Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Humanist warns his colleagues not to join scapegoating mob

The excellent Brendan O'Neill (photo), the radical humanist editor of Spiked, has again turned his fire on the anti-Pope mob. Here's the intro:

With just a week to go until Pope Benedict XVI arrives on British shores, the campaigning against his visit has become so shrill that soon only dogs will be able to hear it. And the great irony of this allegedly rationalist protest against the pope is that it is indulging in precisely the kind of demonology that the Catholic Church once excelled at. Campaigners have turned Benedict into a Satan for secularists, an Antichrist for atheists, against whom they desperately hope to define and advertise their own moral integrity.
O'Neill smells in its hysteria the whiff of the scapegoat mechanism. "The anti-papists are ironically utilising the Torquemada-ish tools of intolerance and fearmongering to turn the pope into a much-needed bĂȘte noire for their social set", he notes.

On clerical sex abuse:

When they aren’t demanding that Britain be made a pope-free zone – with scant humanist or tolerant regard for what that would mean for the six million Britons who follow the Catholic faith – the Benedict-bashers use the politics of fear to exaggerate the wicked works of the Catholic Church. Now, I know and you know and everyone knows (in way too much eye-watering detail, thanks to the misery-memoir industry) that some Catholic priests sexually abused children. That is disgusting and where appropriate it should be punished. But there is no justification for describing the Catholic Church as a ‘paedophile ring’, which carried out ‘systematic rape and torture’, giving rise to a palpable ‘stench of evil’. You don’t have to be a friend of the Vatican – and I am not – to be able to state categorically that that is top-notch bullshit.
And it ends:

These pope-protesters threaten to drain the last drop of decency from old-fashioned humanism, turning a once-principled outlook into little more than a requirement to hate religion. Yet from Marx to Darwin, the great non-believers of old had little interest in bashing religions or demonising their leaders, believing, in Darwin’s words, that ‘freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds’. Today it is a powerful sense of lack within modern-day so-called humanist circles – a feeling of directionless and soullessness – that leads them to invent religious demons against which they might posture and pontificate. That is why they talk in such religious tones (ironically) about the Catholic Church’s ‘clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel’ – because this is about cynically cobbling together some sense of their own goodness and mission. And in the irony to end all ironies, they make use of the very religious tools that secularists once hoped to supersede with reason – intolerance, fear-stoking, demonology – as part of their self-serving campaign.
Required reading.

But here's the point that needs expanding. In studies of mob behaviour, it is well documented that angry crowds project their own fears and tensions onto a scapegoat (a "demon"), in order to reassure themselves that they are "good" and the other "bad". It happens, especially, when the people that make up the crowd are insecure, anxious and disunited -- as O'Neill observes of the humanists ("a feeling of directionlessness and soullessness). Once the mob disperses, of course, everyone comes to their senses. And feels a little embarrassed. O'Neill is a true humanist -- and a friend to other humanists -- to warn them about this.