In other news, the Pope is Catholic

The National Secular Society is a campaigning atheist organisation. Its members believe that religion is a force for wickedness in this world. For some reason these simple and one would have thought perfectly obvious statements produce paroxysms of indignation in some people.

Firstly you get the defenders who say that atheism is not secularism. This is true, but in the case of the NSS irrelevant. Both words have numerous shades of meaning, but they can certainly overlap, and the NSS is situated precisely where they do: to quote Terry Sanderson, “We are a society of atheists fighting for secularism”.

From its website you can download some histories of the society, including Godless and Glad of it, Fifty years of militant secular humanism by David Tribe, who was president of the NSS between 1963 and 1971. Through their Amazon associates link, they sell anti-theism: “The God Delusion”. “God is not great”, “God, the failed hypothesis”, and “God hates you. Hate him back”. They sell badges proclaiming the bearer is an atheist, and so on. I’m sorry to belabour the point, but the core membership of the NSS is hostile to religion. It is not neutral.

I don’t think anyone has disputed that the NSS is a campaigning organisation. It is currently running campaigns against religious education: Sanderson wrote in, as it happens, the Guardian, that he wants “to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”

It campaigns against NHS funding for hospital chaplains; against prayers in council meetings; against religious influence in government; against religious involvement in the school system … the list goes on. These causes are all atheist as well as secularist. (I know the Accord coalition wants faith schools open to everyone and has religious members as well as the NSS. But NSS policy goes further: “One of the National Secular Society’s primary aims is the secularisation of Britain’s education system. We want all state-funded schools returned to community control”).

The question is not whether these causes are good or bad. You can make rational arguments on both sides of all of them. But the arguments the NSS makes are all atheist ones. Again, that’s not a criticism. It’s a fact.

Terry Sanderson, as head of the organisation, leads from the front. He was, for example, an enthusiastic convert to the idea that liberal believers are every bit as dangerous as fanatics.

“The liberals pave the way, open the doors and give succour to the very people they say bring their faith into disrepute. But it’s no good the liberals trying to dissociate themselves from their wilder compatriots in faith … The poor, bleating liberals [have] spent a lifetime reinforcing in their heads the childhood brainwashing that they will never overcome … the delusions of the liberals are not qualitatively different from those entertained by the Pat Robertsons or Abu Hamzas of this world.”

I’m not arguing (here) that this is silly and unpleasant. My point is that it is unquestionably militant atheism, “godless and glad of it”, to coin a phrase. Writing about the future of religion, he concluded:

“The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, said: “No man sees a religion die”. That may be so, but religions do eventually die. History is littered with their corpses. Until now they have always been replaced. But one day the human race’s growing indifference to the gods will prove more lethal than any anti-clericalist dagger. Religion will die.

I am sorry I won’t be around to see it.”

That is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint for which there is – obviously – space on cif belief. In fact I commissioned that article. But you couldn’t call it neutral towards religion.

What seems to have roused particular anger is my suggestion that he thinks catholicism is a wicked religion and its followers consequently dangerous. Why would anyone think that? Well, perhaps because they had read what Sanderson wrote, on the NSS web site, in November last year:

“The Catholic Church in Britain is dying on its feet. And rightly so. The Church of England is already on life support, but it continues to twitch. Both institutions provide a playground for some of the most gruesome and horrible people you could ever wish to meet (particularly if you are a child).

… The Catholic priesthood claims to disown its own erotic nature in order to remain “pure” – and yet endless court cases show many of the “fathers” to have been wallowing in a pit of unimaginable sexual depravity.

…Politicians and diplomats bow down to these monsters and let them get away with murder (quite literally sometimes). Whatever corruption the Vatican is involved in (and it has been involved in every conceivable immorality in its time) no-one in high secular authority (the UN, for instance) dare point the finger and ask for an explanation.

Through forming alliances with some of the worst dictators and tyrants the world has ever seen, the Vatican has managed to gain for itself a small patch of land where no international law can intrude, where no inspections take place, where no questions have to be answered. And from that protected base it stretches its poisonous tentacles around the world.”

If this stuff – “poisonous tentacles“; “Monsters … who get away with murder”; “Unimaginable sexual depravity”involved in every conceivable immorality” – were written about Jews or gay people, it would look barely sane and possibly criminal. Why should it be respected when the victims are Roman Catholics?

