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Whatever you do, don’t call me an atheist.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that, on the whole, I’m not a true believer. I don’t believe in God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, or any other higher power that is on offer. I have come to this belief (or lack thereof, as the case may be) after many years of thought and personal exploration. I don’t feel the need to “convert” religious people to atheism, nor do I feel a particular need to constantly argue about belief with them. Simply, they believe, and I don’t.

Recently, however, I’ve started including a caveat whenever religion is discussed – I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist. The reason I’ve started doing so is because I find myself disinclined to be associated with some of the more famous atheist names, and some of the more recent atheist activities. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe in Dawkins either.

Richard Dawkins is a very talented and intelligent man. His books are interesting, compelling, and convincing reads. Broadly speaking, I believe the same things he does (i.e. in the existence of evolution, that evolution explains our development, that there is no higher spiritual power, etc). I don’t, however, believe that the best way to go about spreading your message is to be abrasive, combative, and, to a certain degree, as extremist as those you deride.

Due to his status as a prominent atheist and his obvious pro-evolution stance, Dawkins appears in countless interviews and programs. One such example, which I found particularly hard to watch, and which demonstrates my difficulty with Dawkins, is his interview with a creationist woman named Wendy Wright. I’ve embedded the first part here, you can follow on to watch the entire interview (7 parts) on youtube.

I found it genuinely difficult to watch this interview all the way through, and probably not for the reasons you might expect. Granted, the creationist is quite annoying and her laugh/dismiss way of answering each question gets old very quickly indeed. But equally annoying is Dawkins’ interview technique; he doesn’t address any of her questions, merely batting them away. Rather than addressing her points, he simply verbally bludgeons her for the duration of the interview. In short, while it is supposed to be an interview, it is actually two people talking beside each other, with neither listening to, or addressing the queries of, the other party.

The documentary “The Root of All Evil?” aka “The God Delusion” is another program which, in my opinion, misses the mark. In this program, Dawkins had the opportunity to address genuine questions and issues, but instead, he simply paraded the worst examples of extremist faith believers possible, to reinforce his own point that religion is the cause of all wrong. While it is true that there are extremist factions associated with almost every religion, the majority of followers of any religion are not represented by these extremists. Choosing only extremists to demonstrate what is wrong with religion is fundamentally flawed – it doesn’t really represent any of those belief systems accurately, and it only demonstrates the beliefs and practices of a minority of followers. Rather than consulting anyone with more moderate beliefs (i.e. one of the majority), Dawkins specifically selects the most extreme believers, knowing that it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to construct an argument for those extremist beliefs that would harm others, for example (who would really argue that it is correct to want all non-Muslims off the lands of Muhammed, and that it is acceptable to resort to violence to achieve that?).

What’s so annoying about this is that it is poor, lazy argument technique. It is harder to paint those with moderate beliefs, the majority, as crazed, dangerous, or insane, so he doesn’t try. And this is exactly the kind of argument that he will not tolerate from any believer, as seen recently in his reaction to the Pope’s comments with regard to atheism and Nazis. The Pope’s comments appear to be directed at atheist extremists, and while it is not made clear what he sees as an extreme atheist, what is clear is that he is, somewhat ironically, employing the same strategy as Dawkins – highlight the worst possible example, and imply that they are the majority. It’s sloppy, lazy, ignorant, and offensive to imply that simply because extremists exist that everyone who believes anything (even if that belief is no belief) agrees with the extreme views. And Dawkins is often as guilty of that as the various Creationists, Muslims, and religious leaders he interviews and rallies against.

I absolutely don’t support the Pope, or any of his declarations that seem to imply the worst of any who don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s acceptable to lower myself to his level by painting all religious people as fundamentalist extremist nutters. To do so will, ultimately, achieve nothing; no one will learn anything, it will only serve to prove to each side of the debate that they were right to assume the worst of the others.

Indeed, one could argue that this has been shown by the Pope’s recent visit. The comments made in his speech about atheism rapidly overtook most of the other issues to do with his visit (e.g. child abuse, monies from fund-raising, etc.) and brought out the worst in all concerned, leading to the word Nazi being used more times in the last week than I have seen it used in several years previous. True believers from both sides (yes, atheist “true believers” too) spent the duration of the visit trading verbal blows, and by the time it was all over, both sides were convinced that their assessment of each other was correct. After all, did the Catholics not call atheists Nazis? And did those Nazi atheists not do all within their power to disrupt the Pope’s visit, up to and including threatening arrests, violence, etc? Well, no, not really. An ill advised comment in the Pope’s speech led to a ridiculous game of chinese whispers, resulting in people maintaining that the Pope had said outright that atheists are modern-day Nazis, and overreaction to internet chatter and personal opinion led to prominent atheists (such as Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett, etc) being virtually tarred and feathered by newspapers, and even to people being arrested, to protect the Pope.

