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Let the debate continue

Stephen Fry provides support for my thesis that atheists tend to be "a" a particular "theos." Fry is not just an atheist from the Christian God, but from the Catholic version of Him. He is, like me, a Protestant Atheist.

This speech (from a televised BBC World debate) is a powerful condemnation of Roman Catholicism, but with as many undertones of Protestantism as Atheism, and as much of what might be called modern European "Anything-but-us-ism" as of rational thought. I particularly enjoyed what I hope was the irony of a gay man using the words "This is not natural and normal, ladies and gentlemen" to condemn the way the Catholic Church selects its leaders. I do think devout Catholics should think hard about his final point, however;

"Do you know who would be the last person ever to be accepted as a Prince of the Church? The Galilean carpenter; that Jew. They would kick him out before he tried to cross the threshold. He would be so ill-at-ease in the Church. What would he think of St Peter's; what would he think of the wealth and the power and the self-justification and the wheedling apologies."

Perhaps it is the Protestant Atheist in me that feels if I am wrong and Jesus returns one day to Earth, he will not preach at St Peter's or, for that matter, at St Paul's. He would be far more likely to appear in an eccentric, simple, unadorned church in a poor community.

Yet I can't support Fry when he derives from that the notion that the Church is wrong to accumulate (or, having accumulated, wrong not to give away) wealth and power. Churches, other private institutions and wealthy individuals form an essential counterweight to the most dangerous accumulation of wealth and power in any society; the state. Without such counterweights, we are all at its mercy. The increasing confusion of "society" with "state" in our thinking is precisely because our government's power over our lives is increasing exponentially. Soon, everything outside government will be too trivial and weak to be considered.

Not only is it therefore consistent with a Church's mission to accumulate wealth and power, it is essential. The Catholic Church may have done the bad things Fry condemns, but it also protected dissenters in Soviet Poland, and played a huge part in the fall of Communism. It could have done neither, without wealth and power. The important thing, as with all wealth and power, is that it is deployed for good and not squandered (here comes my inner Puritan Atheist) on the gratification of the Church's leaders. Fancy traditional costumes apart I see no particular reason to suspect that of the Catholic hierarchy. They deploy pomp and ceremony, as do all centres of power, to increase their influence on the thoughtless masses. It would be surprising if they didn't, and even more surprising if the thoughtful were impressed - so where's the harm?

Fry damns the Church by association, talking of the cruelties of Catholic education, as if no other education providers were ever cruel. He uses emotional language, for example renaming "child abuse" as "child rape", very like an effective preacher. He presents himself as living proof that gays are not, per se, "disordered, morally evil" individuals, referring to his loving nature and speaking of his charitable works. As if all who do good are not also (in the Church's terms) sinners. As if no sinners ever thought kind thoughts or did good deeds. It's a good speech, with well-made points. I very much enjoyed it, but in fairness to my Catholic friends, I tried to examine it for the cheats and tricks to which I would have cried "aha" if Fry were my political opponent. As indeed judging by such clues as his demand for the Church to give up its wealth and return its art treasures to the countries it once "raped and violated," I very much suspect he is.

I would be fascinated to know what my readers think.


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How is it that crumbs turn to loaves? Wonders never cease.


Though I called myself a "Protestant Atheist", I suspect that, if I could believe in the Christian God, I would join the Catholic Church. This is based on (a) the character of the priests in Nottingham who instructed me (as a young trainee lawyer) when my firm did work for the local diocese, (b) my experiences in Poland, where Catholic friends were (like you) great advertisements for their Church; (c) the funeral of an employee I attended in Warsaw, which was magnificent; and above all (d) the rite of confession, which is quite simply the best product offering of any church.

With 52 years of mistakes (you might call them sins) on my conscience, the idea of such an unburdening is attractive. However, one can't choose to believe in something and God is just too implausible for me.

My only problem would be the decor of Catholic church interiors, which I find jarring. My aesthetic tastes are more Scandinavian chic than canal boat gaudy. :-)


I suppose Tom must have some Catholic readers other than me?

How interesting that this should be raised in Advent, leading up to Christmas. Tom, your point for us to consider is not at all challenging if one considers the circumstances in which Jesus came to teach at the temple and was sent to save us. The temple and the society it served were corrupt to the core, and he was sent to redeem it and the society, and it cost him his life. Should we find ourselves in such a position again, and if the Church is failing in its true purpose, then I would agree he would not be willing to enter St Peter's.

