This was a PR disaster for atheism
Full text of an article that appeared in The Catholic Herald
Well, I think we can safely say that the Pope's visit to Britain was something of a triumph. The vast numbers who came to greet the Holy Father dwarfed the coterie of angry atheists who came "to protest" him. And as much as I regret to admit it, the whole affair has proved to be something of a public relations disaster for atheism.
Some reasons for this are obvious. There was the shrill invective of the likes of Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling, who both continue to ignore the first rule of proselytising, in that you are not going to win friends or influence people if you call them horrid names all the time. There was also the idiotic innuendo about the Pope being a Nazi; calling someone a "Nazi" is invariably a substitute for seeking to refute their arguments. And it's juvenile. "You're just like Hitler!" is the kind of cry made by teenagers when told to tidy their bedrooms.
Moreover, there was the omnipresence of celebrities giving their two pence worth. You always know there is something suspect about a cause when it is endorsed by actors and pop stars.
The garrulous Stephen Fry was the best-known culprit, referring to the Vatican thus: "It is a rump accident of history that this place has an autonomous, or autocratic, absolute monarchy of one organisation". This line, that the Vatican is not a real country, and consequently that the Pope didn't merit a state visit, was bandied around routinely. But it ignores the fact that no states are essentially natural, and that the creation of the Vatican City in 1929 only gave back to the Holy See what had been taken away from it in 1870, when the Papal States were incorporated into a united Italy.
Then there was the singer Sinead O'Connor calling for the entire Catholic hierarchy to resign over child sex abuse. The comedian Stewart Lee, the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett and restaurant critic Jonathan Meades also voiced their opposition to the visit on the grounds of the Pope's views abortion, condoms, human rights... you know the rest.
People often bemoan our "celebrity culture" as manifest in tabloid newspapers and magazines such as "Hello!" and "OK!". We are told that it is vacuous, and resembles a kind of ersatz religion. I don't think in itself this is a bad thing. People need their circuses as well as their bread. And it is not necessarily a new thing. People gossiped as much about Nelson's affair with Lady Hamilton and George IV's disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick as much as they discussed their roles as statesmen. In his day Joshua Reynolds was as much a celebrity as he was a painter.
What is novel and objectionable, roughly since Jane Fonda's opinions on the Vietnam War were given publicity, is the notion that we should take seriously the opinions of performers. After all, actors are, literally, professional liars: they earn their living by pretending to be someone they are not. Comedians and fiction writers are by definition fantasists. These people shouldn't be allowed to vote, let alone be indulged by the media so generously.
I had hoped the marvellous 2004 film "Team America: World Police" had put an end to all this nonsense. The movie lampooned the self-importance of actors and their political opinions, featuring marionettes representing the likes of George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, all parroting left-liberal, anti-American dogma. It featured a grotesque representation of the film maker Michael Moore, whose rampant egomania was not too far removed from the real thing. In it we had Penn's character declare: "Last year I went to Iraq. Before Team America showed up, it was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate, where the children danced and laughed and played with gumdrop smiles".
It was not a particularly partisan film. It also satirised America's aggressive and reckless foreign policy (all the best satire targets both the Left and the Right, from Jonathan Swift to Monty Python.) "Team America"'s essential message was that the US was wrong to invade Iraq, yet it was equally wrong for us to listen to the opinion of Hollywood stars. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who assumes that people who appears on television are automatically conferred special wisdom as a consequence. We should pay no more attention to Stephen Fry's views on Catholicism than Mel Gibson's pseudo-Catholic reflections.
Ultimately, the Pope's visit was a triumph because it demonstrates that people full of resentment, self-pity and spite are unappealing, where as Benedict, who exuded humility and grace, put a smile on millions of faces. You don't have to be religious to recognise this basic lesson in human nature: be nice and people will like you.