Friday, September 17, 2010

A response to atheists

As I write this, the media is full of news about the papal visit. The headlines and articles are a jumble of points, relating to child abuse by priests and whether there was a cover-up, criticism from more strident atheists about a state visit by a religious leader, questions around sexuality and related issues, and other wider questions about whether activities run by agencies with a religious background can really be good for the whole of society. The problem with all of the noise that’s being made is that cheap shots about wayward priests, or even militant religious groups around the world, get put alongside serious debates about God and the role of religion in society. So is there any way Christians can respond to all of this in a positive way?

The first thing to avoid is argument about who’s better (or worse) than whom. History is littered with the tragedies and mistakes of those who have acted in the name of religion - from the Crusades to 9/11. We could equally quote atheist regimes such as the USSR under Stalin or Mao’s China in the catalogue of cruelty. But God’s existence or the debates about the worth of state-funded Church schools can’t be settled by some crude calculation of these events. The fact there were nasty people carrying an atheist or a Christian label doesn’t really help us today. For Christians the fact of what we call sin is hardly a surprise – it’s to be expected. The Gospel isn’t about proving we’re better than other people, but about reconciliation for people who fail.

A second pitfall in the current climate is the focus on the allegations that the present Pope failed to act in cases where priests had committed abuse. A recent Panorama demonstrated that the issue is extremely serious, and there are still key questions that need to be answered, but there is a difference between naivety or incompetence, and wilful concealment. The issue won’t (and shouldn’t) go away, so I am sure that much more will emerge as time goes on as to where culpability lies. However, even if the Pope is culpable of serious errors in this area, it would be hugely unfair to smear all Catholics as a result. A failure in leadership in this area damages trust in those who hold responsibility and in the institution they serve, but it’s not decisive proof that everything Catholicism (or individual Catholics) does or stands for must be suspect or damaging.

I’m not even convinced that trying to have any debate at a more intellectual level with people like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens gets us anywhere either. In some ways they can end up being a mirror image of religious fundamentalists in their pronouncements – absolutely unmoveable and unwilling to see anything good in the other side.

Some of the Pope's statements about secularism in Europe do seem rather dramatic, but something has changed over recent years. Churches used to be portrayed as generally benign institutions (albeit with some flawed exceptions)  - and often the object of kindly joking. The shift to a point where church schools are now seen as a problem by a significant voice in society represents a shift in culture.

Christians could still be heroes in the 1960s (Martin Luther King) and even the last Pope was seen as instrumental in the changes which eventually brought freedom and democracy to Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Now the Church is seen as an opponent rather than a source of freedom.

It's OK to have prayers and rituals in places of worship, but the public sphere should be secular (based on the questionable assumption that secular = neutral). The rise of Christian fundamentalism and the religious right on one hand, and Islamic extremism on the other,  seems to have questioned the motives of everyone with a faith.

It's tempting to do the thought experiment where 2 people say to each other in a Pythonesque way "what have the Christians ever done for us", with architecture, sponsoring great art, founding universities, providing healthcare, free education, abolition of the slave trade being some of the answers. "Well apart from art, architecture, hospitals.... what have they ever done for us..." the conversation would continue.

In the end, the Pope's visit raises specific questions with regard to issues that he has been involved in - both in what he teaches and the failures of the Catholic Church with regard to safeguarding. However, it highlights issues that were already there in public debate about the role of religion in society, rather than creates any new ones. I suspect that big events and big gestures aren't actually the way any Christian individual or community can commend their faith or themselves. In that sense, on the big public stage we can't 'win' - even if we thought that 'winning' was what it was about (which I don't).

Up and down the land Christians and churches run and host groups and activities for kids, young families, lonely pensioners, people struggling with issues like addiction, they accommodate youth clubs and uniformed organisations, choirs, lunch clubs, after-school groups and so on. If you waved a magic wand and got rid of the Christian contribution to society tomorrow, communities throughout Britain would have significant amounts of their life removed, and not simply the active worshippers. People may not be in church on Sundays in huge numbers (although attendance has stabilised) but the positive impact of local churches extends much further into the community than is often realised, especially where other community facilities and resources are few and far between.

Perhaps the best argument Christians and the Churches can put are the many small, but good stories that come out of those many situations, both for people of faith and people of none. The big story in the news is the Papal visit, but the stories that actually change lives are probably much nearer to home.

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