What he would think of the wealth of the Church I couldn't say, but I would be disappointed if the great art and architecture dedicated to the glory and worship of God was not required. I also appreciate your utilitarian support for the Church's independence and means.

As for Stephen Fry, he seems to be on some sort of vendetta. He recently identified the Catholic Church as being responsible for the holocaust (for a commentary on this see I used to enjoy watching him work, as I found him learned and occasionally funny. However his vitriolic attacks on Catholicism are of no interest to me.

Finally, I do not suggest for a moment that the Church is above criticism. It, like most churches or institutions, has made many grave mistakes (and has had large periods where it would have justified Jesus' intervention), and perhaps as the oldest of the Christian faiths it has more failings which warrant criticism - I think the Church is broadly open about acknowledging these, particularly the present Holy Father. What is disappointing is that in a time where Europe is facing its deepest cultural challenge ever, it seems that the prevailing debate is determined to destroy Europe from within by attacking the Christian faith which is, in my view, the principal cultural characteristic of this once great society.


"But Jesus is OK. he's my Saviour".
You don't know who Jesus is, no one does. So there's your first realisation. Those who say they do are fantacists and liars.


I've believed a lot of things in my life. About twenty years ago I became a Christian, believing that Jesus was real, he died for my sins, and that forgiveness and salvation are freely given to all who call on his name.

Then I met the Church in all its forms. I'm a musician and for the next few years put my musical skills to use serving the church as an itinerant singer/songwriter and worship leader. I played in every type of church from Catholic to house church and everything in between. I've met leaders of churches, church groupings and denominations.

I no longer go to church. My experience taught me that power and control are the main driving forces in every church. Oneupmanship, love of money,power and prestige is everything to almost every leader I met. Dissention is anathema. You must believe everything you are told and you must behave according to the standards that the church decrees. Every church points to a passage in the Bible to justify its position, even if it contradicts the consensus.
To belong in a church means that you must learn the language and conform. Even the non-conformist churches insist on this.

I do not conform. I have a brain. I can decide what I choose to believe and how to conduct my life. Church is not for me. It is an irrelevance.

But Jesus is OK. he's my Saviour.


Christians, in the sense of real ones, not Churchies and hellfire merchants, have known atheists are theists in their very apoplectic opposition. And aren't they so easy to wind up?

John Ballantrae

Watched the video and found Lord Melchett, sorry, Stephen Fry, more interesting and real than I had anticipated.
It all depends on what one means by "good". Compared to war-lords exploiting the poor in developing countries, the Catholic church's efforts can be "good".
Thinking back to those chain-smoking and heavy-drinking Catholic priests taking the last couple of pounds from the already desperately poor in Glasgow in the 1950s - not so much.


"I do not wish to offend any individual that has the right to be wrong but collectives of Homosexuals or Christians, those perversities of sex with a false gender and minds with a false conscience.... it not natural and normal in 2009, it really isn't". (applause)

Peter Whale

Took the kids to Rome last year and saw the vast wealth of some of the Vatican's art treasures, they were incredible, by the time we reached the Sistine chapel It was common place,at first sight the other dozens of rooms of art and opulence were of equal splendour until the magnificence of that room took hold.
Fry is well educated and time and fame have given him a gravitas that I think is unwarranted, to me he has always been a poor rendition of Orson Welles, which puts him half way up the scale of watchable.

Andrew Scott

I'm not much of a Fry fan generally; but I found this a good and powerful speech.

Young Mr. Brown

Well, as a Protestant Christian, I suppose this debate is not really one for me. But I do think that you have written a thoughtful and balanced post.

As a Christian, one of the statements I find most interesting is "The Catholic Church . . . . protected dissenters in Soviet Poland, and played a huge part in the fall of Communism. It could have done neither, without wealth and power."

Your "counterweight argument" for the church accumulating wealth and power is a good one, but I tend to feel that the more wealth and power the church accumulates, the more likely it is to use that wealth and power wrongly.

And if God really is God (a premise that you will reject, but which both I and the Roman Catholic Church accept), then surely the Church can do great things without worldly wealth and earthly power.

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