’s done more than anyone. Atheism has become a thing widely debated.”

The last thing I wanted Sims to tell me was, why are New Atheists so angry?

“Obviously I can only speculate,” he said. “But I think part of it is it’s an area driven by polemical books, by people like Christopher Hitchens. You feed that into the internet, which is quite aggressive. But it’s also that Richard Dawkins played a really important role in allowing people in the southern states who have been allowed to come out as atheists. They are people who feel they can’t say things within their real-life community so they go on the internet at two in the morning.”

Sims is anything but angry and I agree that the argument needs to be toned down.
“One of the comments during the papal visit was by a Labour Catholic who used the phrase ‘secular jihadists’,” he said. “That to me is just an utterly ridiculous phrase. I don’t think voicing an opinion strongly is a dangerous thing.”

  • Dan

    Charles Watts was not “founder of the National Secular Society”, though he was originally one of the leading figures in it and served as Secretary and Vice-President.

  • P.M. Gleason

    There is a lot of vitriol on both sides, but I do appreciate the gesture that the herald has done with this interview.
    I would say (as an atheist) that most of the vitriol comes from the same type of propaganda that you will find in politics all over the world. Left versus the right, and the extremity that will surely follow.
    I’ve always believed in a more moderate tone, a more civil attitude (although I am certainly not perfect and have slipped at times when instigated).

    However, when I read things like this:
    http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/02/25/why-barack-obama-has-to-be-seen-as-an-enemy-of-the-catholic-church/

    It is like someone is begging me to get angry at them. Propaganda, production of fear, hate-mongering, these are not conducive to a civil dialogue. And yes, it happens on both sides.

  • Eric Conway

    British atheists should realise that a fundamentalist bigot like Dawkins ( he makes Ian Paisly seem positively rational & coherent ) is only harming their cause. Two of Pope Benedicts biggests supporters & friends are atheists – the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas ; & the Italian Senator, Marcello Pera. Pope Benedict is open to all sorts of dialogue, while like me, recognising the intellectual superiority of Catholicism. Western society has been intellectually infantilised over the last 40/50 years. As Catholics one of our main aims is to re-intellectualise Western society. One gets the distinct impression, that Dawkins pseudo-scientific bluster, is really just a front for good old fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry. The oldest bigotry of them all !.

  • http://twitter.com/gpjelliss George Jelliss

    I don’t agree that “new atheism” began with “9/11″ or was to do with gay rights. For me, and I’m sure for Richard Dawkins, it began with the Noah’s Ark Creationists trying to muscle in on science education. There’s a lot of new atheism in Dawkins’ books on evolution, well before he wrote The God Delusion.

  • http://twitter.com/gpjelliss George Jelliss

    There were two Charles Watts, father and son. The older (1836 – 1906) founded “Watts & Co” printers in 1864, and was involved with Bradlaugh in the founding of the NSS. The younger, Charles Albert Watts (1858-1946), a somewhat unsung hero of rationalism, started Watts’ Literary Review in 1885, and helped to found the Rationalist Press Association 1899, and as well as the Thinkers Library series.

  • Anonymous

    I would just like to mention that as far as I know, atheist is used to define lack of belief in God, secularism is a state without Church intervention, OR state intervention in the Church and humanism is what some atheists choose to describe themselves as. I don’t believe the term ‘secularist’ is used inside these communities themselves, as it is not a philosophy to live by – rather a political principle.

  • Anonymous

    It has been the thinking amongst atheists that religion was set to die out over time, and therefore would not need to be directly challenged.

    However, with the growth of radical Christian groups (in America), believing in literal 7 day creation and a 6000 year-old earth despite all scientific consensus – and wanting to teach such delusions in state schools trumping, or being taught alongside evolution. Dawkins, probably the most infamous of the new atheists is a scientist, an evolutionary biologist, and you can perhaps see why he struck out in the way he has.

  • Anonymous

    The Herald should stop slagging off Obama. He takes a pro-choice position, yes. But in voting for President you should look further than this. I am a student of politics and I can tell you that the Republican Party is as far right as you can imagine.

    Criticise Democrats on specific issues if you want, but if you run articles such as the one above, and the other one you did explicitly supporting Republican House leader John Boehner you are a not a Christians in my eyes.

    How exactly can the Republican’s (Obama’s opposition) be considered pro-life if they support the death penalty, do not universal healthcare, do not support social security, block any form of gun regulation and their record shows they are much more likely to support military conflict over peace talks?

    To show you the extent of their madness and immorality, look at the recently signed START treaty with Russia to reduce Nuclear weapons of both countries, it was hailed as progress by the media, the vatican and anyone with a sane brain. The Republicans on the other hand believe that MORE nuclear weapons, with OVER 75% of them in the upper house voting against the measure.

  • John

    Excellent commentary, Eric. Indeed, we live in childish, nihilistic times… for now.

  • Eric Conway

    Dawkins is a clown. His philosophy is ultimately self defeating. The Catholic Church has over 1 billion members & continues to grow ; as does Islam. Atheism on the other hand ( largely because of it’s adherence to such unscientific mumbo-jumbo as abortion & same sex marriage ) is inevitably doomed to die out. In Darwinian terms its called the survival of the fittest !.

  • Anonymous

    Truth is not a numbers game. Dawkins does not sell a philosophy, what he sells is the search for scientific truth. His ideas are not compromised by the increase or decrease of religion. Ideas are not proven by popularity.

    Galileo’s theory was ridiculed until his death, he did not have the people on his side, he did however, posses the truth on how our solar system operates.

    Islam is a religion currently growing at a faster rate than Christianity – does this make it any more true to you? The Catholic Church is shrinking in the United Kingdom, does this make it any less true to you?

    I would also point out that religion is growing in poorer, less-democratic and less well educated part s of the world and that agnosticism and atheism is growing in Europe and the Western world.
    I am a left-wing Catholic, and I find that the majority of Christians I speak to find no conflict between Christianity and evolution.

    Historically in Britain evolution has been excepted as the scientific truth for over a 100 years by the majority of Christians and non-Christians alike. I would also point out that it is the position of the Vatican that evolution and the Bible are not contradictory.
    I can only guess you didn’t know this or that you are a different denomination.

    Stop deluding yourself, dude. Evolution is proven. The educated world agrees. As do the majority of Christians. The Vatican does not disagree. You can’t stem the flow on this one…

  • Eric Conway

    Ah good, I’ve flushed out the left-wing racist bigot ( ” religion is growing in less well educated parts of the world ” ). One can almost feel the sense of racial superiority in accord with the vile eugenics of Darwins cousin, Francis Galton. At one stage the Brit’s were less well educated too, until the Catholic Church invented universities & civilised them. Similarly many of the less well educated in the 3rd world are now receiving education in Catholic Universities : & no doubt will soon be up to your standards. So they will be both more educated & more numerous than the educated atheists & left-wing catholics of the west – like you. While the ” intellectuals without intellect ” of the west support such mumbo-jumbo as same sex marriage & abortion ( a form of societal death wish ), the 3rd world grows more numerous & educated – a classic example of the survival of the fittest – Darwin would approve. In any event, left-wing Catholicism & atheism are ok for pimpled adolescents, leave Catholicisn to the grown ups. Catholicism & rational science are perfectly compatible, we invented it ; see ” How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilisation ” , by Prof. Thomas Woods. Your welcome to Dawkins mumbo-jumbo. Oh & grow up dude !.