Jackson Doughart
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Pope's comments misrepresent secularism

The Holy Post, 23 September 2010

Pope Benedict XVI wasted little time on his visit to the United Kingdom last week before defaming secularism and non-belief. On Thursday, the pontiff warned Britons against the ills of their secularized society. His comments grossly misrepresent the nature of non-belief and show the desperation of the Catholic Church, whose reputation is plummeting amidst its international child-abuse scandal. They also demonstrate the fear of the Catholic Church of secularism because it directly confronts the legitimacy of the Church’s supposed moral authority.

Benedict spoke of Nazi Germany, a regime that he said, “wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”

Listing history’s worst atheists is a regular tactic by the religious to discredit the concept of non-belief. This is a flawed argument because it equates being an atheist with being evil merely by stating that there have been evil people who have been atheists. This line of reasoning fails to account for the actual motivation behind the crimes perpetrated by leaders such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. The Pope conveniently leaves out the Catholic pantheon of moral failures in the mass murder department. Examples include Torquemada, the father of the Inquisition and the force behind the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and all of the Popes who preached war against Islam and absolved the knights in advance of any mortal sins, allowing the Crusaders to indiscriminately butcher thousands of men, women and children in the Levant.

While the 20th century dictators may not have subscribed to conventional religions such as Christianity or Islam, they were motivated by powerful state religions in the form of tyrannical ideologies. In any case, Hitler was a baptized Catholic and was never excommunicated by the Catholic Church, though his actual personal beliefs regarding either Christianity or atheism are difficult to determine because of conflicting comments that he made during his lifetime. Regardless, Hitler was most certainly driven by deep-seated Anti-Semitism and strong ethnic nationalism. Such anti-Semitism was also not a foreign idea to Catholicism during this period, as it was an observable sentiment within the Church until as late as the 1960s.

It is a bit puzzling when atheism is referred to as “extreme.” Atheism is an empty belief system, as it has no central tenets except for rejecting the commonly-held belief in a supernatural deity. It is neither extreme nor moderate because it is simply an opinion about the existence of God. As such, many atheists identify with religion-free approaches to the study of morals such as humanism. However, a common political goal for both nonbelievers and many believers alike is a commitment to secularism, which guarantees the separation of religion from government.

What many believers often forget is that atheists must also make concessions in a secular state. In theory, a purely atheist state, such as those of the former Soviet Bloc, might ban religious beliefs altogether, while a purely Christian state might base its laws on scripture and display the ten commandments on government buildings. Secularism allows a pluralism of personal beliefs while allowing the government to remain neutral on theological matters and giving it a method to progress the society that it serves.

This secular method does not attempt to exclude the ideas of believers, but instead requires demonstrable arguments based on research and philosophical reflection. It also commits the state to conduct its affairs based on the Enlightenment principle of using reason based on evidence and not by perpetuating superstitions. As such, religious people as well as nonbelievers can be secularists and under this system, everyone is encouraged to consider questions of moral debate for themselves.

Ironically, the Catholic Church claims to have the authority to unequivocally determine and rule on matters of human morality, yet it has such trouble dealing with what most humanists would agree is the most serious offence in child harm. This illustrates precisely why the Church has no better a moral foundation than any individual who has the cognitive ability to consider moral questions in a rational manner, a process that comes through education and the rule of law, not from religion.

Pope Benedict fights secularism as he does because he fears it, and for good reason. As a political ideal, secularism provides our society with a method of considering these ethical questions based on our modern understanding of human nature, biology and relationships. As a society, we are capable of answering these difficult questions free from superstitions and we should not allow ourselves to be bullied by individual human beings who are no more capable to make these decisions for us than we are to make them for ourselves.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com