in the Guardian here.
We're not used to Germans coming here to talk about the war, so many people have jumped to entirely the wrong conclusion about Pope Benedict's attack on atheist extremism. He didn't mean us. He didn't even mean Richard Dawkins. He was talking about the Nazis, who, he said "wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live."
The atheist tyrannies of the 20th century did kill millions of people, many of them for their Christian beliefs. For Benedict, that is one of the main lessons of modern history.
For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn't go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. That something else was once generally understood to be Christianity. If that is no longer true, Benedict believes we are all shrunken and impoverished: "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 to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny'."
So he believes that what gave Britain the strength to resist nazism was its long Christian heritage, in which the powerful and effective were animated by their faith. The two saints he name checked in his opening address were a king of England, Edward the Confessor, and a queen of Scotland, Saint Margaret. But the three 19th-century Christians, one diplomatically a Scot, were all Protestants: William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, and David Livingstone. All would have been shocked to see a pope of Rome received in state by the Queen.
But it is not their successors who are jumping up and down and shouting now. It is the representatives of what he calls "the more aggressive forms of secularism" which "no longer value or even tolerate … the traditional values and cultural expressions [of Christianity]". It is difficult to judge to what extent this is a large-scale movement. The astonishing variety and force of invective thrown at the pope and his church in much of the media over the last week must certainly, some of it, come from people who would like to drive religious faith out of public life. At the same time, it's hard not to suppose that in some of this the Roman Catholic church is standing as a proxy for Islam, which is certainly a great deal more unpopular.
According to the British Social Attitudes survey, 45% of us believe that religious diversity is harming Britain and more than half of irreligious Britons believe that "Britain is deeply divided on religious lines". So the pope's worries about multiculturalism – and for that matter Cardinal Kasper's – are by no means confined to a kooky minority.
Where secularists see religion as a divisive force, and their own beliefs as the self-evident and true base on which a healthy society can be built, Benedict sees that secularism itself can be challenged. Human rights are not self-evident. What rights we have depend on what kind of people that we think we are, and that is exactly the kind of question which social change and multiculturalism sharpen. It's not a question to which there is any agreed answer in Britain today.