So why do I feel slightly uneasy at the tone of some (only some) of the dismissals of the Pope from people I usually respect and agree with? Not because I disagree with them as such, but because I am worried that, out of a wholly understandable desire not to overlap with the kneejerk bigots of the right-wing press, certain people who regard themselves as critics of religious conservatism do not criticise it in all its forms (the only legitimate position on the matter) but are misguidedly soft on religious conservatism when it is practised by people whose religions were imported from the Middle East rather more recently than Christianity, and are willing to play games with people who, if they had power outside their current fiefdoms (which I think is highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible), would be at least as hostile to the cultural norms of left-liberalism as the Catholic Church, probably more so, and are steeped in a tradition that is much harder to reconcile with left-liberalism than mainstream Christianity, which for all its differences on moral issues shares a more similar grounding in literature and thought than many on both sides are willing to admit.
Oh, of course, I know how natural it feels to want to defend anything the Mail bashes - a letter in that paper at least 13 years ago is the sole reason why I like the Weymouth & Portland council offices infinitely more than they deserve. I know how much they poison everything. I wish the mainstream right in the UK had not been so damaged by its Thatcherite realignment towards virtually uncritical support of Israel, which leaves religious conservatives condemning other religious conservatives - destroying what might otherwise be a very real and natural alliance, if only of convenience - and puts left-liberals in an almost impossible position. And of course, the Express's "MUSLIM PLOT TO KILL POPE" headline was a disgrace to journalism even by their standards. I just feel that it should be conceded that a certain number of people will always want the security and certainty of religious conservatism (note: not wanting it yourself, just recognising the human condition) and that, where rival forms of backwardness are concerned, it might be better to keep a hold on the Christian nurse, because the alternative is a far greater threat to liberal values. Trying to wish out of existence the fact that there are people like that, who have such desires, is a form of deluded utopianism which, as usual with such things, can have deeply counter-productive ends, the opposite of its undeniably progressive aims.
As I say, I endorse and agree with the criticisms of the Catholic hierarchy as dangerously backward and counter-productive where any kind of social progress is concerned; I simply want the same criticisms to be unashamedly aired against certain aspects of Islam (especially when they are really, as with Christian fundamentalism, politics rather than religion). If it is made clear that the criticism is born out of a defence of liberal values, rather than fear of "foreigners" and "outsiders", the right-wing press will want nothing to do with it, and might even rediscover the pre-Thatcher Arabist Toryism which makes far more sense than their current position. But until criticism of religious conservatives is equal and unambiguous - criticising them because they are religious conservatives, not for any other petty and culturally specific reason - I regret to say that I will suspect, albeit from a wholly different starting point, that there may be more truth in Peter Hitchens' suspicion - that extreme atheism is really a cultural cringe at the thought of one's childhood memories and pre-pop cultural inheritance, rather than a genuinely thought-out ideology - that I would like to believe there is. I am - on balance - an agnostic, rather than an atheist. It's the biggest difference in the world, and it doesn't make you a "Christian in denial" as both Hitchens brothers would probably think. It just makes you reasoned and tolerant.