On Cable, Dawkins and the Papal Visit

The uproar(s) seems to be largely a matter of tone…

Vince Cable, his remarks are condescending in general, speaking as if scientists are just a bunch of naughty school children who want more cake off the tax-payers dime. The tone is annoying, yes, but the results of that attitude will be even worse, more cuts (in case you forgot funding was also cut last year). Scientists are angry, nobody likes being talked to by their government as if they were just a bunch of lazy slackers sitting around drinking tea all day. If you really are trying to get scientists to do more with less, it might be better to be a little more understanding and re-invoke that Blitz spirit or even the Obama spirit of Yes We Can. You catch more flies with honey.

William CullerneBown has written a nice post on Exquisite Life about Cable and science reaction here.

And the arguments against Cable are largely a matter of TONE. His tone, and his attitude towards academic scientists.

There is another tone problem this week, Richard Dawkins, or rather another tone problem which is being discussed, I don’t think Prof. Dawkins tone has changed in the last 10 years. There have been several posts in the blog-o-sphere starting with Jonathon Jones, followed by a post today Alom Shaha about tone (both of Dicky D and of Jonathon Jones). And several other posts for instance by a member of the Cambridge Skeptics Andrew Holding. There are various arguments about Dawkins, but the theme of these, in part, is his tone.

But the other thing that comes to mind to me, speaking of Dawkins, is the hoopla about that papal visit.

Ok, so now there is a whole protest about the Pope, presumably because he knew all about abuse of children and didn’t do the right things. There are other human rights issues in there too, according to the protestors see the petition to Number 10.

What I am definitely NOT saying is that we shouln’t be appalled by rape, or any human rights abuses. And another thing I am NOT saying here, is I am not making any judgements on whether or not the Holy See is guilty, that is not the point of this post, and in all honesty I don’t know enough about human rights records in one country vs. another to really give a fair comment.

But there a couple of things about this protest that are just weird.

1 – Running a State means you have State visits, and the Papal visit isn’t any more expensive than any other State visit, and not that I know this but I bet a visit by Obama is even more expensive.

2- State visits don’t always entail representatives of States which have practices that you entirely agree with. For instance Prince Andrew is in China right now. China is a communist country, and uh democracies or even in this case a constitutional monarchy, and they don’t exactly see eye to eye about all sorts of issues, including human rights. Guantanamo Bay is a human rights violation, but George Bush still got to visit the UK, while he was president – without a petition to number 10.

Anyone, in the UK, does have the right to protest, and I can see why you would protest against human rights abuses BUT if its really about human rights – there are lots of state visits you could protest, where do you start? Do you stop State visits altogether?

3- I don’t think human rights abuses is solely the issue with this visit. And why do I think this? Because of the TONE. What its about is the fact that the Pope is religious leader and a State leader – and we know Dawkin’s position on Religion being the harbinger of immorality. So really this protest appears to be about about RELIGIOUS people doing bad things and not people just doing bad things.

And this is the part that really bothers me, why is it any WORSE because its the Pope? Human rights violations are human rights violations no matter who the perpertrator, full stop. Why pick the Pope? If you believe there is a leader who doesn’t protect against human rights violations, shouldn’t you be appalled equally, independent of that leader’s metaphysical belief system?

But maybe the real point – as Dawkins is a champion of atheism as an opposing force to religion, and given his tone about that subject – is that really he is appalled because there is a State visit by a religious leader, who hasn’t always done something he agrees with. The Pope does happen to be one of the few, relatively, State leaders who are also the head of a Religion.

But then again, so is the Queen.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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5 Responses to On Cable, Dawkins and the Papal Visit

  1. Donty says:

    Not sure the Pope is just or perhaps, even at all, a head a state. The Vatican City is not in practice a separate state and never really was. The pope is however head of a global institution that has members all over the world. Although it is still sometimes referred to as the Holy Roman Empire, which historically it was, they handed back the last Emperor’s robes to the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople saying they no longer needed an Emperor. No Emperor, no empire.

