I hear you’re a racist now, Michael! Catholic theologian accuses me of verging on racism.

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. Michael I could believe many things about you but you are as a far from a racist as any human could be. Indeed you have a track record fighting racism. My experience is that when challenged believers are most careless with their language. G

  2. You haven’t addressed the charge of racism at all. All you’ve done is attempt to wave it away with some rather confused statements about how Catholics are supposed to believe Church doctrine anyway. The point that you made about Sub-Saharan Africa reiterated a racist understanding of Africa as a land of superstition and fundamentalism and irrationalism that was a crucial ideological support for European colonialism: the conquest of Africa could, through this framing, be presented as spreading the project of Enlightenment to the culturally backward parts of the world. I’m unhappy, frankly, that as an atheist I am represented in public fora by such an non-nuanced and non-self-critical white European liberalism, and that it takes a Catholic theologian to inject the slightest awareness of the violent legacy of the Enlightenment into the discussion.

  3. Aidan – I don’t think Micheal is planning to colonize South America any time soon. He’s quoting some data (from the aforementioned book) about the characteristics of different beliefs in particular regions of the world. It definitely matches my experience, having been in both continents, but my experience is not statistically relevant. So if you believe the data is incorrect (i.e. there is no such difference, there is as much superstition in Sub-Saharn Africa as let’s say Europe) , you can point that out – hopefully with some contrasting data. Disagree all you want, question the facts put forward by Michael, but what you can’t do is play the racist card. That’s a cheap attempt to derail the debate and, honestly, an insult to Michael.

  4. Just to clarify, by “you” I don’t mean you in particular, Aidan. I’m talking about Tina and those that play similar cheap tactics. I mean, “verging on a very dangerous kind of dare I say almost European racism” – what a cheap, cowardly way to derail a debate by false accusations.

  5. @Aidan, I respectfully disagree.

    You appear to conflate an empirical analysis of demographic trends with the malign stereotyping of sub-Saharan African people. That is not a valid argument for the following reasons:

    Firstly, the analysis Michael referenced includes Asia and South America, so claiming a specific agenda/attitude re sub-Saharan Africa is untrue.

    Secondly, it is a straight up not true to claim that Michael is espousing the position that “superstition, fundamentalism and irrationalism” comprise a racial trait among people of sub-Saharan Africa. Nowhere in Michael’s statement is this implied, let alone stated.

    You are absolutely correct in saying that that racist idea was promulgated to give the cloak of respectability to European powers’ vicious, racist, imperialist conquest of sub-Saharan peoples. It is also worth noting that those traditionalist doctrines within Christianity were foisted onto those peoples by means of that vicious imperialism.

    European history should shame us all for the harm our forefathers have done. However, while demographic data show that some areas of the world are more inclined to superstition, only an uneducated bigot would infer that ‘race’ is the cause.
    Citing the data that show the geographic distribution of superstition is NOT racist.

    Among the reasons that explain the data are:
    Colonial rule,
    The prison of sovereign debt,
    Western powers’ preference for client demagogues as rulers, rather than supporting genuine democracy,
    The completely untransparent and unregulated way that religious organizations operate in countries throughout the world.

    I am very happy, as an atheist, to have Michael represent me in public fora. His nuance and philosophical rigor are traits I admire.

    Your accusation of racism is incoherent. Unless you are going to attack as false the evidence on which Michael’s argument is based, your critique is null.

  6. Aidan, it matters not one iota about what was used to justify colonialism, it does not make it true or false. You conflate what “is” with what “aught” to be. This is the “is-aught” problem and projecting values onto questions of fact. You have basically decided that it is racist even if true so you ignore reality, all the available evidence and relevant research.

    You think you are being non-racist by re-iterating a belief you have which is inconsistent with the evidence. Be careful that your existing ideology does not drive you to make claims before you have looked at the evidence and I suggest you actually read the evidence before making sweeping judgements. The reality is that superstitions are rampant in these countries (as they are in almost every country, but there it more directly impacts society). Now I ask you, what evidence did you use to inform your position?


