THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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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.