There is a memorable scene in Father Ted where the locals mistake Ted for a racist, and one man greets him with “I hear you’re a racist now, Father! How did you get interested in that type of thing?”
The bizarre reasons are invented for comic effect, but they are no more valid than the reason that Catholic theologian Professor Tina Beattie yesterday accused me, in a debate on BBC Radio Ulster, of “verging on a very dangerous kind of dare I say almost European racism”.
Extracts from the debate
Here are the relevant extracts from the debate, in which I was answering a question about the impact of Pope Francis on the Catholic Church. In the show, these extracts were intermingled with other comments, but I have put them together here. I’ve included at the end a video of the full debate for context.
Michael Nugent: “The thing about the Catholic Church is that the demographics of the Catholic Church is that between two thirds and three quarters of Catholic Church members are now based in the Third World, in SubSaharan Africa, in South-East Asia, and in Latin America, where the Catholic religion is much more dogmatic, is much more superstitious, much more likely to believe in miracles and possessions and things like that. So the Catholic Church is going to be becoming more fundamentalist rather than less.”
Professor Tina Beattie: “You know, I hear in Michael a great deal of sweeping condemnation and judgment of others, verging on a very dangerous kind of dare I say almost European racism, that, you know, Catholicism is going to become more fundamentalist because look at all of those Africans. I mean, that’s just appalling.”
Michael Nugent: “I just need to respond for a second to the suggestion that I am being racist, because that is obviously quite a significant assertion to make, and particularly ironic to be made while simultaneously saying that I am being judgmental. What I was saying was that the Catholic religion is becoming more fundamentalist because of the demographics of Catholicism. Now, if a religious person considers that to be a negative attribute of Catholicism, that it is adhering more to its own doctrine, then that’s up to them to explain, but the idea of being racist by simply making observations of reality is strange.”
Casual use of the word racism
This is an example of the casual way that some religious proponents throw around strong words such as racism, when the discussion is about what people believe and do, and nothing to do with their race. The accusation is not particularly mitigated by qualifiers like ‘verging on’ or ‘dare I say almost’, particularly when it is also described as ‘a very dangerous kind’ of this supposed racism.
Racism is a morally abhorrent doctrine and practice, and we should not dilute its impact with casual extensions of its application. It is racist to criticize or discriminate against people on the grounds of their race. It is not racist to criticise anybody’s beliefs or behaviour, which must always be open to criticism. That is how our understanding of reality and morality and human rights advance in every generation.
I often hear equally irrational allegations that it is racist to criticize abuses of human rights by Islamists, even though most of the victims of these human rights abuses are Muslims which in any case is not a race. But this is the first time I have been accused of racism for describing the demographics of Catholicism, although I have been told by two Catholic theologians that I am not fully human because I am an atheist.
The demography of the Catholic Church
The analysis that I was describing was based on the book ‘The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church’ by John L Allen, who spent 16 years in Rome working as senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and an analyst of Vatican affairs for CNN and NPR.
Allen points out that at the beginning of the twentieth century, only a quarter of the world’s Catholics lived outside Europe and North America. By the end of the twentieth century, two thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 2050 an estimated three quarters of the world’s Catholics will live in the Global South.
He points out that, in the Global South, Catholics are more superstitious, more likely to believe in miracles and possessions and exorcisms, more likely to be very conservative on sexual morality issues, and more likely to be liberal on social justice issues such as war and peace and the environment.
These are all positions that are consistent with a fundamentalist interpretation of Catholic doctrine. If you are a Catholic, you are supposed to believe in these type of things. How can it be an insult to Catholicism to say that the demographics of Catholicism are leading to more people believing central doctrines of Catholicism? Theologians should consider addressing that dilemma, without resorting to bizarre allegations of racism.
The full debate
Here is the full debate for context. A recent Pew study showed that most people polled in 40 countries believe we need God for morality. I debated this with Church of England theologian Elaine Storkey, Catholic theologian Tina Beattie, and poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama, on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence hosted by Mark Patterson on Sunday 23 March 2014.