  7. (I should note that I am only referring to a cultural phenomenon here which education and increased support for critical thinking/skepticism can help with. The existence of rampant superstition in a country does not imply anything about what caused that superstitution to exist)

  8. Aidan, What if anything did I say that you believe is incorrect?

    Your only actual criticism of my point is that you believe that it “reiterated a racist understanding of Africa as a land of superstition and fundamentalism and irrationalism that was a crucial ideological support for European colonialism.”

    But that understanding was being reiterated in your mind and not mine. I didn’t say anything about Africa as a land. I referred to Catholic beliefs in SubSaharan Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America. I didn’t say anything about the race, perceived or otherwise, of anybody in any of those geographical regions.

    I referred, in a discussion about religion, in response to a question about the impact of Pope Francis on the future direction of Catholicism, to a significant demographic shift in the global dynamics of Catholicism – a shift that is itself reflected in the election of Francis as the first Pope from the regions of the world to which I referred.

    Here is what seems to have happened. You were listening to a discussion about religion, and not about race. You heard an observation about what Catholics believe about Catholicism in three geographical regions. You then made a link in your own mind between those religious beliefs and your perception of the race of people generally in one of those regions. You then attributed that link to my mind rather than your own.

    Why did you make that link in your mind? Why could you not hear a point about what people believe about Catholicism, without linking those beliefs with their race? Do you believe that a person’s religious beliefs are intrinsically linked to their race? Do you believe that sociological factors, including those that Max has cited, could better explain what people believe about religion than the biological accident of their race does?

    Racism is an abhorrent doctrine and practice. It should be challenged and reversed wherever it manifests itself. Mistakenly seeing racism where it does not exist hinders the task of challenging and reversing it where it does.

    So again, what if anything did I say that you believe is incorrect?

  9. Cathal, the reason your first comment was delayed is that comments with multiple links are automatically put in moderation to minimize spam. If they are valid comments, as yours obviously is, they will be published when I see and approve them.

  10. If you like, here’s some nuance to go with that.
    It is not racist to state that people in a certain region are superstitious, if in fact they are (as certain research suggest eg http://observer.gm/africa/gambia/article/sub-saharan-africa-superstition-belief-system-in-witches-witchcraft-art-of-bewitching-others).
    Racism would be if it was implied or stated that they can’t help being superstitious because they are black, or some such view.

    If you can point to any situation where Michael has made statements like this you might be on firmer ground in your cries of racism.

  11. Aidan, would you listen to the debate that Michael took part in again and will you listen this time please.

    Also, please look at the UN Population Clock (Google it), by the end of this century, human population may stabilize at c. 10 – 11 billion people and the scenario is looking at 1 billion in Europe, 1 billion in North America, 1 billion in South America, 4 billion in Asia and 4 billion on the African Continent. Due to these imminent demographics Michael was only pointing out that Catholic populations will have moved from a European centric to African, Asian etc. Dave Kiernan

  12. This would be far too tedious to answer point by point, so lets see if we can’t cut through the verbiage to get to the substance of the disagreement. The central problem is that Michael et al seem to believe that meaning is independent of context, that we can evaluate statements merely in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, as if those terms fell from heaven rather than emerging as products of society. One cannot put a fence round one’s words and claim that they only relate to this set of objects in the world and not that; that one can talk about the religion of a raced population without saying anything at all about race. One might indeed be able to show that within the terms of certain methodological and semantic assumptions that X population is more superstitious than Y population, but the problem is the very notion of “superstition” is always already underdetermined by the ossified assumptions of a society shaped by centuries of racism and colonialism. Western rationality, enlightenment thought, science, all have their own superstitions, there own myths, their own irrationality on which they are founded – rationality can never serve as its own foundation – but only certain kinds of irrationality are coded (in racialised terms) as superstitious, as primitive, as backward. When you speak in these terms, you necessarily insert yourself into a discourse about race, and you have to take responsibility for that, rather than retreat into some naive, disembodied empiricism.

