The pope and the atheists

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The best defense is a good offense. A less worldly pope, making a state visit to Britain as the revelations about Catholic priests and bishops abusing the children in their care spread across Europe, might have been reduced to shame and silence. But Benedict XVI knows about the uses of power — he was the late Pope John Paul II’s chief enforcer — and he immediately launched an attack on all the people he sees as the church’s enemies.

Speaking in Scotland the week before last, he condemned “aggressive forms of secularism” and the threat of “atheist extremism.” Never mind the hundreds or thousands of priests who raped little boys (and occasionally little girls). The real threat is the people who don’t believe in God, and therefore have no morals. He even equated atheists with Nazis.

That was rich coming from a man whose predecessor, Pope Pius XII, personally negotiated a treaty with the Nazis in 1933 that was advantageous for German Catholics, and did not publicly condemn Hitler’s extermination of the Jews although he was well informed about it. But Benedict’s tactics worked very well, because all that the media could talk about after his Scottish speech was whether nonbelievers can be trusted to behave morally.

“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century,” said the itinerant pope, “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 and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.” God, religion and virtue on one side; Nazis and Communists as well as a selfish, hedonistic wasteland of sex and secularism on the other.

Set the terms of the argument and you are already halfway to winning it. That is Benedict’s game, and it is played by many other leaders of every religion. Only the fear of God makes people behave morally: Without that fear of divine punishment, they would act out every evil fantasy that popped into their minds. So stick with us.

It’s an easy allegation to make, and almost impossible to test — or so those who make the allegation believe. But actually, it has been tested, at least for the Christian parts of the world, and guess what? Religion does not make people behave better. It makes them behave worse.

We’re not talking about suicide bombers and other religious extremists here. We’re talking about ordinary people committing ordinary acts of violence, everyday thefts and run-of-the-mill sex crimes. The more religious a particular society or region is, the more of that sort of stuff happens.

As researcher Gregory Paul puts it: “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, venereal disease, teen pregnancy, and abortion.” Whereas according to Pope Benedict’s argument, the United States, one of the world’s most religious countries, should be a crime-free paradise, while secular Sweden should be a vortex of crime and violence.

Direct observation suggests otherwise. So do Gregory Paul’s two articles, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” published in the Journal of Religion & Society in 2005, and “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” published in Evolutionary Psychology Journal in 2009.

Even within the United States, Paul reported, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest” have “markedly worse homicide, mortality, sexually transmitted disease, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the Northeast, where societal conditions, secularization and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.”

There’s a chicken-and-egg question here, because what Paul’s research actually shows is that people are more religious in societies where socio-economic conditions are poor. There is more crime and anti-social behavior in such societies, but are people behaving badly because they are religious, or just because they are poor, ill-educated and desperate?

The real statistical correlation is between religiosity, poverty and ignorance. Hundreds of millions of religious people are neither poor nor ignorant, but the bottom of the pecking order is where religion has its strongest grip in any society. Raise that bottom level, as countries with good social welfare systems do, and religious belief will gradually decline.

Besides, it’s not really secularism, per se, that horrifies Pope Benedict and his minions. Cardinal Kasper, his top official for relations with the Church of England, gave the game away in an interview with the German magazine Focus, condemning England as “a secular, pluralistic country. When you land at Heathrow, you sometimes think you might have landed in a Third World country.”

Kasper was promptly removed from the list of high church officials traveling with the pope, but Vatican spokesman Monsignor Oliver Lahl, defended his remarks: “All he was saying is that when you arrive in Britain today it is like arriving in Islamabad, Mumbai and Kinshasa all at the same time.”

It’s the diversity, tolerance and necessary secularism of modern multicultural societies that religious leaders of every stripe really can’t stand. Such societies have to be secular to accommodate all the different strands of belief and disbelief that must live alongside one another in peace, whereas the pope and his friends still long for the humble, homogeneous peasant societies where everybody believed, and believed the same thing.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.