    It is more a corporation protecting its employees from prosecution than a nation managing its judicial system. For me the biggest issue is the self proclaimed mission statement in which the Catholic church proclaims its role as a moral champion and arbiter for a large number of the worlds’s population.

    Not sure I would compare the Pope to a King or President, I suspect a closer analogy would be Archbishop of Canterbury or some other Christian sect. Perhaps, Richard Dawkins as ‘head’ of the Atheists should have a state visit somewhere too 😉

  2. sylviamclain says:

    Thanks for your comment
    Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the bishop of Rome—the Pope. So it definitely is its own country. The Pope serves a dual role well a triple role as Bishop of Rome, Head of State and Head of the Catholic Church.

    The Queen is the Head of State and the Head of the Church of England.

    so in a way they are the most analagous, the difference is the governance of England is not down to the Queen, Parliament has no (formal) religious function.

    As for being a moral champion, I think both the Pope and Dawkins think they are that 😉

  3. Silvia says:

    Reg. the Pope considering himself a moral champion.

    Despite what even some priests may say, this is not true.
    The Church has never been particular champion in moral, its history shows it and especially the latest two popes have been quite clear about it in their speeches/letters. The Church is a earthly institution, therefore fallible, with the *pretence* of being the living presence of Christ on Earth (therefore paradoxically super-human), *despite* its mistakes. And this pretence historically comes about when Christ said to Peter that he would guide the Church, but before that he would betray Him 3 times. How about that for moral championship?

    Having said that, the Church is concerned about moral, but so are our States. Ever tried walking around naked? But the teaching of the Catholic church in moral has a different source and purpose from the teaching of the Common Law with moral. [OT: btw, do we still think that States/Law should be teaching?]

    Still it can be seen as a moral institution, and hence the Pope can be seen as a moral champion, to distinguish it from a State and this is what usually people consider it, when they don’t belong to it. Fair enough.

    We have many other examples of the same sort, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, John Lennon. They are seen as people to look up with, independently of the religion they follow (or not). Apparently Gandhi received a rather “warm welcome” during his visit to the UK in 1931, and he was carrying on an active (although peaceful) political and economical action against the British. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/making_history/makhist10_prog2f.shtml

    Benedict XVI is a fine theologian and a deep conoisseur of the human nature, and people would know that, if the newspapers did their job, instead of just amplifying the words of cheap polemicist like said Dawkins.

  4. Silvia says:

    “to look up to” “polemicists” and probably many other mistakes…..

  5. Steve Jones says:

    There is one very good reason why human rights abuses by the organisation headed by the Pope might be considered more serious than those by normal states, and that’s because the Catholic Church is an institution avowedly there to provide moral guidance. The combination of power allied with unquestioned moral authority is just about the most potently dangerous mix imaginable. Of course it might just be simple old hypocrisy, but I can’t help but feel that an institution which sets itself up as the arbiter of god’s will on Earth might be subject to rather higher standards than those which don’t profess the same certainties.

    Of course, from a purely utilitarian viewpoint, one might argue it doesn’t matter what the original motives. It’s the outcome, the greatest good for the greatest number that matters. However, I’m uncomfortable with utilitarianism as it rather seems to lack natural justice. Let those who would claim to have superior moral judgement and insight to the rest of us be subject to more rigorous examination. I don’t confine this to religions – I would include any “creed of certainty” which claims this. Most of them end with -ism. Maoism, Totskyism, Marxism, and many have claimed that special certainty.

    The late, and great Jacob Bronowski dedicated an entire episode of his epic, and still relevant, series The Ascent of Man to this topic. In wading through a pool in Auschwitz, where the remains of so many of his relatives were washed, he decalred the following:-

    “Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was not done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. I was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”


    We need to hold insitutions claiming special moral authority and certainty to more more rigourous standards.

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