The Pope kicked off Christmas celebrations at Vatican City this year by criticizing atheism and claiming it has led to some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” in history.
“A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope,” proclaims Benedict XVI in his second encyclical.
This pope, who has quickly distinguished himself as being an even more radical throw-back to the middle ages than John Paul II, claims that the only “journey of hope” is the Christian one to some sort of Kingdom of God. His hope is in the afterlife, not the present. And certainly not in secular government.
Of course, that’s a particularly rich position for a pope. The history of the Catholic Church is one of violence and exploitation, including holy wars against Muslims, the Inquisition, centuries of burning homosexuals and ‘witches’, the eradication of aboriginal cultures in Asia and the Americas — and on and on. Other Christian churches share the blame, not least for residential schools in this country, and continuing opposition to birth control and abortion in the Third World. Judaism and Islam’s hands are equally dirty both historically and today. Consider, for example, the ongoing execution of accused gays in Iran at the hands of the mullahs, who over-ride even judicial findings of innocence.
Check out any book documenting the history of the struggle for human rights. Much of the struggle for freedom of thought, expression, speech and assembly through the past 2,000 years has been a struggle against church oppression exhibited either directly or through governments afraid to anger religious leaders. Religion had its chance to make the world a better place and instead made it worse.
True, in our century, we saw terrible atrocities committed upon their peoples by Stalin and Mao — both of whom despised religion, though Stalin trained as a priest. And this is what Benedict points to as evidence of the “greatest forms of cruelty” inherent in atheism. But he’s overlooking the Vatican’s alliance with the Third Reich — perhaps it’s easy to forget the Holocaust when you’re holed up in gold-bedecked marble castle at the Vatican.
Benedict’s proclamation has little to do with accurately representing history and lots to do with the emboldened mind of religious leaders of our day. The world’s three monotheistic religions have been on the ascendancy for two decades now. The US is plummeting into theocracy. Africa is a religious mess after a century of Christian proselytizing, most recently by wacko US cults (one result is that deeply homophobic African Anglican bishops have won the day in anchoring their worldwide church to its historical oppression of gay clergy and lay people). Asia is converting to Catholicism and Christian cults at an astounding rate. Islamic extremists hold much of the Middle East under their spell, and extreme religious leaders in Israel prevent a solution to the Palestinian issue.
In Canada, we have an evangelical Christian prime minister who ends his speeches with “God bless,” ended negotiations with New Brunswick to fund abortions, and is now cutting back on AIDS prevention funding. Some Christian journey of hope!
But there is hope of another kind — at least in the West. Large numbers of people are giving up on the idea of religion as a source of justice and material fairness. A vigorous movement of skepticism, agnosticism and atheism is being born. Excellent books like Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything are encouraging agnostics and atheists to “come out” and push back against the power of religion in our democracy by insisting on separating church from state.
Meanwhile, the pope is wrong, as usual. Religion isn’t the path to justice. If it were, a bounty of justice would have overflowed this past 2,000 years during which religion dominated the public and private spheres.
What we need is a new secular morality to solve the problems that face the world, a morality based on a vision of a democratic, pluralistic world where human rights flourish. Where people can speak up about what matters to them without religious censure or censorship. Then we have a hope of overcoming the world’s real problems, like hatred of sexuality, wealth inequality, AIDS, global warming, and the tragic use of war to solve difficult problems.
Now, that’s a realistic vision of justice.