It’s possible that he just writes these things for effect because they are expected of the president of the National Secular Society but I don’t think so. He’s not a a hypocrite.

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14 Responses to In other news, the Pope is Catholic

  1. Fatpants says:

    But you lied Andrew.

    You misrepresented Sanderson’s position. You are now seemingly pre-moderating any comment on the CiF Belief from those who suggested that you lied (which again, you did), by suggesting that those who commented as such were using an ad hominem argument against you – we weren’t, we were stating fact. I see that those who contributed to JW’s blog are now being pre-moderated by yourself, too (including myself).

    You are continuing this misrepresentation, by quoting Sanderson’s aims – which are totally in-line with secular ideals (and which seem to work in Norway, Denmark, Sweden…) – then add in an ad hominem suggesting that to ask for such a thing is par for the course with “militant, shouty atheism”. What is wrong with asking that state funded education be free from the stain of religion and (the oxymoron to end all oxymorons) “religious education”? You have yet to answer this question either here or on the Guardian.

    You showed yourself to be petty (see the pre-moderation comment above), vindictive, and a liar with the Cherie Blair article and subsequent thread. You haven’t apologised for your actions, and I don’ expect you will offer an apology. It is my firm belief that you will continue to run CiF Belief like your own private litter tray as a cheerleader for pro-religious arguments, which is a shame.

    As for this article, it is nothing more than a side-swipe – an up-yours – at the NSS, Sanderson and a great deal of CiF Belief readers who are looking to engage the religious in rational debate over their ideas, but find themselves head-butting brick walls against ATL trolling from both pro-religion authors, religious posters unwilling to open their minds, and the editor himself; all three are seemingly indignant toward what is quite clearly the tide turning in favour of enhanced secularism in western communities and a call to engage in rational debate with their ideas being tested to see if they stand up to scrutiny in the 21st Century.

    The sooner it is realised that religion is a bums rush, and that moving the goalposts to bolster a pathetic, dead, and unoriginal argument will no longer wash, the better.


  2. acb says:

    The point is not whether secularism is a reasonable position (it is) but whether the NSS is animated in its secularism by a hatred of religion.

  3. Fatpants says:

    Yet another example of your pettiness, Andrew. Why remove the vowels on my post?

  4. Tim Skellett says:

    Many thanks for this, Andrew Brown. The problem of extremism having hijacked the atheist movement is of course long known; what to do about it is another story.

    The parallet with Trotskyists and entrists is very close; the same damning of liberals, the same damning of everyone who mildly disagrees, the same, “You’re either with us or against us” mentality. There is also the same belief in one’s own propaganda, the same self-provoking extremism in language.

    Any old how, I will be refering back to this blog entry of yours later in a new blog post of my own.

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  6. acb says:

    Fatpants, if you have never heard of disemvowelling, look it up.

  7. Dan says:

    Obviously the NSS is not “neutral” towards religion, and never has been all the way back to 1866. I don’t see that being anti-religious is “extremist”, except that it’s not always popular to those who have favourable feelings about religion.

    Sure, if one used ordinary anti-religious rhetoric against racial groups, that would be wrong. But also a bit bizarre. This rhetoric, in fact, is directed against a religious organisation. A religious organisation which continues to abuse its position. It’s not even remotely analogous to racism to attack the Catholic Church for its behaviour with respect to child abuse, to take just one example.

    If all the NSS-watchers were remotely good at their job, they would understand the history of secularism, and how that informs the current evolution of the NSS. They would have noticed, for example, that although the NSS is unquestionably an organisation of nonbelievers, and this fact clearly impacts on its policy and style, it distinguishes clearly these days between its theological opinions and its political objectives.

    This is why it campaigns for church/state separation, not State Atheism.

    It’s remarkable that although lots of people seem very worried about the NSS and its ability to garner headlines, few have even tried to understand it.


  8. acb says:

    Dan, thanks for this. I disagree with you, obviously, but there’s a chance of keeping it reasonable and impersonal.

    There’s two points I would pick up on. The first is the analogy between religious and racial hatred. It seems ot me that the emotional dynamics of outgroup hatred are exactly the same in both cases. How the outgroup is defined is entirely secondary. We know that such definitions come naturally to people and can be very easily invented.

    Equally, I find the argument that this is an attack on the organisation, and not on the people involved, completely unconvincing. If I were a Catholic, I would find it even less convincing, since I would believe that the church was the laity. It seems to me that this kind of rhetoric is impaled on a logical fork. Assume that organisation X is profoundly evil: then its followers are themselves wicked for choosing to promote its aims. If you try to get out of this by saying that they have no choice, because they are brainwashed as children, then you lose the distinction between racial hatred (people can’t choose to be black or gay) and religious contumely (but it’s all right to hate them for their opinions). That is of course the distinction which I think unimportant compared to the single unifying fact of hatred.

    As for my worry about the NSS’s ability to garner headlines, this is professional rather than anything else. The last two big NSS splashes have been based on press releases which simply don’t stand up. It is simply not true to claim that the Pope’s visit here will cost £20m in security arrangements. He will be here for about four days (so far as anyone now knows). The security on his most recent trip to the US cost £750k a day. That’s a larger, and more dangerous country than ours. The NSS figure is acquired by comparing the costs of his Australian visit, which included those of World Youth Day. Nothing like that is planned here.

    Similarly, the Cherie Blair story claims that she gave an improperly lenient sentence to Shamso Miah. Everything subsequently is based on this simple idea. But there is no ev-id-ence that it is true. The sentence was absolutely the same as you or I would get as first offenders, unpremeditated, for the same crime. So, since she didn’t “let him off” at all, she can’t have let him off improperly. The question doesn’t arise.

    Of course you can make up a hypothetical case in which she let him off because she’s biased against atheists. But this wasn’t it. We know that because she didn’t let him off.

    Blair’s reported remarks make sense in the context of a talking-to for the defendant and no sense otherwise. So I call bullshit.

  9. Dan says:

    I agree with you that religious hatred and racial hatred are equally hateful. But there has to be a difference between perfectly ordinary anti-religious opinion and “religious hatred”. That’s where the analogy breaks down, because it’s hard to see what a critique of skin colour or ethnic origin might look like that didn’t amount to racism or something very like it, whereas disagreeing with and disliking religious ideas or the behaviour of religious organisations, or indeed religious representatives, is more analogous to political disagreement. You can express dislike of a political party without that being seen as some kind of hate crime.

    I think you’re seeing any kind of criticism of the Catholic Church as “hatred”, but I think you need to consider whether people might have good reasons for offering that criticism.

    In the case of child abuse, the criticism is against the organisation, but also against its managers. The NSS doesn’t presume that all Catholics support child abuse or think the Church was right to conceal it etc. In fact, the NSS thinks that most Catholics disagree with their Church on most things!

    “If I were a Catholic, I would find it even less convincing, since I would believe that the church was the laity.”

    Would you? I suspect those many Catholics who ignore official Catholic teaching on, for example, contraception, might see more of a distinction. Anyway, I don’t see why the NSS has to accept this dubious theological hair-splitting. The relationship between an organisation and its members is complex enough, even more so where “members” has an unclear meaning.

    “Assume that organisation X is profoundly evil: then its followers are themselves wicked for choosing to promote its aims.”

    Well, yes, a Nazi organisation has Nazis for members. But if everyone *has* to join it that starts to look less clear. See the intense academic arguments over German responsibility for Nazi crimes, or indeed Russian responsibility for Soviet crimes.

    In the case of Catholicism, the NSS has pointed out that many Catholics obviously don’t agree with the Catholic hierarchy or official line. So no logical problem.

    “the single unifying fact of hatred.”

    Again, I bring you back to the specifics of what the NSS has said. It has made specific criticisms, not some kind of universal damnation. Serious specific criticisms, which need dealing with. Why don’t you address them, instead of accusing critics of “hatred”?

    On costs: it doesn’t matter. The pope should not be treated like a head of state.

    “Similarly, the Cherie Blair story claims that she gave an improperly lenient sentence to Shamso Miah. ”

    Well, nobody actually knows what happened, which is why the NSS said “apparently” a lot. It complained, so it would get investigated, simply because it looked dubious. Which it did. It’s the job of the investigation to look into the evidence, not the NSS, which doesn’t have access to all the facts. It did its job, is all.


  10. acb says:


    bq. There has to be a difference between perfectly ordinary anti-religious opinion and “religious hatred

    It does rather depend on your definition of “perfectly ordinary anti-religious opinion”. I would have said that POARO was something like “It’s not true and the people who care about it are a bit silly”. What Sanderson wrote, and I quoted above, while undoubtedly anti-religious opinion, seems a long way beyond perfectly ordinary to me.

    I am not claiming for a moment that all criticism of the Catholic church is hatred. As you point out, lots of criticism of the hierarchy and the ways the institution works comes from Catholics. But I have never heard any of them going on about poisonous tentacles, unimaginable sexual depravity, and so on.

    And, since the Pope _is_ a head of state, why should he not be treated as one?

    As for Shamso Miah, we do know what happened. He got a perfectly normal sentence. Since it wasn’t lenient, there was no question of it’s being improperly lenient. So pretending that it was is simply shit-stirring.

  11. Mrs Tilton says:

    If this stuff … were written about Jews or gay people, it would look barely sane and possibly criminal. Why should it be respected when the victims are Roman Catholics?

    First, let me correct your second sentence. “… when the victims are Roman Catholics” s/b: “… when the subject of the writing is the institutional Roman Catholic church”. A subtle distinction perhaps, but not, I think, an unimportant one.

    Second, to answer your question: because (the tendentious “victims” having been deleted and the emphasis restored to the institution, as the original has it but your question does not), this stuff is, as it would not be about Jews or gay people, true.

  12. acb says:

    But Mris T, the distinction between the institution and the people is so subtle as in practice always to evanesce. I am reminded of the distinction that the IRA made between the forces of the British state and the English, which somehow left a lot of English (and Irish) people orphans, limbless, or simply dead. Similarly, you will remember, for we were on the same barricades, that our countries went to war against the regime in Iraq, and not against the people. That upwards of a million of the Iraqi people died as a result of our not going to war against them suggests this distinction is seldom clear in practice.

    Of course, the NSS is not killing anyone, and neither is anyone killing its members, so this may seem hyperbolic. But it does point out the practical difficulty of the distinction you want to make, when push really comes to shove. There is also a considerable theoretical difficulty. How is the institutional church to be defined? Is it the clergy? Is it the religious? Does it contain any lay people?

    I don’t think you can possibly slice the set of all Roman Catholics such that people with a certain organisational standing are guilty, or guiltier than those in any comparable organisation, while those below or outside that grade are innocent.

    There is absolutely no doubt whatever that individual Catholics, and indeed whole Catholic organisations have been guilty of terrible crimes, often inspired and not merely justified by their beliefs.

    But I cannot think of any other large-scale social organisation, least of all a nation, of which this is not true. You don’t even have to be organised: there are some Jews, some Catholics, some gay people, who possess all the distinctive vices claimed by their enemies as characteristic of these groups. So what? To take these evils as representing the _essential_ or _institutional_ nature of the social organisations in question is to lose your footing in a foetid swamp.

    I had been going to bring into this Karl Lueger, and his famous definition of a Jew: I was punished for my sloppy thought by pitching up on a couple of truly repulsive pages, and then finding “his entry in the 1910 Catholic Encyclopaedia:”:

    bq. Among all classes his influence and popularity were unbounded. A beautiful characteristic was his tender love of his mother; he was himself in turn idolized by children, He was anti-Semitic only because Semitism in Austria was politically synonymous with political corruption and oppressive capitalism. Lueger never married. A fearless outspoken Catholic, the defence of Catholic rights was ever in the forefront of his programme. His cheerfulness, resignation, and piety throughout his last illness edified the nation

    Yeah, _right._

  13. Andrew Brown says that the NSS’s prediction of a cost of £20 million for the papal visit is “risible.”

    Unfortunately for him, this is now the official figure, although it is likely to rise further. And that’s before we get to the security, which will make £20 million look like chircken feed.

    I hadn’t realised just how barking Mr Brown is.

  14. Andrew Brown says:

    My claim – easily checked above – was that a figure of £20m for the security arrangements was risible. So it is. The official figure we have today is £1.5m. With a characteristic care for facts, Terry Sanderson responded to that figure with “a press release”: accusing the police of lying, and citing as his authorities reports from several months ago in the Scottish editions of the “News of the World”: and “the Daily Express,”: and a preliminary estimate from the Metropolitan police dating back to May. Even that was for only £1.8m (including .8m for “opportunity costs”). If half his visit costs £1m, what kind of arithmetic makes the remaining two days cost twenty times as much?

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