The Pope came to Britain last week, which must have been nice for him, as he always gets to pass through Italy on the way from his country to anywhere else in the world. Gosh, he must think, as he rides through Rome - I've picked such a good neighbourhood, in such a good city, for my country to be in!
While in Britain, the Pope's lamentation that Britain has become a sadly atheist country full of militant secularists, attracted a lot of attention - and not just for being the obviously bitter comments of a very old man who never comes to Britain and whose sources of information are Catholic priests. The coverage suggested that he had committed a gaffe, and that it had been impolitic of him to speak in that manner - but it wasn't the manner that was wrong, in my view, so much as the substance: the atheists and secularists of Britain are, by and large, not at all militant. Of all Britain's secularists and atheists, how many marched against the Pope on Sunday - against the noxious role that religion has come to play in public life, and against its ongoing offenses against human rights and free speech, and against its opposition of science and against its positing of blind faith as some sort of valid rejoinder to argument and reason? A middling percentage. There are some vocal atheists, yes - but they are a very small minority; the rest are busy cowering and accepting, being trod on and letting people get on with things very nicely.
Over the last few weeks, in the run-up to the Pope's visit, I've had occasion to discuss atheism and secularism a little with people, and a line I've heard again and again, from atheist, reasonable friends, is 'Oh, I can't stand that Richard Dawkins'. And this from people who, often as not, haven't read The God Delusion, and therefore have little idea of Dawkins' engaging powers of argument, his humour, his passion for his subject and his generosity of spirit. I can hardly begin to fathom the perverseness of rationalists attacking a scientist when there are targets like liars and criminals to have a go at instead. The point of view seems to be that he is too strident in attacking religion and that he should let religious people have their say. Who are these religious people who cannot take debate, who cannot take scorn? Is it somehow defiling their beliefs to question them? Just how far exactly ought an atheist or secularist go, according to the people who think Dawkins goes too far? Do these people - friends of mine - ever question anyone's beliefs, or do they just let everything pass? I let the lies and wilful misunderstanding of our world pass, too - I cannot pretend to be the bravest and most argumentative of atheists, standing up for the truth at every opportunity; but at least I respect the nobility and courage of Dawkins in opposing falsehoods and demagogy.
Philip Pullman wrote a very interesting article in the Guardian - of which more later - a while back, which I can now not find, but which essentially argued very convincingly that ideas themselves are not worthy of respect. People, he said, must have our respect, but their ideas must not, and in fact the most respect one can pay an idea or an argument is to probe it and question it. It isn't disrespecting a person to call their thoughts into question: the problem comes when someone's idea is presented not as an idea or thought or argument but as a 'belief'. The word 'belief' uninvites argument, and tells you that you should not counter it. But this is patently absurd: everything must be questioned. Dawkins' method infuriates some because he applies strictly scientific systems to his arguing: what is your proof for saying something, what is the truth in it, what makes you say it? At times when he has become irritatedwith his interlocutors it isn't because he disrespects the people, but disrespects their reasoning: if you posit a God, then don't be offended if someone asks you what that God is made of. If you cannot answer that, and no-one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer, your argument is ipso facto invalid.
The Guardian - trying to shed its image as the atheist vanguard - chose to comment after the anti-Pope marches on Saturday that the marchers should have shown sincere faith the respect it deserves. Faith does not deserve respect, no more than true love deserves respect or grouchiness deserves respect or a penchant for chocolate deserves respect. I have plenty of respect for people who believe in a God, despite having no respect for the idea of believing in a God, and on Saturday I was marching against the undue influence of religion in our world, as represented by the Pope, whose ignorant and hateful pronouncements on contraception, abortion, women's rights and gay rights are constantly reported as if they had some sort of validity by our press. I live in a world where faith schools get to choose which children they want to educate, despite practising religious people being a minority in Britain. I was there protesting against these things. In what way is protesting against the covering up of known acts of paedophilia a sign of disrespect to people of faith? It is a disrespect to people of faith, on the contrary, to assume they might not be as outraged by these things as non-believers.
A line that is always parrotted about Dawkins is that he is 'as bad as the people he attacks' because he preaches and tries to convert people to his cause. Let it be said once more that stating facts in a bid for people to understand the way things actually are (and again I urge everyone to read at least the chapter on bats in The God Delusion, to see with what elegance and clarity Dawkins presents the facts of the bat's evolution and of the evolution of the eye as an organ) is not preaching, but educating: it would be a completely different matter if the things that Dawkins was 'preaching' were patently untrue and had been proven as such. His means, at least, justify his method. Dawkins speaks with bravery, knowing that he has made himself the person who people criticise when they want an easy atheist target. He is unflinching in his intellectuality and morality, and has made enemies because of his unwillingness to accept the parity of fiction with facts. In his brilliant speech on Saturday, you could sense the candour and fury in him when he decried the immorality of planting the lie of hell in children's minds. What is ignoble or wrong about taking religious people to task for creating falsehoods with which to frighten and silence children? Attack him if you will, atheists, but we should all follow his example more.