During the Pope's visit, amid some low key hysteria about Muslims plotting to kill his wholly holy holiness, there was some excitement among liberals and a few left-wingers, who took the opportunity to protest himself. The usual oblocutors of faith were there, among them Richard Dawkins and Johann Hari. We heard much of pontiffs and pederasts, papists and paedophiles, nuncios and nonces, as the Church's opponents outlined what they charge is a criminal conspiracy by leading figures up to and including Ratzinger himself to cover up the widespread beating and rape of children by appointed patriarchs in Catholic churches. In doing so, they allege, Ratzinger helped perpetuate the torture, when he ought to have stamped it out with the assistance of the police.
First of all, I must lay out my on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand/stating the patently obvious position. From what little I have read and seen on this subject, I suspect that on this issue the 'new atheists' are correct, and that Ratzinger is indeed every bit as indictable as they say he is - just as in general they are correct to charge religion, and not merely its institutions, with promoting patriarchy, oppression and ignorance. On the other hand, that is not all that religion does. I myself have religious friends and comrades who make far better allies of Enlightenment, and of the oppressed and exploited, than a great many of those who claim to be atheists. Religion is not only far from being the major force promoting oppression in this world - for some, it is an inspiration and an alibi in the struggle against it. The diversity of interpretations of religious doctrine, especially on social and political matters, simply does not support any narrow, literalist reading off of prescriptions from texts. I note, with some satisfaction, that for all the theological ignorance of Dawkins et al (an ignorance which, I hasten to add, I share), they are at one with the fundamentalists on the stable meaning of religion and its texts.
Further, I don't accept the explanations of child rape within the Catholic church which attribute it to Catholic practises producing sexual repression - as if were priests allowed to marry, they would not be tempted to abuse boys from the laity. Sexual repression is regrettable in itself, but I doubt that it produces predatory child rapists. The rape of children typically takes place in institutions and situations where adults have too much unaccountable power over children - in children's homes, and in families, for example. The principle of patriarchy does not begin and end in church, and it does not operate in isolation from institutions of the body politic which demean, control, vilify and commodify children, the better to socialise them for a world in which they are commodities, the better to make them governable. If the Catholic church hierarchy is implicated in this scandal, this does not necessarily support the wider arguments of the 'new atheists' on religion, least of all their reductionist account of religion as a sole and sufficient cause of so many more ills than it can plausibly have produced, which we will come back to. Even so, on the face of it, it is quite sensible to protest against a pope with such a record.
That said, some left-wingers looked askance at the weekend's protest, and at the smug bourgeois secularists around 'Ditchkins'. For although the spectacle over the weekend was one of secular protest against theocratic patriarchy, the issue is saturated with meanings that extend well beyond this. This is, after all, a country with an established Anglican church. There is still a dominative Anglo-Saxon culture at work, whose supremacist posture was quite explicit not so very long ago. It is a country which still has an imperial relationship of sorts to Catholics in the north of Ireland, and where there is still a toxic residue of anti-Catholic bigotry - more than a residue in Scotland and Ulster. While I myself was never one of the 'Billy Boys', I was exposed to enough of this bigotry to know it when I see it. I also know imperial condescension when I see it - when I first came to England and found that people here believed that Northern Ireland was torn apart for thirty years or so because of religious sectarianism, because Prods didn't get on with Tims, I was shocked. And I was offended, as I still am when I think of it. When Dawkins et al repeat this ridiculous canard and apply the same logic, mutatis mutandis, to the explanation of the Israel-Palestine conflict (or worse, to the 'civil war' in Iraq), I know all too well that this isn't really about atheism, or secularism. It is about representing those who do not partake of the relative wealth and stability of the Anglophone imperial core as tribal-minded, bloodthirsty, backward idiots. We do not have conflicts based on rational interests, each making a claim to universalism, in which imperialist powers have weighed in on one side. We have petty, parochial struggles over atavistic ideas which are childish premonitions of modern, scientific truth claims, and where imperial power is invisible. Indeed, as Eagleton suggests, part of the whole basis of Dawkinsian befuddlement and outrage over religion is the feeling that things couldn't be so bad as to require a spiritual, much less messianic, solution. Class privilege benights its beneficiaries in this respect.
