The Pope has finally arrived in the UK, with all the pomp and ceremony that was expected. Watching the images of his appearances today in Scotland, it is hard to begrudge the spectators their excitement. Popes do indeed know how to put on a good show.
I come from a decidedly low church background, so I am always slightly uncomfortable about flamboyant displays of religious ceremony. But I can understand how the ritual and the symbols are designed to transport people beyond the mundane of their everyday lives and get a glimpse, perhaps, of the divine.
The Pope’s visit and the religious showmanship that accompanies it would seem to sit uncomfortably in Pope Benedict’s Britain.
Leading up to this visit, it has been clear that the Pope and others in the Vatican see the UK as a dangerously secular country in which Christianity is if not under direct attack, at least under serious threat.
The Pope made that clear today in his first speech in Holyrood, where he warned against the dangers of aggressive secularism and atheism. He implied secularists and atheists were a threat to Britain’s Christian heritage and could undermine the common good.
How might those comments go down with atheists?
There probably are some who will have been delighted to have drawn the attention of the Pope. By mentioning aggressive secularism and atheism in his remarks, he gives the so called ‘new atheism’ more publicity and, in effect, admits that the church is worried about it.
Then there may be other atheists or agnostics who are not aggressively opposed to religion and can wonder why they are being singled out for undermining the common good. They can legitimately point to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church worldwide and ask if the church mightn’t take the beam out of its own eye before it starts pointing to the mote in theirs.
I tend to think that people of faith – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. – have less to fear from secularism and atheism than they do from the failings of their own adherents.
I say this very much as an insider, a Christian, and include myself in this. I think that the proverbial ‘person on the street’ is more likely to turn away from God or religion because of the bad behaviour of a person of faith, than they are because of reading the God Delusion.
That’s why I’d rather see the Pope be more open on this visit about the Catholic Church’s failings, and to prioritise meeting with and apologising to victims of clerical sexual abuse.