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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

The stirrings of secularists indicate trouble ahead for theocrats

By Terry Sanderson

Up to 20,000 secularists rallied in the streets of London last Saturday to make their opposition to the teachings and behaviour of Joseph Ratzinger perfectly clear. They marched under the banner “Protest the Pope” — a coalition of groups, brought together initially by the NSS, that wanted to make clear their opposition to the papal visit — and, indeed, to the pope himself.

The National Catholic Register said that it was the biggest protest against the papacy that has been seen in modern history. The Guardian also conceded this much but then spoiled it with an insulting editorial saying that we had “traipsed through the streets” of London. Of course, the Daily Telegraph weren’t able to resist the insults either – “secular fanatics” was their preferred term.

But despite this, there is no doubt that the Protest the Pope march was seriously significant. It isn’t easy to stir religious — or anti-religious — passions in this country, but the visit of this pope and the manipulative way it has been foisted on the nation has brought the first large-scale demonstration of secular intent for maybe a hundred years on to the streets of Britain.

David Cameron tried to tie the pope’s opinion about “aggressive secularism” into his “Big Society” idea. “People do not have to share a religious faith or agree with religion on everything to see the benefit of asking the searching questions that you, your Holiness, have posed to us about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other,” he said. “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think, and that can only be a good thing.”

But is this true? In reality, the pope’s speeches were a series of platitudes. At a school he visited in Twickenham he told children that “money doesn’t buy happiness”. Well, who hasn’t said that at some time in their life? He also warned them about the cult of celebrity – despite being himself at the centre of one of the most over-hyped personality cults ever seen.

He says that the financial catastrophe that has overtaken the world is a result of a lack of ethics. Which is what just about everyone else has said before him.

The Prime Minister said at the end of the papal visit that religion was at the heart of “the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain”, a reference to his “Big Society”. He added: “People of faith, including our 30,000 faith-based charities, are great architects of that new culture. For many, faith is a spur to action. It shapes their beliefs and behaviour; and it gives them a sense of purpose. Crucially, it is their faith that inspires them to help others, and we should celebrate that. Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be. As you, your Holiness, have said, ‘faith is not a problem for legislators to solve but rather a vital part of our national conversation’. And we are proud of that.”

For many who had been on the march, these were the very sentiments that they did not want to hear. They do not want religion to be at the centre of society because they know that wherever religion is in control, conflict and injustice follow.

The secular ethos that the pope so disparages has, in fact, served us well. We are a nation of many cultures, creeds and none. This includes Catholics, of course, but it does not include only Catholics or even Christians. And those Catholics who are part of our nation do not, in the main, support the pope’s teachings on social issues. Two polls last week showed him to be completely out of step with his titular followers.

Secularism has made this country an easy-going, compassionate and peaceful place to live. We tolerate each other’s religions so long as the majority who don’t want to observe them are left in peace. The intrusion of religion into those areas of life that we all have to share (schools, hospitals, social services, government) will bring discord, animosity, sectarianism and strife.

We’ve seen it happen in other countries and now our own tolerance is going to be tested to its limits. And that astonishing protest on Saturday was the first indication that battle lines are being drawn.

Mr Cameron — and Baroness Warsi — please note. You may think it is a good idea to allow religion to run society but many — maybe most — of us do not.

See also: Britain’s progressive not aggressive

Head of Vatican bank under investigation for money laundering

See Sanduron’s video of the event

Published Fri, 24 Sep 2010