No to No Popery?

So the Pope has come to the UK and gone home again. There’s plenty to protest about in terms of his politics – sexist, homophobic etc. – but nevertheless I was ambivalent about some of the anti-Pope campaign, if only because any radical with an understanding of British history should be very wary of populist anti-Catholicism.

Catholics have historically been persecuted in Britain at many times since the Reformation, and this anti-Catholicism has tended to have a racist slant of attacks on Irish working class people. For instance, in the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots – celebrated by some anarchists/lefties as a glorious uprising of ‘King Mob’ – Irish migrants were targeted as ‘No Popery’ rioters destroyed Catholic chapels. More recently of course, the British state presided over the systematic discrimination against Catholics in the North of Ireland. When the croppies refused to lie down any longer, loyalist paramilitaries murdered hundreds for the ‘crime’ of belonging to the nationalist/Catholic community. All while the Reverand Paisley and co. denounced ‘Popery’.

So anybody thinking of joining a demonstration against the Pope needs to be very careful to explicitly distance themselves from this reactionary and racist anti-Catholic strand in English/British culture.  Something that I haven’t seen enough of in the orgy of self-congratulatory new atheist twittering (‘funniest’ example – somebody tweeting ‘send those racist, misogynist bullies back to where they came from GET OUTTA MY COUNTRY’).

Good to see more thoughtful responses, e.g from Harpy Marx: ‘criticism of religion can quickly turn from being on the side of rational enlightenment to being persecutors of the powerless and oppressed’. She also points out that ‘Homophobia or attacks on women or the abuse of children need confronting but these forms of oppression are not the preserve of the religious or of any one religion’. Indeed they are not the preserve of religions per se, and there are plenty of religious people challenging them within churches just as forcefully as atheists are doing  from without.

Socialist Unity points out that some Catholics have been at the forefront of solidarity with migrant workers in the UK – I would live to see 10,000 atheists marching for migrant solidarity in London instead of wasting their time on this moral crusade. Not very likely perhaps given the implicit British nationalist mood of the anti-Pope march, as Brendan O’Neill observes as Spiked Online:

‘Things turned ugly outside Downing Street when Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society branded the pope an ‘enemy of the state’, giving rise to the cacophonous chant: ‘GO HOME POPE, GO HOME POPE.’ It was like a scene from 1984. I have been on many a radical demo that has challenged the branding of some group or individual as ‘enemies of the state’; but this is the first radical demo I’ve been on where the protesters themselves demanded the silencing and even expulsion from Britain of someone they decreed to be an ‘enemy of the state”.

Still there can be a condescending attitude to religioneven in some of the more sympathetic approaches. For instance A Very Public Sociologist critiques the New Atheist attitude that the basis of religion can be defeated by argument: ‘ The appeal of religion is deeply rooted in the alienation and atomisation consistently and systematically produced by capitalist relations of production. It is not a matter of being brainwashed or too thick to pierce the sacred’.

I broadly agree with this, but now question my long held traditional Marxist view that religious belief would wither away in a non-alienated classless society. Because in any conceivable society people will still be wrestling with the mysteries of birth, death, loss, love, being and non-being, and our place in a more or less infinite universe.  Sure a hierarchical monopoly of earthly wealth and heavenly wisdom like the current Holy Roman Empire could not exist in the same form in a communist society, but people might very well still freely choose to belong to an association of people with particular spiritual beliefts – and what’s wrong with that?


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