A couple of days ago I managed to collapse as a result of panic and exhaustion, and was discharged from hospital under strict instructions to rest. I tell you this not to court sympathy, but rather to explain why I have spent the past couple of days doing pretty mindless things on the internet rather than undertaking the research which you, the increasingly burdened taxpayer, pay me to do. One of the less mindless things I came across was Jeremy Hardy’s speech to the nation on faith (if you’re quick, you’ll be able to catch this here.) If demonstration were needed that atheists can be subtle in their approach to religion, sympathethic to some of the values us God-botherers hold dear, and unimpressed with the provisional wing of atheism a la Dawkins, Hardy provides it. And is very funny at the same time.
This contrasts markedly with another Thing On The Internet I encountered, namely the reaction of swathes of my liberal left* social networking acquaintances to yesterday’s news that the Vatican was to consider extra-canonical ordinations of women a ‘grave crime’. Now, I have no desire to defend this decision, although it is worth pointing out that it is not supposed to represent an assessment of the relative moral gravity of these ordinations – the media have tended to present the announcement as being to the effect that ordaining women is ‘as bad as’ child abuse. What I do have a desire to do is comment on how weird the response from those I know from the Dawkins-Hitchens tendency was. Immediately Facebook statuses and tweets denounced the Vatican in the most vehement terms. This is weird for at least two reasons. First, the angry brigade seemed to think that it was an injustice not to ordain women. It quite possibly is, but then I can say that because I actually believe that it is good that people be ordained; and that ordination confers an objective character on its recipients, and isn’t simply a ritual gone through by deluded clerics playing dressing up. For people who usually think that the very existence of organised religious ministry is a great evil, whose purpose is to deceive and control, it seems odd to think that there is any injustice involved in barring some section of the human race from engaging in that ministry. It is rather as though someone vouchsafed the opinion that the real problem with the Taliban is their lack of a decent equal opportunities policy. The second weirdness is apparent when you look at the news from yesterday. To refresh your memories: yesterday the coalition government announced one of the most wide-ranging alterations in higher education funding for decades (imposing a graduate tax, and making not very veiled threats to the humanities), oil continued to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, there was ongoing carnage in the middle east, and – a development which raises all sorts of interesting questions – Derry was declared (UK) capital of culture. Amidst all of this, what did most of the self-proclaimed left think it a priority to comment on, in the most fervent terms? Answer: the news that the Vatican is not keen on the ordination of women. In other news, bears, woods…
Part of what is going on here is good old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice. If you want to see another example of this, look at the protests over the forthcoming papal visit. In both cases, the prejudice – which is deeply ingrained in British culture for complicated historical reasons – is accentuated by an utterly distorted view of the social and political importance of religious institutions and beliefs in the contemporary world. This is a characteristic of the new atheism: days after 9/11, Richard Dawkins told us that it was ‘religion’ which had caused carnage in New York, a view which removes middle eastern politics, the struggle for oil resources, and the personal responsibility of the killers from the picture in one fell swoop. Likewise, whilst I have no time for the Church’s possession of state trappings, the response to the papal visit issues in part from a misrepresentation of social reality. In the past decade, I have protested against a Saudi state visit to Britain and against George W. Bush whilst he was in London. In neither case were any of those prominent in the anti-papal visit movement present, with the honourable exception of Peter Tatchell. Surely, even by the most belligerently no-popery reckoning, both regimes have been responsible for more recent human suffering than the papacy. Why was the response from those whose supposed passion for justice makes them so angry at the appearance on British shores of an ageing German bishop so muted? In part, it is the legacy of prejudice. In part, however, it is that blaming religion for the world’s evils is an easy answer, and once which doesn’t involve any challenge to those who are actually in positions of economic and political power. In particular, the very middle class constituency which is the backbone of militant secularist atheism is absolved from any responsibility for the state of the world. In the best Marxist terms, Dawkinsim is ideological: a distorted picture of reality, arising from definite social circumstances, and serving to perpetuate a particular form of society. The opium of the bourgeoisie.
*For readers unfamiliar with my political views, the modification of ‘left’ with ‘liberal’ does not, to my mind, signify an improvement.