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The papal visit gave a boost to Humanism

A scene from the Protest the Pope march last September (PA photo)

Last month two groups of people met in a church in central London to discuss gay adoption, abortion and religious schools. On one side were representatives of Catholic Voices, on the other a group from the Central London Humanist Group.

The point, says Paul Sims of New Humanist magazine, was “to experiment with the idea of Humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner”.

It was the second such event. The first took place in October, at the instigation of the Humanists, following a blog post by Sims in which he expressed concerns about the tone of the discussion during the Pope’s visit to Britain. That tone was evident during a pre-visit debate in Conway Hall, where “Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling”.

Alan Palmer, chairman of the Central London Humanist Group, then invited Sims and 23 others to a smaller debate. Catholics were represented by Austen Ivereigh, Jack Valero and Fr Christopher Jamison. Sims was happy with the courteous nature of the meeting. As he wrote at the time: “Given the way Catholics and Humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Millwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day.”

But not all atheists were happy. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, criticised Sims for speaking to a group he holds in contempt. Sanderson said Sims was “obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices”, which was “an activity surely worthy of King Canute”. Is Sanderson right? Is there any point in talking to the other side?

I met Sims last week near the Gower Street home of the magazine, which was established in 1885 (three years before The Catholic Herald). It was originally known as Watt’s Literary Guide, and its founder was Charles Watts, founder of the National Secular Society.

I asked Sims what the meeting with Catholics was like.

“It was very interesting to meet the people and get to know some people you wouldn’t meet at Humanist events,” he replied. The gathering was cordial, although “it got most heated over abortion”. Humanists don’t have to be in favour of abortion, he said, but “in gay rights and gay adoption Humanists are generally pro. I don’t think there’s an anti-gay rights branch of Humanism.”

The Catholics and Humanists found little common ground, but Sims said the tone of the debate was refreshing, especially in contrast to that during the papal visit.

“People get carried away with themselves on all sides,” he said. “In some of the newspaper columns the oppositional language being used at times didn’t reflect the reality. On the Friday when the Pope was in town I went to the pub with a few friends and they didn’t even realise the Pope was around. The idea that the country was divided into two camps was not true. As is often the case with anything to do with religion now, most people fall in the middle.”

The Church was very happy with the papal visit. Not only did most people warm to the Holy Father but his opponents often seemed shrill and intolerant. Church attendance jumped and The Catholic Herald’s website got record traffic. But perhaps it’s easier, in the echo chamber of likeminded company, to overstate the popularity of one’s own views; talking to Sims I realised that the other side saw it the same way.

“Both sides claimed they had a PR victory and isn’t that always the case?” Sims asked. “The Catholic Church was in the public eye for four days and there was lots of positive PR, but the Protest the Pope side were on the news, and Humanism and secularism was in the public eye as well. We had lots of new subscriptions and record web traffic during September, and the British Humanist Association had a nice spike in membership. It pushed people into camps. Who won the PR battle? It was a draw. It had benefits for both sides.”

So what about the argument, put forward by journalist Brendan O’Neill, that the anti-papal protests were a perversion of John Stuart Mill’s Humanism? Sims said he disagreed.

“There was the odd sign that said: ‘F— the Pope’. But as a rule it was mostly jolly and tongue in cheek. Brendan said the march was about closing down discussion but they weren’t calling for the Pope to be kicked out of the country. They just said they didn’t agree with a state visit and they were going to voice their opposition. But I don’t think if you say the Pope is ‘an enemy of the state’ or ‘an enemy of humanity’ there’s anything to be gained by saying that. It’s just going to annoy Catholics who look up to the Pope.”

New Atheism arose in a fury following the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. But its real spark was 9/11 and I’ve often thought it was a displaced fear of Islam. Sims didn’t agree with me. He said it had more to do with gay rights.
“Humanism has not used religion as a proxy for Islam. A lot of the opposition to the Catholic Church was specifically over Vatican-related things. I wouldn’t say Protest the Pope was using the Vatican to protest Islam.”

I asked him if he thought Dawkins was sometimes a liability to his cause.
“No,” he said. “He’s done more than anyone. Atheism has become a thing widely debated.”

The last thing I wanted Sims to tell me was, why are New Atheists so angry?

“Obviously I can only speculate,” he said. “But I think part of it is it’s an area driven by polemical books, by people like Christopher Hitchens. You feed that into the internet, which is quite aggressive. But it’s also that Richard Dawkins played a really important role in allowing people in the southern states who have been allowed to come out as atheists. They are people who feel they can’t say things within their real-life community so they go on the internet at two in the morning.”

Sims is anything but angry and I agree that the argument needs to be toned down.
“One of the comments during the papal visit was by a Labour Catholic who used the phrase ‘secular jihadists’,” he said. “That to me is just an utterly ridiculous phrase. I don’t think voicing an opinion strongly is a dangerous thing.”