Gwynne Dyer: Pope Benedict XVI takes on the atheists

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The best defence is a good offense. A less worldly pope, making a state visit to Britain as the revelations about Catholic priests and bishops abusing the children in their care spread across Europe, might have been reduced to shame and silence. But Benedict XVI knows about the uses of power—he was the late Pope John Paul II’s chief enforcer—and he immediately launched an attack on all the people he sees as the church’s enemies.

      Speaking in Scotland last week, he condemned “aggressive forms of secularism” and the threat of “atheist extremism”. Never mind the hundreds or thousands of priests who raped little boys (and occasionally little girls). The real threat is the people who don’t believe in God, and therefore have no morals. He even equated atheists with Nazis.

      That was rich coming from a man whose predecessor, Pope Pius XII, personally negotiated a treaty with the Nazis in 1933 that was advantageous for German Catholics, and did not publicly condemn Hitler’s extermination of the Jews although he was well informed about it. But Benedict’s tactics worked very well, because all that the media could talk about after his Scottish speech was whether non-believers can be trusted to behave morally.

      “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century”, said the itinerant pope, “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.” God, religion and virtue on one side; Nazis and Communists and a selfish, hedonistic wasteland of sex and secularism on the other.

      Set the terms of the argument and you are already halfway to winning it. That is Benedict’s game, and it is played by many other leaders of every religion. Only the fear of God makes people behave morally. Without that fear of divine punishment, they would act out every evil fantasy that popped into their minds. So stick with us.

      It’s an easy allegation to make, and almost impossible to test—or so those who make it believe. But actually, it has been tested, at least for the Christian parts of the world, and guess what? Religion does not make people behave better. It makes them behave worse.

      We’re not talking about suicide bombers and other religious extremists here. We’re talking about ordinary people committing ordinary acts of violence, everyday thefts, and run-of-the-mill sex crimes. The more religious a particular society or region is, the more of that sort of stuff happens.

      As researcher Gregory Paul puts it: “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, venereal disease, teen pregnancy, and abortion.” Whereas according to Pope Benedict’s argument, the United States, one of the world’s most religious countries, should be a crime-free paradise, while secular Sweden should be a vortex of crime and violence.

      Direct observation suggests otherwise. So do Paul’s two articles, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” published in the Journal of Religion & Society in 2005, and “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” published in Evolutionary Psychology Journal in 2009.

      Even within the United States, Paul reported, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest” have “markedly worse homicide, mortality, sexually transmitted disease, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the North-East, where societal conditions, secularization and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.”

      There’s a chicken-and-egg question here, because what Paul’s research actually shows is that people are more religious in societies where socio-economic conditions are poor. There is more crime and anti-social behaviour in such societies, but are people behaving badly because they are religious, or just because they are poor, ill-educated, and desperate?

      The real statistical correlation is between religiosity, poverty and ignorance. Hundreds of millions of religious people are neither poor nor ignorant, but the bottom of the pecking order is where religion has its strongest grip in any society. Raise that bottom level, as countries with good social welfare systems do, and religious belief will gradually decline.

      Besides, it’s not really secularism per se that horrifies Pope Benedict and his minions. Cardinal Kasper, his top official for relations with the Church of England, gave the game away in an interview last week with the German magazine Focus, condemning England as “a secular, pluralistic country. When you land at Heathrow, you sometimes think you might have landed in a Third World country.”

      Kasper was promptly removed from the list of high church officials travelling with the pope, but the Vatican spokesman, Monsignor Oliver Lahl, defended his remarks: “All he was saying is that when you arrive in Britain today it is like arriving in Islamabad, Mumbai and Kinshasa all at the same time.”

      It’s the diversity, tolerance, and necessary secularism of modern multicultural societies that religious leaders of every stripe really can’t stand. Such societies have to be secular to accommodate all the different strands of belief and disbelief that must live alongside one another in peace, whereas the pope and his friends still long for the humble, homogeneous peasant societies where everybody believed, and believed the same thing.



      Doc Meadows

      Sep 21, 2010 at 1:33pm

      The great problem with tolerance and so called plurality is not that it is not Catholic or religious, though it is often pursued with religious fervor. The main problem with tolerance is that it holds is self as better than exclusive systems, while practicing the same discrimination and deprecations that it accuses the religious systems of. It differs not in that it does not exclude, but in which views it favors and excludes. Tolerance and modern secularism fail not faith but its own ideals. The faithful believer can and does fall afoul of his convictions, and he can be sincerely but definitely wrong. The minute a tolerant person takes the believer to task for intolerance, he become a violator of tolerance. Secular societies are secular in the sense that they do not accommodate all views, particularly in the public square.. It has been said "To thine own self be true". But how shall the advocates of tolerance do so?


      Sep 21, 2010 at 1:55pm

      Thanks Gwynne for throwing in a few facts to give perspective to the Pope's new marketing campaign. As with FOX News, facts (and long memories) are the Vatican's kryptonite.

      Nice Try

      Sep 21, 2010 at 3:27pm

      But trying to convince reasonably intelligent people that the more tolerant you are, the less tolerant you are (and vice versa) is kind of a long shot.

      'Tolerant people' (apparently the villains here) trying to convince people to live and let live with the inevitable diversity of human kind has a much more universal appeal, and practical value.

      Brian Schmidt

      Sep 21, 2010 at 4:46pm

      What an utter load of crap and nonsense. !!! The more religious the society, the more evil ?? What emperical evidence do you have to support this ? What studies have been done ? I shudder to think that such sloppy, self-serving " journalism" might possibly be believed by somebody out there. Shut you stupid mouth you hairy legged, birkenstock wearing, granola eating hippy-witch - ( I am sure you are terribly fat too )


      Sep 21, 2010 at 5:56pm

      Brian, while I do not have the time or energy to point out and correct every major error in your post I feel that three main ones should be clarified.

      1) Gwynne Dyer is a 67 year old man who lives in London. He has a military background.

      2) He named the studies and the researcher who carried them out in the body of the article.

      3) His column is is published in over 175 papers in at least 45 countries, so yeah, he is taken seriously.

      You can now return to your frothing ignorance and incomprehension.


      Sep 21, 2010 at 5:59pm

      "The more religious the society, the more evil?? What emperical evidence do you have to support this?"

      Did you even read the article? Unlike 99.9% of all opinion columns, he actually cites two scientific papers to support his argument.

      The free online book The Authoritarians presents an explanation backed by scientific data. The author found that deeply religious people who asked God for forgiveness felt a lot better about their transgressions then non-religious people who did the right thing and owned up to their transgression to the victim.


      Sep 21, 2010 at 7:57pm

      All you have to do is look at all the poor, ignorant, backward, countries that are heavily into religion of some kind and you will see the obvious. Ireland notwithstanding.

      Colin M

      Sep 21, 2010 at 8:25pm

      Wow, did Brian ever just prove this article's thesis perfectly! Good work!


      Sep 21, 2010 at 10:37pm

      I think I detect a tongue in cheek level of exaggeration in Brian's comments. To me, they don't read quite like what a devout church-goer would say.

      pape deus

      Sep 22, 2010 at 12:00am

      I think Doc Meadows and Brian nicely showcase two of the main ways theists approach debate on religion: Doc tries to pass sophistry for rational argumentation basically asserting that secular tolerance is not really tolerant because it doesn't tolerate intolerance. Brian on the other hand delights with a brilliant demonstration of spirited, vibrant free-flowing stupidity (while possibly praying for his adversaries' souls).