Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Damian Thompson's "vicious and crazy" attack on Richard Dawkins

For reasons best known to himself, Damian Thompson has taken a break from his (rather premature) celebrations at the impending demise of the Church of England - and his own Catholic enemies, among whom is the retired cardinal - to launch an extraordinarily personal attack on Richard Dawkins. Under the heading "Richard Dawkins's latest attack on the Catholic Church is vicious and crazy. The man needs help" he compares the distinguished evolutionary biologist to "a dribbling loony on the top of a bus" and describes his long-known opinions about the Catholic Church as "the ravings of a man who appears to have lost all sense of proportion". "Seriously" he writes, "is there something wrong with him?" Damian often questions the mental health of people who disagree with him, an ugly rhetorical trope suggesting smallness of mind. Regular exposure to the poisonous effusions of his Holy Smoke blog certainly does nothing to dispel that impression.

Thompson's house style of triumphalist, sneering, ultra-papalist camp - in which he is joined, day after day, by a claque of equally mean-spirited groupies and hangers-on - does more damage to the image of Catholicism than Richard Dawkins ever could. I've never been as offensive about any Christian as Damian manages to be, virtually every day, about his fellow Roman Catholics who happen to have different views to him about the liturgy, or politics, or the status of Joseph Ratzinger as the greatest being to occupy the throne of St Peter since the days of Gregory the Great. His reaction to the prospect of Anglo-Catholic defections to Rome has been very much in character: catty, obsequious towards the Vatican, vainglorious, snidely dismissive of both Rowan Williams and the "liberal" (by his standards) Catholic hierarchy in England, and crudely self-promoting.

The other day he was gloating about an impromptu encounter he had had with Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor in Westminster Cathedral during the interval of a concert. Having spotted the former leader of England's Roman Catholic community, his first thought was to text something sarcastic on his Blackberry. Unfortunately for him, Cardinal Cormac (who will have been well aware of the nasty things Damian has written about him over the years, but is evidently a bigger man) came up and greeted him warmly. Did Damian pass the time of day, enquire after the cardinal's health or share his thoughts about the music? Of course not. "There was literally only one thought in my head," he writes - how to embarrass the cardinal over the Anglican offer business, about which Cormac is believed to have had considerable reservations. Then, having achieved his purpose - "the Cardinal did seem stumped" - he slunk off. Charming. The blog ends with a dig at his rival from the Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, who had "a steely glint to her spectacles that told me that she, at least, was not in the mood for banter".

So what has Dawkins done to attract Thompson's displeasure? He's only gone and pointed out a few home truths about the church that disaffected Anglicans have been invited to join. And in the Washington Post, of all places (and which I'm glad Thompson pointed me towards; it's rather good). According to Damian, the Dawk called the Roman Catholic Church “the greatest force for evil in the world”. Except that, as PZ Myers points out, he didn't quite say that. He had been invited (on the WP's "faith panelists blog") to consider what major institution deserved that title, and responded that "in a field of stiff competition" it was up there among the leaders. He went on to draw a contrast with the Church of England, an organisation for which he has often expressed a perhaps surprising affection:

The Anglican church has at least a few shreds of decency, traces of kindness and humanity with which Jesus himself might have connected, however tenuously: a generosity of spirit, of respect for women, and of Christ-like compassion for the less fortunate. The Anglican church does not cleave to the dotty idea that a priest, by blessing bread and wine, can transform it literally into a cannibal feast; nor to the nastier idea that possession of testicles is an essential qualification to perform the rite. It does not send its missionaries out to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, about the alleged ineffectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity. How does Pope Ratzinger measure up? The comparison is almost embarrassing.

Harsh, but perfectly fair, and not worse than anything he wrote in The God Delusion. He might have said more: Dawkins didn't allude, for example, to the warm welcome given by the Vatican to the lunatic extremists of the Society of St Pius X - including Bishop Williamson, who just the other day fined €12,000 by a German court for his remarks about the Holocaust. (Damian approved of the welcome, but not of Williamson himself, blaming the resulting fiasco on Ratzo's treacherous advisers.) There will, I suspect, be more than a few Anglicans secretly cheering the Richard Dawkins on, wishing they had someone in their ranks with the balls to tell it like it is. As for RD's remarks about the miracle of transubstantiation: it's strange, isn't it, that Damian Thompson is able to present himself as a sceptic about dubious treatments, conspiracy theories and other manifestations of "counterknowledge", while subscribing to Catholic dogma at its most absurdly baroque? The Catholic Church, Dawkins goes on to say, is "a disgusting institutution" , "where buggering altar boys pervades the culture" (well, even cardinals have stopped pretending that was never a problem) and, now running out of priests,

is dragging its flowing skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp: "Give me your homophobes, misogynists and pederasts. Send me your bigots yearning to be free of the shackles of humanity."

Yes, I can see why Damian might have been a bit upset at that. But there's a difference in the two men's vituperation. Dawkins is rude about the Catholic church as an institution; Thompson goes after Dawkins personally, as he goes after all his enemies. Perhaps he found some of the remarks struck a little close for comfort. Dawkins for his part seems to have become imbued with the spirit of the Reformation (note, for example, the unsubtle Whore of Babylon allusion) . By the time he reaches his final paragraph he sounds like a born-again Anglican:

Archbishop Rowan Williams is too nice for his own good. Instead of meekly sharing that ignominious platform with the poachers, he should have issued a counter-challenge: "Send us your women, yearning to be priests, who could make a strong case for being the better-qualified fifty percent of humanity; send us your decent priests, sick of trying to defend the indefensible; send them all, in exchange for our woman-haters and gay-bashers." Sounds like a good trade to me.

Except, of course, the C of E wouldn't be so direct.

As for Damian Thompson, the man clearly needs help.