The visit of Pope Benedict XVI was greeted by protests by secularists, LGBT activists and campaigners for womens’ rights expressing outrage at his reactionary teachings. James Meadway looks at the politics behind the demonstrations.

Protesters march against Pope Benedict XVI

Ten thousand protested against the Pope in London on Saturday. They were expressing their outrage at the state visit of the Pontiff to Britain.

LGBT activists and campaigners for womens’ rights were amongst those attending demonstrations organised by a coalition of secularists. Victims of appalling abuse by priests spoke at the closing rally.

The demonstration was larger than its organisers anticipated. Very many people have been horrified by Pope Benedict XVI’s opinions and actions. Lavishing the pomp and splendour of a taxpayer-funded state visit added insult to injury.

God’s Rottweiler

The reasons to protest against the former Joseph Ratzinger are legion. Pope Benedict is the profoundly conservative head of a conservative religious institution. He has continually sought to attack and undermine liberalising and modernising elements within the Church.

Ratzinger, as a young theology lecturer, participated in the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council that reformed many traditional doctrines. In a belated response to modernity, the Church was attempting to liberalise.

Battles over the legacy of the Council defined Catholicism in the following decades. Apparently terrified by the student movements of 1968, Ratzinger subsequently sided unfailingly with the reactionaries.

He provided sophisticated re-interpretations of Catholic theology that lent support to those demanding the Church set its face against twentieth century society. Such adept wranglings commended him to his superiors. His ascent up the hierarchy was steady.

He made his name as Cardinal while head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a body previously better known as the Inquisition. There, Ratzinger hounded and excommunicated left-wing liberation theologians.

From the ordination of women, to the vile scandal of child sex abuse, as Pope Benedict he has acted with ruthless consistency to assert the supreme authority of the Papacy and the Church’s traditional teachings.

His reaction to the cover-up of paedophile priests beggars belief. His social teachings are close to medieval.

It is no great surprise that he inspires protests.


Yet ordinary Catholics do not agree with his hardline doctrines. British Catholics do not, in their majority, hold to the Pope and the Church’s teachings on social issues. Just 11 per cent believe gay sex is morally wrong; 17 per cent oppose abortion; a derisory 4 per cent oppose the use of contraception.

These are tiny figures. The gap between laity and hierarchy is huge. There is growing pressure on the hierarchy to reform.

That pressure helps explain the stridency of Pope Benedict’s politics. He believes it is necessary to discipline his Church against the secular world by reasserting traditional values.

But devout secularists like Richard Dawkins are unlikely to help. By putting themselves at the head of the protests, they make it easier for the Pope and the conservatives to demand that the hatches are battened down against the “militant atheists”. Internal dissent will be marginalised.

The dynamic would be different were protests to be led by reforming Catholics. Instead, many ordinary Catholics, though having little sympathy for the Pope’s politics, will bristle against attacks from outside the Church.

Already, the Pope has drawn the battle-lines. Cheered on by the Telegraph and the Mail, “aggressive secularists” are damned, and atheism is ludicrously blamed by Benedict for the Holocaust.

Benedict is polarising the debate, seeking to shore up his own position within the Church, and rally reactionaries without.

Those leading the protests have not broken this polarising dynamic.

Secular Britain

The New Atheists have placed themselves at the head of the protest movement. Organisations like the National Secular Society see religion itself as the main enemy.

They present themselves as speaking for the rational majority against primitive superstitions. Terry Sanderson, head of the National Secular Society, claims Britain is now a “secular” country that should not admit religious leaders.

Of course, few regularly attend any religious ceremony, of any faith, and religious belief is in decline. Yet over 70 per cent described themselves as “Christian” in the last census. And 78 per cent of the population profess to some belief in god or “spirit”. Rigorous atheism remains a minority pursuit.

The head of state, the Queen, is also head of the official religion – the Church of England. It is a peculiar kind of secular country that has most people believing in other-worldly spirits, and the head of state running the official church.

That didn’t stop Richard Dawkins, in an ugly and salacious closing speech, from reaching a fever pitch when condemning Pope Benedict for daring to criticise the “Queen’s own church”.

And Terry Sanderson himself, standing on Whitehall, branded the Pope an “enemy of the state”, leading chants of “Pope go home”.

Their historical ignorance is disturbing.

No Pope here

Anti-Catholicism helped define the British state. A sharp break was forced with the Roman church during the Reformation, as the local capitalists rose to power. The Catholic Church fought a rearguard action here as in the rest of Europe.

Once the new state was secured, however, anti-Catholicism was used to give it a popular legitimacy – and as a means of divide-and-rule, particularly in Ireland. Catholics were officially discriminated against until well into the nineteenth century.

But it was the Industrial Revolution, and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Catholic Irish people that transformed the status of the Church. In 1795 there were just 50 Catholics in Glasgow. By 1843, there were nearly 50,000.

It became, overwhelmingly, a religion of migrant workers: of the poorest and most oppressed in British society. Older organisations like the Orange Order were joined by the Protestant Operatives’ Association and the Protestant Electoral Mission in promoting virulent anti-Catholic bigotry.

Anti-Catholic riots took place in Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and many Northern English towns throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Their victims were overwhelmingly Irish.

Religious prejudice mixed in a new, poisonous, racism.

Anti-Catholic bigotry has of course dwindled since then. Catholics occupy prominent positions throughout British society, though it remains a faith most concentrated amongst the urban working class. Sectarian attacks are largely isolated.

But some old prejudices have been stirred up by the Pope’s visit. Never mind the fringe bigotry of Ian Paisley, denouncing the arrival of the antichrist in Britain. Sections of the liberal media have excelled in denouncing not just the Pope, but Catholics in general, for their alleged crimes and misdemeanours.

