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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Roomse Gevaar Makes An Unwelcome Comeback

I am not a Catholic – lapsed or otherwise. I have no Catholic relatives (but quite a few Catholic friends.) I did not go to a Catholic school.

I don’t believe for a second that the Pope is God’s annointed representative on earth, and take a pretty dim view of the man presently occupying that position. I find it hard to forgive Mr Joseph Ratzinger his Nazi past, and even harder to forget the overwhelming evidence that he participated directly in the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests.

In short, I carry no brief for the Catholic Church.

I have, however, been considerably dismayed by the hysterical witch-burning tone that has crept into public criticism of the Pope’s current visit to the United Kingdom. As I understand it, this criticism is founded on a number of points:

- Many Britons do not recognise the Vatican as an independent nation-state and therefore resent, as taxpayers, having to foot the bill for his official state visit.

- The Catholic Church has been battered by a tidal wave of sexual abuse allegations in recent years, all of which have led to a great deal of anger against it as an institution.

- The Pope, and indeed the Church itself, have intransigent views on the equality of women and homosexuals, and actively discourage the use of condoms, even in societies with a rampant rate of HIV infection.

I quite understand these points of view and have a great deal of sympathy for them. What I don’t sympathise with is the reductionist attempt to wrap all the world’s evils up into one convenient package called the Catholic Church. Yes, it may be handy to have just one target to hate – to project all your loathing onto one manageable and easily identifiable Other, but you’re hardly going to address the real ills of the world that way.

A conglomeration of atheists and agnostics – headed by men like Richard Dawkins and mistakenly considering themselves to be ‘liberal’ – would go further than branding the Catholic Church as the root of all evil. It’s religion in general that’s the problem, they would argue. Most wars throughout history have been started by religious fanatics. Wipe out religion and we would all be living in a marvellously tolerant Utopia.

Does one really need to point out how naive this proposition is? Yes, Marxist historiography may have fallen out of fashion lately, but one cannot forget the lessons it taught: that most wars – actually make that ALL wars – throughout history have been about power and access to material resources. Yes, religious fanatacism may have been dragged in by the hair to whip up enthusiasm among the populace about sending their young men off to die, but when you cut to the heart of it, it has all been about controlling the means of production.

Anyone who believes that taking religion out of the equation will reduce human conflict is talking arrant bloody nonsense.

But let’s return for a moment to the argument that societies with a higher proportion of atheists and agnostics are more likely to be peaceful and tolerant. Which societies would those be? The United Kingdom, by any chance? Or would that be the United States of America? Both have entirely secular governments and a total separation of church and state. I bet the innocent citizens of Iraq felt the warm glow of tolerance as missiles starting raining down on them eight years ago in the most vile and wicked unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in modern history.

Let’s see what else these celebrated atheists and agnostics have been responsible for. Do they build clinics in the world’s most impoverished areas? Do they build orphanages and schools run by unpaid volunteers? Did they protest apartheid years before it became fashionable to do so? Do they stand shivering on street corners in Hillbrow handing out sleeping bags and blankets to the homeless in winter? Did they create a refuge for hundreds of displaced victims of xenophobia in central Johannesburg?

Did they hell.

So who were those sainted do-gooders responsible for these admirable initiatives? Why, they belonged to various religious institutions, of course – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu – with the Catholic Church frequently leading the way. While atheists and agnostics might not be good for much beyond writing snarky columns in The Guardian, it’s the religious folk who spit on their hands and get down to the real, dirty business of poverty alleviation.

Which is why it makes me madder than a wet hen to see remarks like a recent one on Twitter: “Who actually admits to being a Catholic anymore?” Who actually admits to being an intolerant bigot anymore? is what I was tempted to reply. Add to that the self-satisfied agnosticism of the chattering classes who would happily lynch the Pope from the nearest tree and abolish the Catholic Church as an institution, and I feel a very strong urge to start knocking some heads together.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://ingridandersen.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ingrid Andersen</a>
    Ingrid Andersen
    September 21st, 2010 @09:01 #
     
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    Oh, I DID enjoy this, Fi - powerful and to the point, as always. (Generalisations in this case being allowed..)

    Thank you for tackling the wide and sweeping statements you've been hearing. They deserved rebuttal, as the recent anti-Islamic ground zero statements needed rebuttal.

    I particularly liked:

    "most wars – actually make that ALL wars – throughout history have been about power and access to material resources. Yes, religious fanatacism may have been dragged in by the hair to whip up enthusiasm among the populace about sending their young men off to die, but when you cut to the heart of it, it has all been about controlling the means of production."

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 21st, 2010 @09:09 #
     
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    Thanks, Ingrid. Although now that I look at that paragraph again, it has about three mixed metaphors in it! :)

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 21st, 2010 @09:17 #
     
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    Nice one, Fiona. I deeply admire your ability to see through current ideological fads, to deconstruct them intelligently, and to remain socially progressive. What a combo.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 21st, 2010 @09:24 #
     
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    Thanks, Louis. That is very kind.

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  • <a href="http://www.jassymackenzie.com" rel="nofollow">Jassy</a>
    Jassy
    September 21st, 2010 @09:57 #
     
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    Fab, incisive, intelligent commentary. I enjoyed it.