The demonisation of atheism in the media means that many people will believe that the Pope was right to compare atheists to Nazis, and that being an atheist means that you want to murder the Pope, declare anarchy in the Holy See, and redecorate with a combination swastika and pentagram theme. The demonisation of the Pope in the media (mostly internet based, to be honest) means that many people will believe that the Pope actively molested children himself, and that all young people should be kept at a safe distance, lest they be sucked in, molested, and warped by his papal-magnetic-child-bothering field, provided he’s not too busy spending money senselessly and denying any and all accusations.

Time and time again, both sides of the debate engage in the same ridiculous, over-the-top mud slinging, and afterwards, they go home, safe in the knowledge that they were right after all. Surely it is time for a new tactic? Would it not be more effective to ignore the ridiculous comments, and instead focus on the real issues (e.g. child abuse, money, etc)? Would it not be better to prove disparagers wrong by behaving in a dignified and mature way?

Argue against religious belief if you want, but please do so logically, rationally, and well. Using twisted, exaggerated, contorted examples of faith does no one any good, and merely serves to show that fundamentalists exist in every walk of life, even if they choose to call themselves atheists.

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Current Affairs

Holy Marmite!


After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Pope Benedict (aka Joseph Ratzinger) is essentially the Marmite of public figures at the moment – people either love him, or hate him; overall, there seem to be very few with a moderate opinion of him.

With his planned visit to the UK imminent, tensions between both sides (the lovers and the haters) have reached a fever pitch. There are planned protests alongside planned vigils, as much supportive merchandise as there is anti-Pope merchandise, and more than one person planning to attempt a citizens arrest upon his arrival in the UK. If nothing else, the visit promises to be an interesting one.

One bone of contention is with the organisation of the events. People planning to attend are being told that they must give a donation of £20. This is apparently to cover the costs associated with his visit, and to help cover a shortfall in church funds. They hope to raise £7,000,000 to cover all of the costs associated with the visit, and helpfully break down these planned expenditures on the website. Apparently, they will be spending the money as follows:

In total the expected costs now associated with these events is £5.2m. Direct costs associated with three smaller pastoral events also fall to the Church – these are likely to be £600k in total. Then in addition to that, there are costs involved in planning and preparing for the visit, with our own website and communications work (£650k), and fundraising (£200k) Finally the Bishops are developing a range of catechetical and evangelisation materials to anticipate and follow through on the likely increased interest and attention that the Visit will generate in the Catholic Church. (£350k).

Having performed some basic math, I am left with some questions; as far as I can see, 7 million is rather a lot more than 5.2 million. And indeed, adding up all of the figures presented gives a total of 3.6 million, not 5.2 – so where exactly is all that extra “donation” money going to go? Finally, as stated on the official visit website, the UK government are actually paying most of the associated visit costs themselves, including security costs, which leads me to wonder at what the rest of the 7 million is being allocated for. (And, on a less serious note, I also wonder exactly how many Pope t-shirts are they making, if their merchandising costs are 350,000!). I think that, given the rather mandatory nature of the “donation”, it would not be unreasonable to expect them to explain, even roughly, how this extra money will be put to use, especially considering just how much money it is. Perhaps they could use some of the leftover money to pay compensation to the victims of sexual abuse, whom they were previously too poor to compensate.

This, of course, leads us on to the major sticking point about this visit – the issue of child sex abuse within the church. It is no longer news that, for a long time, children were systematically sexually and physically abused within the church, by priests and carers. The fact has been well established, and proven. Unfortunately, most of this proof has been obtained without the help of the church, or Pope Benedict, due to his continued refusal to cooperate in any way with any investigations into the abuses.

Many say that Pope Benedict is being unfairly targeted as the head of an organisation where abuse was endemic, and that he cannot be blamed for things that happened before he was in a position of leadership. I respectfully disagree. Prior to becoming Pope, Joseph Ratzinger held the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, he was responsible for defending and reaffirming doctrine , and teaching on important topics, such as homosexuality, inter-religious dialogue, etc. In addition to this, however, the Congregation also has jurisdiction over other matters, such as clerical sexual misconduct, serving as a sort of “court” to deal with priests accused of misconduct.

Ratzinger held his position as Prefect of the Congregation from 1981 until 2005, a time during which child sexual abuse was rampant within the church. There is evidence to suggest that details pertaining to a large number of cases were reviewed by Ratzinger, and that they were ignored – the priests moved to a different parish, those involved sworn to secrecy, and no charges brought. For example, as recently as April of this year, a letter was discovered in which it appears that, in 1985, while Prefect, Ratzinger refused to laicize (to de-priest, so to speak) Father Kiesle, a priest accused of molesting several boys in California. Not only was Kiesle not defrocked or laicized, but he was not reported to the police, and no further action was taken, despite admissions by the priest that he had abused the boys.

