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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.