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Religion and Virtue: The Pope’s Truncated Vision

The Pope arrived in Britain today, held out his “hand of friendship” and called on all the British people to remember:

Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

So far, so respectable. Many (though by no means all) historical British leaders were of course Christians, and Christianity does teach respect for truth and justice, mercy and charity, in broad terms at least. (Some will disagree that the Pope’s faith teaches justice or respect for truth when it comes to contraception, HIV, gay rights, and women’s rights, and some may point out that historically this faith was neither particularly merciful nor just – but let us put these quibbles aside.) It is not unreasonable to think that historical Britons drew their morals from their faith, and that this benefitted us in the present day, even if it is debatable whether faith was or remains a “mighty force for good”.

My problem is with what the Pope then went on to say:

In our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many … As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth 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 to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.

The implicit argument here is very bad, but not only that: it is deeply offensive to atheists.

What are the “more aggressive forms of secularism” that do not respect “traditional values and cultural expressions”? The Pope presumably means to refer both to the cultural New Atheist movement of Dawkins et. al. that critiques religious influence, and also to government policies such as the Sexual Orientation Regulations (2007) which made it unlawful to discriminate on the ground of sexual orientation in the provision of goods or services to the public. Catholic adoption agencies were not exempted from the Regulations, and have been forced to either cut ties with the Catholic Church or cease providing adoption services in Britain. The Pope’s implicit argument is that because these forms of “secularism” seek to “exclude God from public life”, in his view, they  amount to “atheist extremism” and are incompatible with moral virtue of any kind. Shorter Pope: Without faith, you’re liable to do anything, as the Nazis demonstrated!

The Pope’s smear campaign starts out disastrously by rewriting history in an attempt to link Nazism with atheism. Though the Nazis did not like organized religion interfering in their political machinations, they generally thought of atheism as intertwined with Marxism, and thus opposed it vociferously. (The real regime that “wished to eradicate God from society”, the Soviet Union, lost over 20 million people fighting the Nazis.) Adolf Hitler was a Catholic who expressed his Christian faith and used it to justify his actions in numerous speeches and writings, Christianity was part of the Nazi party platform, and having banned the major atheist organization in 1933, Hitler declared: “We have .. undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”


Hitler resting his eyes?

(This photo was originally captioned “Der ergreifende Abschlub der Kundgebung in Wien:
Wir treten zum Beten..” [The poignant conclusion of the rally in Vienna. Let us pray…])

So not only is the Pope wrong to suggest that the Nazis’ crimes stemmed from their atheism, he is wrong to suggest that the Nazis in general were atheists in the first place. They may not have been “Christians” in every sense of the term. But many of them certainly believed in God.

There is no good reason, in any case, to believe that atheists cannot or do not behave just as morally as the faithful (unless you define “faithful” in such a way as to make the claim “the faithful behave morally” tautological, or define “morally” in such a way as to make the claim “atheists behave morally” a contradiction). Even if they had been atheists, it would be no more legitimate, or less silly, for the Pope to imply that atheism led to the Nazis’ immoral behaviour than it would be for atheists to imply that Christianity led to it.

There’s another bad argument implicit when the Pope expresses his reflexive conservatism: What’s so great about “traditional values and cultural expressions” anyway? Most of us look at received morality and agree with most of it, because we have been inculcated with the moral values of the society we grew up in. But its value, where it has it, has very little to do with tradition. The Pope wants us to have in mind things like: heterosexual marriage, sexual monogamy, and going to church on Sundays. But what about some other practices that were once traditional values and cultural expressions: slave trading, stoning adulterers, the bloody forced conversion campaigns of the Holy Roman Empire, and the subordination of women to their husbands, and to men in general? Those who challenged these practices were right to do so, irrespective of  whether they reflected “traditional values and cultural expressions”. And they were morally better for having challenged them. We should take the same progressive attitude toward the traditional values and cultural expressions of our own day and age, valuing them only when they are valuable, and tolerating them only when they are tolerable.

That brings me on to the last point, which is that the Pope explicitly sets himself against “aggressive … secularism” but, by failing to make a clear distinction between his complaints of society not tolerating and society not valuing what he considers valuable, he really seems to be arguing against liberal neutrality as well. Liberal neutrality means that when it comes to politics, I don’t need to agree with you about what’s valuable: I think you have the right to pursue what seems valuable to you as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same. Liberal neutrality leaves room for members of all reasonable faiths and atheists too to get along by tolerating what we do not ourselves value. If the Pope wants to argue against that position by insisting that we only respect what he values if we value it ourselves, then it is the Pope who is intolerant, aggressive and extremist.




(Image and caption source: Hitler: The Hoffmann Photographs, Vol. 1, Ray R. Cowdery, Ed., 1990; via
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13 Comment on this post

  1. I strongly agree with most if not all of this post, and I also think it is important for these things to be said.

    At the same time it has also stimulated me to think about the nature of what you call “liberal neutrality”, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that this can best be described as a *rule for political discourse and decision-making*. This seems to be subtly different from what you are saying, in the sense that you are using the language of “rights”, which kind of gives the impression that they are somehow absolute, like the “inalienable rights” and “self-evident” truths claimed (incorrectly in my view) by the US constitution. I think I would rather phrase it thus:

    “Liberal neutrality is a rule for political discourse and decision-making according to which the core value that must always be respected is that we accord each other the right to pursue our own individual values, the only constraint being that we respect this rule.”

    Not the catchiest of sentences, admittedly, but I think it illustrates well my approach to ethics. The question then is: is this actually *the* core value that we want to pursue in general? And if not, why do we insist on it as the primordial rule for political discourse and decision-making? If, for example, we prefer some concept of maximising (physical and psychological well-being) as our overarching core value, might there not be instances where exceptions to this rule are justified?

  2. The phrase “aggressive secularity” is often expressed these days, not only by the pope.

    It deliberately confuses “aggressive” with “strongy-expressed”, but these two concepts are completely different. Dawkins and others may strongly express their views, but they do not indoctrinate children, impose their values on others, or seek to exploit fear and misery.

    Why should religions consider that they should always be especially protected from criticism (or blasphemy or book-burning) ?

  3. OK I’m going to play devil’s (or in this case God’s) advocate here, and suggest a reason why there may be a case for protecting religions and their followers from criticism. The reason has to do with the role that religions play in giving people a sense of meaning in his life. Simon is absolutely right to bridle against the assumption that atheists are somehow morally inferior to theists, but the fact remains that we have been seeing gods everywhere since the stone age, and while some may consider such behaviour primitive it also seems to make life feel more meaningful for a lot of people. We should not dismiss this as irrelevant.

    At least *I* don’t think so. It depends of course on your values. As always I’m arguing here from an essentially utilitarian standpoint in which some concept of well-being is to be considered the over-arching value. My empirical beliefs relevant to this issue would then run something like this:

    1. A general principle of equality of treatment (and exposure to criticism) between different ideologies seems most conducive to the common welfare.
    2. Even better results can nevertheless be achieved if we allow some deviations from this principle when it comes to ideologies, especially religions, that help people to find meaning in their lives, and about which (partly for that reason) they have strong feelings.
    3. While freedom of thought is of paramount importance in ensuring well-being over the long run, it should be possible to do this without insisting on absolute equality of treatment (i.e. disallowing the deviations referred to in point 2).
    4. In the mean time a good proportion of humanity has the potential to be greatly offended by unnecessarily “strongly-expressed” views from those who have managed to find meaning in their lives without reference to God (except, of course, for a nice bit of God-bashing). Among other things this will generally be likely to make it easier for religious terrorists to find shelter among sympathetic populations.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m perfectly capable of being outraged at religious, including Christian, intolerance. But this is not necessarily the best way to improve the prospects for humanity.

  4. I can’t see how general principles of equality of treatment supports a case for protecting religions and their followers from criticism. I think that religious “criticism” of other religions (e.g Asian religions, Islam and Protestantism but of course not Judaism (bad politics)) and atheism,is essentially sales talk and should not be given the respect accorded philosophical argument. So, don’t be too hard on the Pope. His rhetoric is to be expected. Can’t be helped.

    I think the metaphor of a market for religion is very useful. Atheism, now treated as a religion by some of its adherents, is looking more like Christianity and Islam in the purveyance of its creed. Hence the strong language of some of its proponents. Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions and hence tend to be aggressive and dubious with respect to separation of church and state. The older branch, Judaism (both a religion and a tribe or nationality), tends to hunker down and worry about safety from its larger Abrahamic cousins, yet even many rabbis and organizations engage in active marketing (at least in the US) of Judaism to keep the number of Jews from depletion (and then, of course, there’s Zionism).

  5. Treating the Pope’s utterances as “sales talk” could indeed provide another argument for being muted in our criticism. Set against that, however, is the obviously huge influence that he has on people’s beliefs and attitudes around the world. My main point, I guess, is that in making our criticism we should bear in mind the positive role that religion plays in a lot of people’s lives.

  6. My apologies for a belated response to the excellent comments here!

    Anthony: I fully agree with you about the way the phrase “aggresive secularity” has lately been used in intentionally obfuscatory ways.

    Dennis: Thanks for your interesting line of defense. I’m not sure why pointing out false premises and sloppy arguments should be counted as according undue “respect” for religious speech, even if it is mere “sales talk”, as you suggest it might be. Surely, a company that engages in blatantly false marketing of it’s product (“Buy this or you will turn into a bad person, maybe a Nazi!”) is a legitimate target for public criticism. As are the executives of the company who are responsible for its activities. If that is what their role requires of them, they ought to give up the role!

    Peter: Thanks also for your remarks. I think you are quite right that strongly-expressed atheism has the potential to offend some people, and atheists should be aware of this as something to take into account when deciding how to act. That’s why it’s not legitimate, for example, for an atheist to strongly express her atheism at a religious weddding service, having accepted an inviation to attend as a guest. Of course, the conclusions to be drawn from this fact would have to be quite moderate: there are many instances where we are permitted to – or have a duty to – speak up even though others will be offended by what we say (cf. Rosa Parks). If the pope had made this sort of moderate argument, he would have nothing to apologize for. But alas, it was not, by a long shot, what he said.

  7. Dear Simon

    Good article and started an interesting thread.

    Is there a need to distinguish personal faith from institutional religion/magisterium, as these are often confused/elided, sometimes deliberately, in argument?

    As a clinician I have seen up close how a personal faith can on many occasions help people make some meaning out of terrible realities. As a lifelong atheist it would be easy to see this as delusional thinking, to be discouraged at all costs, but it undeniably helps many people and it would be unwise and disrespectful to be too patronising about it.

    It is from time to time also maladaptive/destructive, especially with more fundamentalist belief. I recall one family who were doubly tortured by the inevitable death of their child ” because when we stand in front of the congregation they will say that it was because our faith in miracles wasn’t strong enough and that we should have prayed more “. Sometimes such issues are amenable to theologically literate reinterpretation with the family, but it can be tricky.

    Where the real problems arise, in both private life and in public/political discourse is when the institutional side of religion becomes involved. One only has to look at the history of Catholic doctrine on celibacy, contraception, abortion etc to see that a lot of it has rather more to do with re-interpretation of scripture by dead white males for reasons which had little to do with any religious faith. Similarly for the current tragedy of priestly sexual abuse and the cover-up engineered by the Vatican. The list is endless and the pile of broken minds and bodies is large ( vide HIV in 3rd world, to name but one )

    There are no end of things for which the Church can legitimately be attacked as an institution, without any attack on the faith of individual members. It suits people like Ratzinger to blur the distinction between magisterium and believers, as it may draw the wider church community into the circle of wagons.

    Ratzinger’s comments on rampant secularism and his implication that Christianity is a bulwark against evils such as Nazism is disingenuous in the extreme. It has already been pointed out the the Nazis were not atheists, but the other point which needs to be made is that the Church, far from being a bulwark against Nazism, was falling over itself to accommodate Adolf. Popes Pius XI and XII ( both of whom are currently in the queue for beatification by Ratzi ) were frankly pro Fascist and the anti semitism into which the Nazis tapped so effectively was a direct product of hundreds of years of Christian teaching.

    His visit and pronouncements have been a cynical exercise. He presents as a doddering, lovable, intelligent old man, but anybody who has been head of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for 20 years under John Paul could only be a head kicker. It will,however, be important to choose targets carefully.

  8. Andrew: Thanks for your comment. I will leave your remarks about the alleged links between the Church, anti-semitism, and the Nazis for historians to argue about as I don’t feel the need to take a view on them, and lack clear justification for doing so.
    To pick up on one point, I guess I don’t agree with what I take to be your view that atheists should distinguish between personal faith and organized religion, and only attack the latter. It’s not clear to me, for one thing, that the two are separable in the way this strategy would require them to be. Catholics believe, for example, that the Pope is divinely ordained head of the one true church, and that some of his proclamations are infallible. For another thing, atheists might reasonably doubt that personal faith is harmless insofar as it (i) licenses people to believe without proper concern or respect for evidence, including on subjects about which it is important to have true beliefs (e.g. Should I use contraceptives? Is a fetus a person? Are blood transfusions immoral?), and (ii) influences the rest of the society in which they live (e.g. by making it hard for even atheist women to obtain safe, legal abortions).

  9. Dear Simon

    My point was precisely this – that much of what many abhor in Catholic doctrine and Church behaviour, such as the strictures on contraception and abortion, the disastrous effects of these in the third world and many other things have rather more to do to do with the institutional structures of the Church than any original teachings. One can see this in the fact that on most studies well over 70% of catholics reject the church’s teaching on contraception and a significant percentage do so on abortion as well, individuals taking a more nuanced view of the rights and wrongs of things than the magisterium would have us believe.

    I have been involved in the campaign for abortion law reform in Australia for many years. It isn’t just atheists in there – quite a lot of catholics. We need to be careful when we say “catholics believe” – there is a difference in most religions between what adherents are told to believe and what they actually do – most churches are pretty broad.

    I share your view that we should celebrate and promote rationality and the proper use of evidence and that religious belief often fails this test. We atheists are,however, also guilty of little irrationalities in our lives – nobody is wholly rational and sometimes this creates enough logical slippage to make life tolerable.

    It is a pretty constant feature of human behaviour that some create religious explanations for whatever we find inexplicable. It works for many people and we should surely respect that and try to minimise any down side, hence my call for separation and focus on the bit which does the real damage – institutional religion (which would admittedly be politically less powerful if it had fewer adherents).

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