I was fairly ambivalent about Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the UK. Yes, it was costing the taxpayer money but so are many other things I don't believe or agree with. Individual opinion shouldn't count for anything in this context. Our country was built on the foundation of Christianity and, as such, the Pope is still a part of our joined heritage. Whether we as individuals want to accept him as a religious figure is a personal choice.
I don't. I'm an atheist, though I hope not the kind who draws attention to it at every turn. I believe, like many atheists, that other people are entitled to their beliefs and should be left alone to practice them. That's why the scenes in Scotland today of people lining the street to see the pontiff were fine with me. At the culmination of Eid last week our predominantly Asian street began celebrating with fireworks. Their prerogative and they were fairly considerate to their neighbours during the process.
What ignited my anger about the Pope's visit were these inflammatory comments about secularism in British society and Cardinal Kaspar's inference that Britain is like a third-world country because of it. I've just read about the Pope's address in Edinburgh that apparently compared atheist extremism with Nazi extremism. I'm offended and appalled frankly.
There are extremists in every religion. If you consider atheism to be a religion in the sense that it's a belief system then it stands to reason that there will be atheist extremists around. And there are. Some people won't feel comfortable with the world until 'proper' religion is stamped out (however unrealistic this viewpoint is). Equally, though, Pope Benedict is indulging in a little extremism of his own. He is encouraging Britain to remember how Christianity and Christian values were punished by the Nazi regime, simply because they showed love and compassion. The phrase that particularly interests me is, "let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society". Is he suggesting that atheism cannot be virtuous because it isn't connection with 'proper' religious belief?
I was willing to ignore the Pope's visit to Britain and let those who wanted him here enjoy his visit in peace. However, I'm not so sure anymore. In the heart of this atheist at least the pontiff has irritated a displeasure that wasn't really there before.
If his intention was to stir up more unrest in an already-troubled society then he's done it well.