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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage