Tuesday April 13, 2010

Does Richard Dawkins Think He’s Napoleon?

Commentary by Hilary White, Rome correspondent

ROME, April 12, 2010 ( – Quite honestly, when I saw that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens had told the British media they plan to have Pope Benedict XVI arrested and charged with “crimes against humanity,” during his visit to Britain in September, my first reaction was somewhat different from those of most of my friends and colleagues here in Rome. Whereas most of them burst out laughing, I felt like cringing in embarrassment on behalf of these two men, particularly for Professor Dawkins.

The fact that Dawkins, and his henchman Hitchens, believe, apparently with utter seriousness, that they can arrest Pope Benedict during his visit, indicates a disconnection from reality that ought to prompt the sympathetic attention of a competent physician.

Professor Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and ethologist, held the Oxford University Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science and is the author of many books, including The God Delusion – a title I find increasingly ironic.

He told the Times on Sunday that Pope Benedict should be arrested for helping to cover up the crimes of priests who abused young people, under the same provisions that allowed former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to be detained and deported. The pope, Dawkins said, “is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”

He is backed up by Christopher Hitchens, another evangelical atheist – though more forthrightly a political campaigner with no pretensions to scientific objectivity – and two lawyers who are clearly delighted to take their no doubt massive fees to tell the media, with perfectly deadpan expressions, that they have “come to the view” that “the Vatican is not actually a state in international law,” and so Pope Benedict has no immunity from prosecution as a head of state.

“There is every possibility of legal action against the Pope occurring,” Stephens said, apparently with not the slightest hint of a smirk. The two have announced they are assembling a legal case to have the pope detained and charged in September. Let us hope that they remember to inform the 179 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

The absurdity of the proposal, and its defiant refusal to acknowledge the facts of the matter – including the fact that Benedict has been completely exonerated of the charges made recently by the New York Times and other media – demonstrates that Professor Dawkins is suffering from the special kind of delusions that can occur when a massive ego combines with a willing and enabling audience of reporters.

He likes to be known as a champion of “rational” and “scientific” thought and asserts that since no one can see, feel, hear, touch, taste or smell God, or measure him in a graduated flask, there must not be one. But, not content with holding this fundamentalist version of materialism himself, Dawkins has remade himself as a kind of atheistic witchfinder general. His vituperative hatred for religion, and for Catholicism in particular, has transformed his public persona from respected man of science to that of increasingly shrill and humorless pedant. A crank, who does not know when the world is laughing at him. And it is sad.

His insults, his weird rants on his blog, his refusal substantively to address any particular point about religion in debates, his demonstrable ignorance of the simplest theological concepts, and now his apparently sincere belief that he can have the pope arrested, have reduced him to a laughingstock.

With this latest media stunt, that Catholic Herald editor and Daily Telegraph blogger Damian Thompson has called “monstrously silly,” Dawkins has placed himself in the company of flat-earthers and people who think the moon landings were faked, with crackpots and conspiracy theorists, too blinded by their religious mania to see that the world is not laughing with them, but at them.

Because (and here the irony gets even thicker) atheism is itself a religious proposal. To say there is no God is a statement of religious belief. It cannot be proved scientifically, or even logically, that God does not exist. It is a matter of faith. In effect, therefore, Richard Dawkins has himself become a religious fanatic.

But laugh, or cry, as we might, there is a serious side to all this: these men are using the misery and suffering of the victims of horrible sexual crimes for their own political purposes, and worse, for their own self-aggrandizement. The frenzy of pope-bashing that has gone on since Holy Week is an insult not only to the man who has done more than any other religious or political leader to put a stop to the sexual abuse of young people, but to those who have suffered from the crimes and those who have tried to help them.

This is a good moment for the British government to say it is not playing along. It is unlikely that the Vatican will deign to respond to this with any official statement, but if the government wants to avoid embarrassing Her Majesty, it would be well for there to be some distancing from this latest project of Dawkins. It is one thing for the media to play along with such foolishness, but in the lead-up to a closely contested general election, Gordon Brown cannot afford to alienate millions of Catholic voters.

There is an interesting historical note in all this. There was, in fact, one person in history, after the fall of the Roman Empire, who actually did succeed in arresting a pope.

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte, who imagined himself the successor of Charlemagne, declared that the territories ruled by Pope Pius VII, the Papal States, were to be annexed to the French empire. When Pius declared Napoleon excommunicate, the Emperor “arrested” him – historians say kidnapped – and held him prisoner for six years.

It is notable that upon Napoleon’s defeat and imprisonment on the remote island of St. Helena, Pius VII begged the British government to treat his former captor more gently.

It is to be hoped that Professor Dawkins has not yet come to the point where he believes he is Napoleon, but if he has, I am confident that our current pope, known for his gentleness and courtly good manners, will be as solicitous for his welfare as was his predecessor for that of the former Emperor.