So, when secularists protest against the Pope, and not against the established church which has far more political clout in the United Kingdom than does the papacy, I can well understand why some Catholics would feel that their faith, their Church, was being singled out. I do not think that most of those protesting against the pope were motivated by bigotry - far from it. Rather, the spectacle was a knowingly vacuous performance, a simulacrum of a political-cum-journalistic campaign whose apparently determinate goals are really empty gestures. There were calls for the pope to be 'arrested', for example. Fair enough. There is prima facie evidence that the man with a crook may be a crook, and it's an amusing idea. But presumably such a campaign should have more immediate, more tangible, more attainable goals. Did it? Not so far as I can see. Did the protest mobilise significant social forces, outwith bourgeois liberals? Did it perhaps tie into the intra-Catholic campaigns for justice for the victims of rape, or indeed any other significant campaign? Did it add anything to the fightback against a resurgent patriarchy? I don't think so. It was pure street theatre, and at that more 'Theatre of the Absurd' than 'Theatre of the Oppressed'. It confirmed that those who had turned out were part of an embattled minority defending science, enlightenment and liberal values. Rather than offering a model of humanism that could transcend the divisions and sectarianism that bourgeois liberals accuse religion of producing, it made a spectacle of difference, in particular of their own alienation from, and condescension toward, the religious.
Significantly, or perhaps predictably depending on your viewpoint, the leading 'new atheists', notably Dawkins and Sam Harris, are purveyors of a reactionary, reductionist biologism that naturalises an extremely savage neoliberal order, featuring the gene as a utility maximiser. That is their 'materialism', which they range against the claims of religion. (Hitchens merely duplicates this reductionism in his own bestselling addition to the God non-debate). The claims of evolutionary psychology have long fuelled reaction over gender, race and class, and have evidently provided a far more compelling narrative of the inevitability of patriarchy, inequality and bigotry than religious texts. The latter may have a peculiar importance in the United States, from 19th Century pro-slavery arguments through Jim Crow and beyond, but the seminal texts justifying and re-coding inequality and oppression today adopt the forms of reductionist evolutionary psychology. Thus, some of those assailing religion have themselves played a key role in naturalising patriarchy and white supremacy, even though they always insisted that this was not their intention. Dawkins would argue that "genetic kinship" and reciprocation offer an explanation of, and evolutionary basis for, solidarity, equality and altruism amid the cruel, harsh and competitive world that his version of Darwinism evokes. But this is neither orthodox Darwinism, nor is it adequate. It does not explain the range of sacrifices that some people are prepared to make for others. The theory of gene kinship entails, as per Haldane's quip, that one will sacrifice oneself for other people who are genetically close to oneself. That would lead us logically to insularity rather than universalism. Indeed, for Dawkins' case to work, he has to suggest that we can subvert our 'selfish', competitive, vicious biological basis through a metaphysically strong 'free will', which is ultimately every bit as idealist as any statement made from the Vatican.
Dawkins' own free will still seems to be constrained by his selfish, competitive genes, however. To the imperial chauvinism mentioned above, we could add his intolerance of cultural difference - he has said, for example, that he experiences a visceral revulsion at the sight of a woman in a burqa, a sensation which is probably similar to that which I feel on witnessing an upper middle class white Oxonian telling Muslim women that what they're wearing disgusts him. In relation to the Pope's visit, he described his Romanness as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. What, I wonder, might come first? Buddhism? Judaism? Hinduism? Jainism? Zoroastrianism? No? Ah, right - so it'll be Islam again. One form of religious intolerance informs another prejudice, one which is bound up with race-making processes across the 'white' world. Such a ranking of religions according to alleged harm is not really to do with atheism. Far from having an emancipatory, enlightened content, it precisely reinforces a hierarchical ordering of human societies and cultures at the apex of which invariably sits largely bourgeois, largely white, and largely male liberals of no faith, other than in the sanctity of the Holy Profit. For these and other reasons, the 'new atheism' is mainly a reactionary current, and I would hesitate to join those leftists and feminists who are tempted to applaud protests in its name.