Friday, 17 September 2010

The Papal Visit and Schadenfreude

As news begins to filter out that five men have been arrested in relation to a potential threat to Pope Benedict I have to confess that I would be unmoved by his death. Well that's not quite true, a small element might even be pleased. I don't support violence or terrorism. I am glad these guys were stopped if indeed they were intending to commit an act of terrorism. I do not want anyone to harm the Pope.

In any attack, I would have been horrified if anyone else had been harmed. Upset at the loss of innocent life. Yet, I would not be upset at the death of the Pope. Does this make me a terrible person? Am I in some way symptomatic of a nation that is zealously atheist? Perhaps. Yet I was moved when the Pope remarked in his Glasgow sermon yesterday: ' There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister'. I was moved because I identify as such a person. Educated at two Church of England Primary Schools, christened and confirmed and until my early teens, a church attendee, I don't come from what might be called 'atheist stock'. I've got a stack of Bibles passed down through the family and my own from celebratory moments gone by. Yet, these are merely historical artifacts, important for who gave them to me, and not the words they contain.

Yet religion, whether in the form of compromise CofE thinking or the ardent uncompromising positions of Catholicism or Islam is increasingly at odds with my values. Values of tolerance and freedom. Values of liberation. Too often, religion is used as a cloak for homophobic, sexist and even at times racist attitudes. Would the world be better without religion? My answer, after years of debate is an emphatic yes.

So what then of this arch symbol of all I disagree with visiting the UK? Put simply, I don't care. He can go wherever he fancies. He can preach to those who do believe in a bearded man in the clouds. Any religious leader should be free to come to these islands and say what they like. Whether that's a Muslim cleric advocating that Britain should be an Islamic state or an old man advocating the death of millions world-wide through the rejection of condom usage. They can all come and they can all preach.

That said, don't expect me to pay for the privilege. Expect opposition. Expect protest. Expect resistance to you and these miss-guided values you claim to possess. Expect disruption. Expect dissent. Expect atheism.

The argument is that the Pope was invited as a head of state and thus we, the British taxpayer - at a time of cuts to our treasured public services and cuts that may increase the risk to those who are putting their lives in jeopardy for our nation - must find the money to pay for. Is he really another Sarkozy, another Obama or McAleese? I reject the facade of the Pope as a leader of a state. I share the view of those public figures and academics (including the atheist 'saint' Stephen Fry) who write in a public letter of their objection to a state visit. I wholly agree with that letter.

All this brings me back to where I started. Of course, few of those public figures troubled by the visit would admit to ever being pleased or relieved or even neutral at an act of harm to him. In that sense, I am sticking my head above the parapet. Part of me would actually be momentarily and to a tiny extent pleased that someone who preaches hate, intolerance and a form of violence and harm to others is no longer living. Of course, these feelings would be mixed with anger and sadness that other human beings had committed a terrible act of violence. Despair at a world once again ripped apart by the divisive force of religion. Despair, that an old man and his faith can forge in me, for however brief a moment, to however small an extent a feeling of schadenfreude.

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