Papal visit: Linking the godless to a lack of values is wrong, say critics
Humanists, Christians, Jews and Muslims speak out for the ‘common good’ after pope’s speech to Queen at Holyrood
17th September 2010
Pope Benedict warned of the ‘sobering lessons of atheist extremism’ in a speech today. Photograph: Getty Images
The pope is wrong, and unhelpful, to speak of “atheist extremism” in contemporary Britain, according to Christian, Muslim, Jewish and humanist voices.
Paul Handley, managing editor of the Church Times, termed the pope’s remarks “a decent bit of knockabout” but wrong, while Suleman Nagdi of the Federation of Muslim Organisations said the comment risked causing feelings of victimhood.
In his address to the Queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse the pope praised Britain’s rich Christian history but warned of “the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century”, and urged “respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate”.
Handley said: “There’s a certain poetic justice when the pope equates atheism with extremism. It’s what Christians are used to all the time. But Stephen Fry isn’t a Nazi, just as the congregation at Bellahouston Park [in Glasgow] haven’t been burning copies of the Qur’an while waiting for the pope to appear.
“It’s a decent bit of knockabout, but it overlooks the concept of ‘common good’ which the Catholic church in the UK has quietly been pursuing in recent years – and the C of E has always majored on – Christians and non-Christians working together in mutual respect.”
Nagdi said: “I think that what he said is too strong; there is a risk of encouraging a feeling of victimhood.” He hoped the pope would turn, in later speeches, to “the values of honesty, decency and compassion for one another”, which represented “a truer picture of British society”.
He added: “I think, for a leader of the Catholic faith who can influence the thinking of millions of people across the world, there is perhaps a responsibility to be very measured in what he says.
“There are certainly many issues being discussed on both sides, but there are also many issues of common concern, and it seems to me the important thing is to built on that, to build the links between people of different faiths and of none. On both sides, among people of faith and of none, there are people feeling they are being left out of the debate.”
David Gifford, chief executive of the Council for Christians and Jews, said: “I don’t personally see Britain as a place of extremist atheism – I do find a robust secularism, but to call it extreme is a bit strong. I think he may have been referring to the views of Stephen Hawking, and Richard Dawkins before him. But it is healthy to challenge Christian beliefs, people have been challenging Christian beliefs for 2,000 years.”
Giles Fraser, canon chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, and a regular broadcaster and columnist, said: “I don’t think it’s true, and I don’t really think it’s very helpful. The media often represents it as a battleground, but, with a few high-profile exceptions, I don’t think it is a boo-hurrah exchange of shrill views between strident atheists and strident believers. Most people arrive at the great truths of life by quietly thinking about things.”
He added: “Mind you, I don’t want to give the impression that everyone is sitting in the pub exchanging opinions on Aquinas. Indifference must be the strongest thing, I think.”
Allan Hayes, president of the Leicester Secular Society, and the first humanist chaplain to the city’s lord mayor, said: “I don’t think there is extremism, there is a discussion about how we can live together. In a city like Leicester the issue of faith practices and faith schools is a very important one, but it must be dealt with through the democratic process, and I believe it can be.”
His own humanist society, he pointed out, had traditionally campaigned for freedom for people of all faiths as well as for those of none.
But though he disagreed with the pope’s statement, he felt it could spark useful debate: “It makes people think, as any extreme statement will do.”
Nagdi, who also works with different faith groups, has spoken in many churches in Leicester, the city that is also the base for the Federation of Muslim Organisations. This weekend he is leading a group of priests and imams, to join in a multi-faith football match in Gothenburg. He has just completed a practical guide on dealing with death and bereavement, which includes the practices of seven religions and of humanists representing those with no faith. “That has to be the way forward, to build on practical links,” he said.