One of the perils of being a writer who is not easily categorized is that you tend to be easily misunderstood—even when you’ve taken pains to be clear enough for a twelve-year-old to understand.
Take, for example, my decision to be out of the closet—not only as gay, but as an atheist—in promoting my new book, The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican’s Assault on Reason, Compassion, and Human Dignity, coming out this month from Arsenal Pulp Press.
Going in, I knew the book would be a non-starter for certain audiences, regardless of declared biases: conservative Catholics, atheists who pay no attention to religion, young people with no memories of Vatican II, for example. What Arsenal’s publicists and I didn’t expect was resistance from progressive and queer media who either don’t see the point of a book on Benedict or find some odd contradiction in the fact its author is an atheist. (Xtra! is the one exception so far, with an article to come shortly.)
I must confess to being somewhat puzzled by the idea that, in a book about the most homophobic and fundamentalist pope in recent history, the author’s declared homosexuality or atheism could be seen as a barrier to interest or a threat to credibility. Shouldn’t declared biases be more trustworthy, by definition, than hidden biases? There are those who would say, “Fine, but the results will be predictable.” To this, I can only say that some people’s heads are stuck in a politically correct way of framing narratives.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take atheism for example. I think that a lot of people have a fixed idea of what an atheist perspective should look like, and that would be the so-called “New Atheist” outlook of writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. This kind of atheism goes further than mere disbelief in God or all supernatural beings; the New Atheist tends not to have had a religious upbringing, is fairly hostile to religion itself, and even talks about the “end of religion,” as if the mere fact of the Enlightenment could make such a thing possible. New Atheists have been accused of being just as rigid, angry, or blinkered in their outlook as they accuse religious fundamentalists of being. (In his memoir, Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens included a photo of himself from the 1970s, sitting down with Archbishop Makarios, the president of Cyprus. The caption says: “With the only priest I’ve ever liked.” Well, I thought, on reading that: the man obviously hasn’t met a lot of priests.)
While I share the New Atheists’ disbelief in God and all supernatural beings, and their abhorrence of all the horrible and stupid things that religion has done, I part with them in a couple of key ways. First, I do not dismiss out of hand the value of spirituality in achieving personal growth, balance, or harmony. By “spirituality,” I am referring to a meditative or contemplative method of channeling forms of energy that are entirely within the imagination for the purpose of gaining courage, strength, or a state of grace. You don’t have to believe in God to be spiritual, but “spiritual” and “soul” tend not to be found in New Atheist vocabularies. In this way, the New Atheists are rather artless; you won’t find many poets among them. The other thing is that New Atheists, focused as they are on the bullshit religions commit, don’t stop to think about the baby in the bathwater: you know, all those people who, inspired by their delusional faith, have devoted their lives to helping others.
As much as I would like to see a world free of religion, I am also a realist. It is never going to happen, so why pretend that it can? Far better to engage with the religious on issues where we might agree, or offer helpful advice on best practices. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, I argue that Vatican II offered the world’s largest religion an historic opportunity to evolve from a largely medieval fortress of power and control into a force for good in the world. My U.S. publicists at 45th Parallel Communications, in response to a progressive backlash to the book, nailed it perfectly on their blog recently, especially in the last few paragraphs.
Some people prefer their atheists angry and aggrieved, with a giant chip on their shoulder. Well, sorry folks: disbelief is more complicated (and fun) than that.