  13. Thank you, Aidan Rowe. I’ve been following this post with interest and am reluctant to become too embroiled, but I would point out that post-Enlightenment rationalists have always blurred the distinction between race and religion when speaking of the ignorance and superstition of others. For centuries, the Irish were the butt of English racism cloaked in the guise of anti-Catholicism, and now that some Irish intellectuals are signing up to that same empiricist, rationalist ideology they project the same prejudices onto others and excuse it by saying it’s about religion, not race. Davie Hume wrote that the Irish “are buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance”. As an article in The Independent from a few years ago points out:

    “English attitudes to the Irish are closely connected to anti-Catholicism. Dr Hickman’s book points out that a separate system of Roman Catholic schools grew up because of the hostility of English working class parents to having their children educated alongside Irish children. It was not the case that the Catholics insisted on their own schools.”


  14. Aidan, you say that “The central problem is that Michael et al seem to believe that meaning is independent of context, that we can evaluate statements merely in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, as if those terms fell from heaven rather than emerging as products of society.”

    I don’t believe anything remotely close to that. In fact, it is you that is applying meanings to the words that I used, independently of their context. The context was a discussion about religious beliefs, and me answering a question about the impact of the election of Pope Francis as Pope on my perception of the Catholic Church.

    You are again taking beliefs and associations that exist inside your mind, and transferring them to my mind, then basing the rest of your argument on that false foundation.

    You also asserted (in civil-service passive tense with no subject identified) that “only certain kinds of irrationality are coded (in racialised terms) as superstitious, as primitive, as backward.”

    Again, I say, speak for yourself, and for others who share your “racialised codes”. I do not code irrationality in racialised terms.

    I have just this week publicly debated a person who believes that they saw in a sunset the foretelling of the Korean War, and that they once saw the sun dancing around the sky. I told them they were being superstitious and that they were deluded.

    From that information, Aidan, what do your “racialised codes” tell you about the race of that person? Or about my beliefs about race?

  15. Tina, why are you reluctant to join the conversation, and why do you characterize it as you being passively embroiled in something, rather than you continuing to discuss something that you publicly said about me?

    Please do join the conversation. I think it would be useful, and I would appreciate the opportunity to tease out both of our thoughts on this.

    You say that “post-Enlightenment rationalists have always blurred the distinction between race and religion when speaking of the ignorance and superstition of others.”

    But I am doing the opposite to that. I am sharpening, not blurring, the distinction between race and religion. You and Aidan are blurring that distinction.

    Also, Irish is not a race. Suggesting that it is multiplies the blurring of distinctions.

    There is of course an intersectionality of different types of prejudices and discrimination against categories of people, but lumping these prejudices together, then adding into the mix legitimate beliefs about ideas as opposed to unjust beliefs about people, only serves to make the problems harder than they already are to challenge and overcome.

  16. Aidan, here is another example of you applying your own thinking about race to my mind:

    You refer to whether one can “talk about the religion of a raced population without saying anything at all about race.”

    Aidan, what is “a raced population”?

    Also, I did not even refer to the population of any area. I referred to Roman Catholics, collectively, in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America.

    Whatever you mean by “a raced population”, how are those Catholics “a raced population”?

  17. “English attitudes to the Irish are closely connected to anti-Catholicism.” This statement in the present tense is very stereotypical, could one even say racist?

    As a British citizen resident in Ireland I find this attitude to be surprisingly prevalent among Irish people who never travel. These days British attitudes to the Irish are more closely connected to the good times they have in faux Irish bars, when my in-laws have traveled to the UK I am unaware of them suffering the negative reactions that they seemed to expect. People are more likely to stop and talk to them as they are visitors and people seem to have more good will towards the Irish than other European citizens.

    Slipping into stereotypical generalizations about other groups of people when accusing others of racism is a poor reflection in the pressurized situation of a panel on live radio , but when it is done in writing after watching from the side lines and then gracing us with a missive is a very poor response.

  18. Michael Such a comment as hers was despicable and totally uncalled for, she has forfeited her right to debate anything with her own ignorance. Keep up the good work there are many of us out here in the world who are watching and supporting your work.

    Paddy O’Hara(tic)

  19. Thank you for the invitation Michael. You say the Irish are not a race – but I think that’s my point. Attempting to identify any group in terms of race, religion or any other identity on the basis of shared negative characteristics is an act of prejudice. I think it makes sense to speak of a ‘raced population’ – i.e. we ‘race’ a group when we attempt to stereotype people by a process of homogenisation based on a negative characterisation which obliterates the internal diversity and range of abilities within that group. I’ve lived in Africa for many years and I have very close connections with the Catholic Church in Africa. I know that African Catholicism is complex, diverse and multi-facetted, home to ignorance and superstition as every culture and tradition is (including the tabloid-reading masses of England), and home to some of the finest intellectuals I know, many of whom are Catholic. I think it’s arrogant to refuse to acknowledge such thinkers or to dismiss them as deluded because you don’t share their beliefs about the meaning of life. It’s also worth pointing out that the Catholic Church is one of the foremost providers of health care and education to the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa.

    However, if you want to know why I don’t want to join the discussion on your page, I suggest you read some of the comments – particularly Patrick O’Hara’s above. If you want people to join discussions here, I recommend moderating the comments in the interests of fostering an intelligent and courteous debate.

    Best wishes,

  20. I was hoping for a courteous clearing of the air, but alas no.

    Having poisoned the well with an accusation of racism, Tina seizes on the first unkind comment as a passive-aggressive excuse to flounce out of an argument she started.

    Catholicism in Africa – oh, let’s do that one. I too have worked in Africa. I have been told to my face that ‘condoms cause AIDS’. We know exactly where that lie originated – the office of Joseph Ratzinger.

    I also heard tales of nuns doing sterling work…but in spite of Vatican pressure to gain more converts, in a country split Orthodox/Muslim, so not exactly godless.

    Yes, we know there are superstitious and intellectual people everywhere, but the trend towards the former in the developing world is undeniable. We are well aware of the effect of a lack of education and grinding poverty. It was Tina that inferred this was racist, which says more about her than Michael.

    Finally, to finish with a comment of “I recommend moderating the comments in the interests of fostering an intelligent and courteous debate”, might I suggest Tina remove the log from her own eye first?

  21. Okay, first of all, let’s all try to be civil to each other.

    Tina, here is what confuses me about your position. You seem to be conflating different kinds of prejudices against groups of people, and combining them with analysis of ideas that are not prejudices against people, and then describing the whole mix with the word ‘racism’.

    For example, you say: “Attempting to identify any group in terms of race, religion or any other identity on the basis of shared negative characteristics is an act of prejudice.”

    But prejudice is a different word than racism. Racism is a particularly harmful subset of prejudice. Why do you not use the word ‘prejudiced’ instead of the word ‘racist’ when the context of the discussion is religion and not race?

    Also, you say: “I think it makes sense to speak of a ‘raced population’ – i.e. we ‘race’ a group when we attempt to stereotype people by a process of homogenisation….”

    But how does it make sense to say that that ‘races’ a group? I am still no clearer what you or Aidan mean by the verb ‘to race’. Surely, with your definition, it makes more sense to say that it ‘stereotypes’ the group (or more accurately the people within the group)?

    So if you were to make all of your existing arguments using the words ‘prejudiced’ or ‘stereotyped’’ instead of the word ‘racist’, then there would be one less cause for confusion.

    Are you happy for me to move on to addressing your substantive points, using your clarified concerns being about prejudice and stereotyping and not about racism?

  22. Racism is usually white supremacy; it’s not seeing cultural and physiological traits of people in a geographical region. It’s racism when you talk about those traits as though those people are lesser or inferior in dignity, humanness and value. And it’s not superstition to believe in the possibility of miracles. When you eliminate all natural explanations as logically impossible you have to accept the miraculous as an explanation.

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