The atheist saints of Assisi

Does the inter-faith movement now officially include atheism?

A quartet of leading atheist intellectuals, including the dense French theorist Julia Kristeva and our own AC Grayling, were due to bejoining the Pope at a major inter-faith event in Assisi next week. The gathering is designed to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II's 1986 World Prayer Day, a colourful event in which the late pontiff was joined by, among others, Archbishop Robert Runcie, the Dalai Lama and a handful of tribal shamans to pray for world peace. There were no atheists on that occasion, though. Nor Miss World, as far as I'm aware.

For Pope Benedict, there may be a tactical reason for the inclusion this time of non-believers in any kind of God. His predecessor was criticised heavily by some traditionalists for praying alongside representatives of other faiths, especially non-monotheistic ones. To this day, dissident Catholics enjoy circulating pictures of John Paul being "blessed" by Native American chiefs and voodoo witchdoctors. The then Cardinal Ratzinger was one the only leading Vatican official who didn't travel to Assisi, and later wrote that the meeting gave a "false impression of common ground that does not exist in reality".

His own writings and speeches have tended to stress the differences between faiths rather than the similarities. He has even suggested that inter-religious dialogue is impossible since different religions can never agree on the truth. There have been some tricky inter-faith moments since he became pope -- most notably in the wake of a speech in Regensburg in 2006 in which he appeared to criticise Islam. This year's Assisi gathering is being described as a "pilgrimage" rather than a prayer event. And what better way could there be to indicate the non-theological nature of the meeting than to invite atheists?

There are signs, too, that Pope Benedict XVI finds the company of non-believers quite congenial. He is, after all, a man who relishes intellectual debate and is known to be uncomfortable with the woolly, feelgood platitudes that constitute many inter-faith discussions. Atheists might liven things up a bit. Perhaps he hopes that some will prove to be allies.

"The pope wanted the atheists in Assisi," said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who leads the Pontifical Council for Culture, which now includes a division dubbed the Court of Gentiles dedicated to fostering good relations with humanists. Ravasi went on to explain the move as part of the pope's ongoing project "to reassert the importance of the relationship between faith and reason." The problem for the Church in modern Europe, he said, wasn't atheist thought so much as the general atmosphere of "indifference, dullness, lack of questioning, banality" that characterises modern culture. This echoes recent comments the pope made in Germany, when he suggested that agnostics who struggle with the question of God are closer to the kingdom of God than "routine" Catholics whose faith is purely conventional.

Earlier this year, the Vatican launched a series of international seminars with the aim of finding common ground with secularists on the big questions facing modern societies. This may be indicative of a wider trend in which atheists and agnostics are beginning to claim a place in the growing world of inter-faith activities. Rory Fenton, for example, recently argued that there is a "gaping atheist-shaped hole in the interfaith movement".

But it would be going too far to suggest that we are witnessing a Catholic/atheist love-in. For one thing, the pope has regularly denounced "atheist extremism", even associating it with the rise of Nazism. For many of today's most prominent atheists, meanwhile, Joseph Ratzinger remains Enemy Number One, "a leering old villain in a frock" as Richard Dawkins once notoriously described him. Everywhere he goes these days, he is followed by demonstrators, mostly avowed atheists, objecting to his views on contraception or calling for his arrest. Grayling himself last year linked Pope Benedict with the CEO of Goldman Sachs, "each heading organisations publicly acknowledged to have done immense harm and yet neither is in any danger of having to pay for it."

It would have been interesting to see whether AC said anything like that in the Pope's presence. Sadly, it's now being reported that he has pulled out of the event. He now says that he had not realised that it was "a minor event and what they wanted was these guests to accompany the pope on a pilgrimage." This is rather puzzling, given that the event he was invited to was officially described as "a panel discussion" and may not -- for the atheists at least -- have included a trip to Assisi at all. It may be a simple matter of miscommunication, or perhaps Grayling had other reasons for pulling out. The other atheists, though, will probably still be there.


UPDATE 3pm: This blog was updated to reflect the news that AC Grayling had pulled out of the event.


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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage