THERE was a time when the godless would have called it a triumph to be taken seriously by churches.
For long enough, atheism was in no position to be assertive, far less aggressive. For centuries, the failure to declare faith was a dangerous, life-threatening condition. Churches had something to do with that.
Times change (and thank the Lord). The aggression of unbelievers is now notorious among religion's adherents. So common is the claim you could mistake it for fact. A rough headcount says a tiny band of atheists have managed to besiege the armies, billions strong, of those who believe. Invariably, believers find the experience hurtful.
The language is interesting. Is there truly a kind of spiritual pain to be endured just because Richard Dawkins has sneered at those who challenge science with their superstitious habits? Were Christians truly hurt, and hurt personally, because the late Christopher Hitchens tried to wound with an argument or two? I struggle, ironically enough, to believe it. But let's take people at their word.
Two arguments have been going on in Scotland over the past week. For better or worse, they have been conflated. In one, bigotry towards Roman Catholics remains a stinking weed with its roots still planted in Scottish life. Duncan Morrow, scholar, chair of Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council and adviser to Holyrood ministers, says that bigotry, the fanatical belief in difference, still defines our society.
Morrow is right. Anyone who thinks otherwise enjoys an enviably quiet life. Anyone who then says that "it's just a Glasgow thing" doesn't get out enough. It is, mostly, what Morrow calls "an embedded anti-Catholicism". But it also has to do, fundamentally, with an ingrained habit of self-identification: us and them.
Morrow's remarks led Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland, to write a letter to The Herald comparing the treatment of his co-religionists with "America's black citizens in an earlier era" when they were "urged to straighten their hair and whiten their complexions to minimise differences with the white majority". The letter was entirely sincere.
For all that, an elderly person in Montgomery, Alabama, might have found the comparison hurtful. That person might not remember civil rights in those terms. He or she might remember savage dogs, bullwhips, assassinations, the Ku Klux Klan, and the daily use of Jim Crow laws more brutal than anything faced by a living Scottish Catholic. Victimhood knows no hyperbole. Kearney was, explicitly, claiming equivalent status with those who died for Martin Luther King.
It helps the political demand for formal legal protection. It helps to distract those who say a supposedly victimised Catholic hierarchy hasn't had many kind words to say lately to gay people in search of equal rights in marriage, or to those victims seeking justice from the men who harboured vicious predatory priests for so long.
The Roman Catholic Church is a big, rich, powerful and unaccountable international institution whose interests do not always coincide with those of the Catholic kid beaten up in the street. Is that news? Let it go. The church, like all the churches, like all the faiths, wants its share of victimhood in the modern world. How else can all those lost congregants be explained?
That wasn't the odd thing about Kearney's intervention. The factual history of Scottish bigotry could have carried him towards the finishing line of his argument. He could have taken Morrow's remarks and used them to explain that the old legacy of institutionalised bigotry still produces a noxious backwash. The spokesman preferred to speak of something else.
When Pope John Paul II came to Scotland in 1982, Kearney wrote, there was a threat, according to documents declassified under the 30-year rule, from "militantly Protestant quarters". But when protests arose over the visit of Benedict XVI in 2010, "The most prominent detractors were secularists. The proponents of anti-Catholic intolerance had changed; their target had not."
The actual protests were partly against a pontiff who was in the past complicit in the protection of child abusers. To attempt to inoculate the Vatican against criticism of that disgrace by associating critics with "anti-Catholic intolerance" is a now-familiar – but less than Christian – ploy. Again, let it go. What matters is that "secularists" continue to ascend in the ranks of the enemies of faith. In charity, you have to wonder why that is.
Adherents of the churches diminish in number by the year. Most wander off, spiritually speaking, to invest their credulity in the latest alternative superstition. A minority acquire an existential sense of humour and refuse to believe that there is anything above, below, or beyond the world they inhabit momentarily. Is that really the fault of atheist argument? Surely the churches might wish to interrogate themselves.
When compared with the billions of the faithful, atheist numbers are trivial. We might as well be hiding in catacombs. But our disputatious presence seems to unite all faiths: "secular" – though atheist would do – seems to drive them all into a fury of sorrow and pain. Is a polite non-believer truly a greater enemy to Roman Catholicism in Scotland than scum doing violence on a Saturday night? That seems to be the claim.
The problem must therefore be intellectual, or – let's grant this one – spiritual. The fear expressed seems then to rest on the idea of a conspiracy. We get caught in the shorthand: "secular movement". If such a thing existed, I wouldn't join, just to make a point about thinking. Seriously: 2000 years of philosophy get shunted into this siding just because Dawkins recycles a few ancient arguments and says the universe is fascinating? You have to ask: could such a thing trouble those to whom truth and grace have been revealed?
Catholics are victims still in Scotland; the Roman Catholic Church is not. The church has a clout out of all proportion to its membership, one gained from its eagerness for confrontation, for never giving an inch. This has nothing to do with the spiritual offence of "secularism". The church wishes to mould a version of Scotland. Its spokesman is therefore prepared to sit on the coat-tails of the black civil rights movement to dramatise its claims.
I can forgive that. It's called politics, a secular affair. The tactics are commonplace, especially where the claim of victimhood is concerned. But why should eternal, inviolable truth be sullied by those who play such games? Christ knows, but Christ did not involve himself in public policy.
To hear the likes of me in the public arena causes pain to those who desire a Christian world. This much, I understand. But when churches say I'm just a bigot with no right to speak I might as well be in Selma, Alabama. How does that sound? With God on the other side, obviously.