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Sunday 18 May 2008

God hlep us all in the face of militant secularists

Religion-friendly atheist Ruth Dudley Edwards is cheering on the bishops in their ethical crusade

I may be an atheist, but I'm religion-friendly. Although my total inability to believe in one or more gods is a bit of a hindrance to ever taking up any faith, over the years, at various times, I've defended in argument the dear old woolly Church of England, Presbyterianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Islam -- though its radicals are trying my tolerance sorely. And I certainly believe that Europe is a Christian continent and should be proud of that.

These days my new religious best friend is Roman Catholicism, which I abandoned when I was 16 and disliked intensely for decades because of old grievances, but for which I now have respect and gratitude. What other religion is taking on calmly, intelligently and courageously the scourge of militant secularism afflicting modern Europe?

Yes, of course I know plenty about the downside of Catholicism, but these days, living in England -- a country where the bulk of the established church is in a moral funk -- I am thrilled to see Cardinal Murphy O'Connor and his Scottish counterpart, Keith O'Brien, taking on the British secular Establishment on such huge ethical issues as abortion, stem cell research and the right of children to have fathers.

It was the belt of a couple of croziers that caused three Catholic Cabinet ministers (Des Browne, Ruth Kelly and Paul Murphy) to put their religious scruples before their ambition and force Gordon Brown to allow a free vote on contentious clauses in the abhorrent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Here are a few of the Bill's more alarming provisions. It will be possible to select embryos to create what are called 'saviour siblings' -- i.e., one with the right genetic make-up to provide tissue to an older sick sibling. Those rejected will, of course, be destroyed. Have our mad secularists given serious thought to the psychological effects on a child of discovering he was born to be a spare part? Of course not. "It will save lives," they drone. Well, so do the organs harvested from executed Chinese.

Scientists are frustrated by a shortage of embryos to experiment on, so they've come up with the wheeze of creating animal-human hybrid embryos. What's wrong with that? "It will save lives." Yes, but there is a reason why most people find such an idea appalling: it is unnatural and it opens up an appalling vista. But not to fundamentalist secularists.

It's no surprise that the notion that children need parents of both sexes is seen as fuddy-duddy, which is why the Bill dispenses with the need for anyone having fertility treatment to show that the resulting child will have a father.

Oh, and then there is the matter of abortion. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, who as a nurse witnessed botched abortions, tried to have the 24-week abortion limit reduced to 20. Although she is in favour of abortions up to 13 weeks (as is the norm on the Continent), she has been denounced as a religious fundamentalist. The only good news is that although her amendment was lost, 80 per cent of Tory MPs voted for an amendment reducing the limit to 22, so there is a chance that in the next parliament there will be agreement that healthy foetuses that could survive outside the womb will not be killed within.

But that's the only good news. The Bill swept through the Commons and will almost certainly be passed in the Lords.

God help us all.

Still, because of the outspoken princes of the church and a few others, Britain had -- unusually -- an ethical debate over the last few weeks: I had a row with a neighbour about abortion only the other evening. Polls show the majority of the public closer to the cardinals than to New Labour.

Pope Benedict has not just been encouraging his troops to fight on such issues and fight hard. He has also been giving the lead in challenging reactionary Islam by making tough, interesting speeches about rationality and religion.

So though I won't be rejoining the church -- not even on

my deathbed (unless I'm suffering from a marble deficiency) -- I find myself grateful that I had a Catholic upbringing. I've always been proud of Ireland for having intense debates about reproductive ethics, but with the evangelical secularists on the march, the rest of us should be grateful that our culture is still imbued with the best of Roman Catholicism.

As a nation, we've been morally dodgy about violent nationalism, but at least, so far, we've been protective of the unborn. Well done, Your Holiness. Keep up the good work. The religion-friendly atheists are marching alongside, cheering you on. And those who fear that the vacuum that is rootless secularism will cause Europe to cave into violent Islamism are keeping them company.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards