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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”