What the Catholic Church can teach Islam about responding to atheists

A Bangladeshi policeman stands guard at the spot where three motorcycle-riding assailants hacked student activist Nazimuddin Samad to death in April (AP)

The National Secular Society (NSS), who, like the rest of us, are not wrong about everything, have an interesting article on their website about a gymnast, Louis Smith (of whom I confess I have never heard) being forced to apologise for insulting Islam. The NSS point out that though blasphemy is no longer a crime in this country, there is a de facto blasphemy law and that the case of Mr Smith illustrates how it works.

Meanwhile, over at the Spectator, do listen to their podcast which deals with the persecution of atheists in Muslim-majority countries such as Bangladesh. Among the very interesting nuggets that emerge in the conversation is the belief, reported by Douglas Murray, expressed by a leading Islamic cleric, Sheikh Qaradawi, that Islam’s very existence would be in peril if the laws on blasphemy and apostasy were not there to defend it. (The key moment is at 17.45 minutes in. The same sentiment is to be found quoted on the Sheikh’s Wikipedia page.)

When Douglas Murray speaks of the tide of secularisation and unbelief that threatens the Muslim world, and the corresponding fear that this arouses in the guardians of that world, I am sure he is right. The murder of atheists in Bangladesh is not a sign of the strength of Islam, but rather a sign of weakness: a hysterical over-reaction to the perceived threat of atheist “contagion” which might well bring down the whole tottering structure.

Thus, the murder of atheists (seven have been killed by lynch mobs in Bangladesh alone recently) provides us with an insight into certain sections of Islam. They feel under threat, and as Murray reminds us, they are right to feel this way – as some Muslims seem particularly unprepared to deal with modernity. Trying to shut it out completely, or deny it, as tried by the Taliban or ISIS, does not seem to be a good long-term strategy.

At this point one needs to turn to the history of Catholicism and see if any parallels present themselves. In the Middle Ages, atheism was more or less unknown in Europe. It is perfectly possible that it was fear – of the Inquisition and the other Church courts – that ensured that atheists did not raise their heads above the parapet. With the decline of a secular arm willing to co-operate with the Church, atheism (along with Protestantism) became much more visible. But the truth is that Catholicism has survived the onslaughts of both atheism and Protestantism without having the hard power of the Inquisition to act as its enforcer. (It is worth mentioning at this point that the Inquisition used the death penalty a lot more sparingly than contemporary Islamists.)

What has ensured the survival of Catholicism is soft power, the power of persuasion, exercised through preaching, teaching, devotion and art. It is to be noted that anti-clericals have always done their best, sometimes by legislation, to take these weapons away from the Church, by banning Church schools, making processions illegal, and confiscating Church property, as well as not allowing the Church to control printing presses. All of this is a huge backhanded compliment to the Church, for it underlines the Church’s historical success at using these means, which leads many to suspect that the Church’s more than mere survival is rooted in its proclamation of the truth and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, what is the point of all this? My point is a simple one. Unlike the lynch mobs of Bangladesh, unlike Sheikh Qaradawi and others, we do not need to be frightened of modernity. The Church can deal with it, thanks to the intrinsic strength of her message. The Church has dealt with the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, nineteenth century anti-clericalism, and Marxism. As for Modernity – bring it on, I say. Let’s have that discussion!