Dawkins, in his closing speech, made no distinction between Catholics in general and the Pope. “These people”, he claimed, were “steeped in a vile obscenity”.

This is religious bigotry, repackaged for secular liberals.

New Atheism and old bigotry

There is a pattern here.

What Irish Catholics suffered in the nineteenth century, Jews newly arrived from Eastern Europe saw in the early twentieth. Racist organisations like the British Brothers’ League revived and spread ancient myths. Jews were attacked and synagogues desecrated.

Racism again mixed with and expressed itself in older, religious prejudices.

The war on terror has recreated this mixture in a new form. The killing of Muslims abroad has necessitated their demonisation at home.

As the Institute of Race Relations’ grim listing of reported attacks this summer shows, Muslims bear the brunt of violent racist assaults. Violence on the streets is matched by official discrimination.

And racism has come masked as a critique of religion.

The EDL say they do not protest against Muslims. They say they are protesting against “fundamentalist Islam”, in defence of “British values”. They say they are concerned only with criticising the religion – as if chanting “Allah is a paedo” was a subtle Voltairean argument.

Yet the New Atheists do not effectively challenge racism like this. Far from it.

The National Secular Society drew explicit parallels between the Pope’s visit and the presence of “extremist” Islam in Britain. Dawkins, elsewhere, has called Catholicism merely the “second most evil” religion on earth. No prizes for guessing the first.

The New Atheists lack any sense of historical or political context. They cannot see beyond their hatred of religion to the wider discrimination.

Their “militant secularism” can open the door to far uglier politics. If it is the Catholic Church today, it can be Islam tomorrow.

Maryam Namazie, speaking at the closing rally, made this connection explicit. Her speech scarcely referred to the Catholic Church. She concentrated, instead, on the alleged crimes of Islam.

Islam was more dangerous because it has “political power”, she claimed, and, further, she spoke of “…large parts of Britain that have the vast majority of our citizens handed over lock, stock and barrel to the Islamic movement.”

This is the mythology of the EDL. It is a racist lie.

Devout secularism does not just fail to challenge racism. Its most fervent advocates stir it up.

Socialists and religion

Many of those attending the protests would be horrified by a speech like Namazie’s. They will have attended anti-war demonstrations. They will have Muslim friends, neighbours, and workmates.

But socialists must provide a better answer to the questions posed by religious belief than those offered by the devout secularists.

No religion is a monolith. They are all defined by the society they operate in but they hold their own dynamics. The same scriptures can be open to wildly different interpretations. The same faith can produce different politics. Pope Benedict’s own ecclesiastical career is testament to that.

Religion provides an interpretation of the world that both disguises and justifies real injustice – and yet must, to maintain its hold, offer a compensation for that injustice, however illusory.

Marx captured this contradiction well when he described religion as both the “opium of the masses” and the “heart of a heartless world, the sigh of the oppressed creature”. Religion emerges as the fantastical response to real conditions.

That is how the same faith can both lead some to enforce miserable oppression – and provide the inspiration for others to fight it.

Marx was an atheist. But he had no time for “militant atheists” – those privileging the struggle against religion above all others. He started to develop his theory of society and ideology precisely in opposition to the liberal secularists in the Germany of his day.

The fight then was over Jewish emancipation. Some forerunners of Richard Dawkins and Maryam Namazie opposed it. Bruno Bauer, a leading liberal figure, argued that since religion was the main enemy, emancipation for the Jews would be caving in to special religious pleading.

Jews had first to abandon their religion. Then they could become full citizens.

Bauer went one step further. Although he believed all religion was bad, he thought Christianity was closer to secularism than Judaism. It was therefore superior.

Marx, in a ferocious polemic, tore this argument apart. Secularism alone could not deliver true emancipation, he argued, since it ignored economic conditions. It was these economic conditions that created religious faith – not the other way round.

This meant that Bauer’s hierarchy, placing secular liberalism at the apex, was demolished. It believed its own ideology to be superior to all others, when in fact it glossed over real exploitation. By failing to address the material foundations of religious belief, it reinforced existing oppression. And it was only by removing that exploitation that religious belief would be removed.

That meant, in the first place, building a movement capable of uniting workers of all faiths, and those of none. Marx opposed attempts to make atheism official policy of the workers’ movement. Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, made the same point when he argued that “[u]nity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”

Changing the world

This leads to an important strategic conclusion. It is an error to erect divisions within the movement on the basis of faith.

Socialists seek to change those real conditions. In doing so, they may well work alongside those who hold religious beliefs – for instance, in campaigns against Third World debt, or against war.

Catholic churches and the Catholic charity CAFOD organised for the global justice movement well before the British left. Liberation theology attempted to create a popular movement of the radical left in South America. Catholics played key roles in the early labour movement – and today provide solid support for the Labour Party.

Religious faith can provide the starting point for a desire to fight against injustice. And it is in the course of that fight that other ideas can start to change. Homophobic, racist, and sexist ideas can shift.

But it is through participation in the movement that arguments over ideas move from being abstract debates, to real questions. That requires unity on the basis of real political questions as a starting point: unity against war, or unity against the cuts.

The New Atheism is no use here. The unity of the godless against the faithful is no grounds to build a movement that can challenge real economic conditions and real oppression.

Catholic Ian Duncan Smith, Tory Cabinet Minister, is working alongside atheist Lib Dem Nick Clegg to ram through unprecedented spending cuts.

They will be opposed by believers and non-believers alike. Class, not faith, determines this.

Faith is no guide to politics. Opposing religious faith is no guarantee that oppression will be challenged.

Socialists must argue for class politics: for the unity of those wanting to challenge the real roots of exploitation and oppression – not their illusory representations in religious belief.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).