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  • <a href="http://philyaa.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Phillippa Yaa</a>
    Phillippa Yaa
    September 21st, 2010 @11:53 #
     
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    Enviable clarity, incisive writing. Well done Fiona!

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  • <a href="http://saradias.co.za/blog/" rel="nofollow">Sara P. Dias</a>
    Sara P. Dias
    September 21st, 2010 @14:47 #
     
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    Atheist or agnostic charity groups do exist, some of them are called Secular Charities or Humanist Aid groups: http://www.humanistcharities.org/

    It is also possible that many humanists, atheists, agnostics, rationalists, secularists, sceptics and other free thinkers donate, as individuals, to national welfare bodies, like Meals on Wheels, or they volunteer help where they see the need, or become involved in human rights organisations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Humanist_and_Ethical_Union

    I would think that it is more difficult to track down and quantify the charitable activities of unbelievers because they do not necessarily work in a labelled bundle: They would be less visible than a group, unless they are very wealthy and appear on the front cover of Time magazine, like Bill Gates, or they are film stars, like Brad Pitt. Nadine Gordimer and Emma Thompson are both on the atheist/agnostic list and are both involved in various causes.

    Here is one list of secularist organizations online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_secularist_organizations

    The world union of Humanist organizations: http://www.iheu.org/contacts?sort=asc&order=Country+or+region

    It is hard to believe that not one massacre or deadly skirmish was ever started by faith-based discrimination, especially because religion is often about control, in the sense that certain religions tell their believers what to think and what to do. I think there have been more smiting going on than we know about.

    Sara P. Dias (Unbeliever, megaversalist and not a bad person at all.)

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  • <a href="http://orionspur.za.net" rel="nofollow">itwriter</a>
    itwriter
    September 21st, 2010 @15:49 #
     
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    "Yes, religious fanatacism may have been dragged in by the hair to whip up enthusiasm among the populace about sending their young men off to die, but when you cut to the heart of it, it has all been about controlling the means of production."

    Ah, faith in Marxism and faith in God. Lovely to see them yoked together here. Both demand faith in a principle rather than the objective world, don't they?

    Another correspondence between these two seemingly disparate world views: neither of them has much of a problem with overpopulation. Contraception is so bourgeois, comrade. Positively sinful, in fact.

    Come on. Religion is a crutch for the feeble minded, the easily manipulated, the escapist. The denialist. The Daddy Fetishist. You can't pray the world better. And while my Marxist faith is perhaps a little stronger than my (nonexistent) religious one, I have no doubt that the means of production will not stay unbroken for very long in the hands of the poor.

    Final point: right now, UK citizens dislike the Catholic Church because of what's been done to so many of their little sons' rectums. I mean, wouldn't you?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 21st, 2010 @17:00 #
     
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    Fifi, this Catholic is grateful for what you wrote. Am off the interwebs at present, but having just come in from a funeral at which the benefits and comfort of faith were manifest at a moment of starkest distress, I feel I should point out to itwriter that crutches enable those broken by pain and trauma to keep walking.

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  • <a href="http://orionspur.za.net" rel="nofollow">itwriter</a>
    itwriter
    September 21st, 2010 @17:12 #
     
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    Helen - real crutches do, yes.

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  • <a href="http://synapses.co.za" rel="nofollow">Jacques Rousseau</a>
    Jacques Rousseau
    September 21st, 2010 @18:57 #
     
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    A quibble regarding this, Fiona: "But let’s return for a moment to the argument that societies with a higher proportion of atheists and agnostics are more likely to be peaceful and tolerant. Which societies would those be? The United Kingdom, by any chance? Or would that be the United States of America? Both have entirely secular governments and a total separation of church and state."

    Certainly not the US, where 65% of citizens say religion forms an important part of their lives. The UK is 27%, so that's arguably a secular society. Legislated secularism doesn't add up to a secular country, though. SA is a prime example of this.

    But if we look at proportion of gross national income spent on foreign aid, entirely secular states are at the top (around 1% of GNI), with religious ones at 0.3% and below. To that, add the extra overhead costs associated with charities based on religious organisations (maintaining the storefront, money spent on proselytizing), and we may get far better bang for buck from the secular states.

    And wars are about power, certainly. But motives can be mixed, and you might be more likely to start a war if you think it's divinely sanctioned. The bodies might not weigh as heavily on your conscience.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 21st, 2010 @20:54 #
     
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    Some of the world's most memorable genocides have been perpetrated by secular regimes.

    The Holocaust was designed and implemented by a secular government. Three other secular leaders - Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot managed collectively to engineer the killing of millions of their citizens. You certainly don't have to be religious to embark on crazed social engineering projects ... all you need is to mistake your ideas for reality.

    (With thanks to Immanuel Suttner for making this point originally on Facebook.)

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    September 21st, 2010 @20:56 #
     
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    The point is not whom we can point our fingers at the most - believers or non-believers. Evil actions are pretty evenly spread throughout history and throughout the world's population. It is attempts to demonise a particular sector - in the case Catholics - that I object to in the strongest possible terms.

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