There have been several documents leaked which purport to show Ratzinger’s involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse within the church. Sadly, the only way these documents can come to light is when they are leaked, because to date, Ratzinger has refused to cooperate with any investigations. No documentation has been provided to investigating authorities, and when Ratzinger was personally accused of covering up the abuse of three Texan boys, rather than take the stand, he demanded (and received) diplomatic immunity, preventing his prosecution.

In short, it would certainly appear that Ratzinger does not want thorough investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse, a position which seems to be supported by the Crimen Sollicitationis document, in which those involved in trials are sworn to secrecy within the church, under threat of excommunication. This document remained in force until 2001 (when it was replaced by new, still inadequate, rules), yet Ratzinger still holds to church secrecy about the abuses.

At this point, I can only refer to the old adage – an honest man has nothing to hide. Surely it is in the best interests of all involved for there to be full disclosure of all documentation, all actions taken or not taken, and all parties involved? And surely, if Ratzinger was not involved, as his supporters claim, then he would have no problem disclosing the information and letting an investigation proceed unhampered? Regardless of their position within the church, no man is above the law of the land, and there is no land in which child sexual abuse is lawful. As such, it is both his legal, and moral duty to disclose the information, and see to it that a proper and thorough investigation is carried out, and that those who were in the wrong are brought to justice.

The issue of child sex abuse within the church is not one that can be ignored, or swept under the carpet. Regardless of how obstructive the church are, the truth will out. I believe, therefore, that it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to simply allow the investigation to proceed, and help where they can. Even if it is not something that they feel morally obliged to do, it is something that they are legally obliged to do.

With all of the above in mind, I’m afraid to say that I cannot, in good conscience, support a visit by the Pope to the UK, or to anywhere. In my opinion, if the church wants to reaffirm the faith of the congregation, it should not be looking to do so by spending money, and begging for money to spend, on organising visits. It should, instead, be focusing on investigating the problems that have emerged, on making amends to those who were wronged, and on proving that they are examples of the truly faithful to which they hope we aspire. The people involved should be honest about their wrongs, ask for forgiveness, and accept their penance, whatever it may be. After all, is that not what they ask of us?

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Current Affairs

Resignations rejected?

Some time ago, shortly after the publication of Murphy report, I wrote a blog encouraging people to read both the Murphy and Ryan reports, which dealt with institutional child abuse in Ireland. I did so not because they were particularly easy to read (far from it, in fact, since both reports are long, and describe in detail some truly awful abuse of children), but because I thought it was important that the information held in the reports wasn’t ignored. The children who were abused were systematically failed by every person or group who should have been able to help them, from the teachers, to the Gardaí, and even the state – as such, now that the truth has finally been printed, it’s important that it not be swept under the rug, or ignored any more.

With all of the above in mind, I was more than a little surprised to hear the news that Pope Benedict XVI has refused the resignations of two bishops who were a part of the Dublin Archdiocese during the period investigated in the reports, namely Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field. Both were undeniably involved in the activities discussed in the Murphy report (dealing with complaints, covering up abuses, etc.), as shown by the commission investigating the abuses. Both were fully aware of what they were doing, and the repercussions of it – indeed, Bishop Field was a qualified barrister, and therefore aware of both church and state law regarding abuse. They were subject to considerable public pressure, and eventually compelled to resign in December 2009, in the wake of the publication of the Murphy report, when the extent of the cover-up came to light.

As a result of the decision by Pope Benedict, both men will remain as auxiliary bishops with the Dublin Archdiocese, and will be assigned “revised responsibilities within the diocese”. The fact that they remain auxiliary bishops means that they will be available to administer confirmation in any part of the diocese in the coming year. The notion that men who were involved in the systematic cover up of abuses over a period of decades will be available to help children confirm their role as adults within the Catholic faith is more than a little disturbing – surely men such as these do not provide a good example of what is to be expected of an adult of great faith?

The message sent by this refusal of resignation, and confirmation of their continuing positions within the diocese, is a troubling one. It reaffirms the idea that they did nothing wrong in covering up the abuse, and that, because of an apology that was all but forced out of them, they are fit to continue in their roles. It demonstrates that the Holy See is largely unwilling to take any sort of definitive action against men who are proven to have acted wrongly, and it also begs the question of what exactly one must do to have a resignation accepted?

Now is a time for the members of the church in Ireland, and the Catholic church as a whole, to accept the wrongs that were done, and apologise unreservedly for them. Now is a time where the people who perpetrated the abuses should be removed from their positions, and called to answer for their actions. And now is a time for the Pope to genuinely acknowledge the horrible abuses that children were subjected to, and send a clear message that it will never be allowed to happen again.

Unfortunately, it seems that “now” is not considerably different from 30 years ago, where priests were virtually untouchable in the eyes of the public and the law, where children were branded liars for having the courage to speak out, and where abuse was swept under the carpet and never acknowledged or spoken of.

Caveat-filled apologies and promises of action that never come to bear seem to be all that the Pope and the Church have to offer, and sadly, that’s simply not enough.