Pope Benedict has been accused of a 'terrible libel' by suggesting, at the beginning of his UK visit, that Nazism can be considered akin to 'aggressive atheism'.
In his remarks in his opening address to the Queen at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on 16 September 2010, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics declared: “Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live."
He continued: "I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’ (Caritas in Veritate, 29).”
But the British Humanist Association said the association of atheism and Nazism was "outrageous".
In a statement released on the afternoon of the first day of the Pope's visit to the UK, the organisation, which is the largest of Britain's non-religious secular groups, said: "‘The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god."
The BHA continued: "The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal."
Speaking on Channel 4 News BHA chief executive said that accusations that atheists and secularists were extremist or aggressive was itself an extremist view that equated the intolerance of a few with the behaviour of the majority.
The patron of Catholic Voices, Fr Christopher Jamison, denied that the Pope had directly equated aggressive atheism and Nazism, and the Catholic Church responded to the complaints by saying the Pope knew "rather well what the Nazi ideology is about" because he himself had been forced into the Hitler Youth.
But critics say the pontiff's words make the association in his mind clear, and this latest gaffe, following on from Cardinal Kaspar's attack on secularism and his likening of Britain to a 'Third world country' because of its multiculturalism, has caused further embarrassment to the Vatican.
It has also confirmed the suspicion in wide sections of the media that the Pope is out of touch with public conversation in the society he is visiting.
The BHA's Andrew Copson accused the pontiff, who will be in the country for another three days, of being "uninformed" about modern Britain.
This is not the first time Benedict XVI's words have caused offence. His lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, four years ago this month, produced anger across the Muslim world when he quoted, apparently approvingly, a remark about Islam being 'evil' which was made in the 14th century by Manuel II Palaiologos, a Byzantine emperor.
As the English translation of his lecture was distributed across the world, Muslims protested against what they saw as an insulting mis-characterisation of Islam.
At the time, the Pope maintained that the comment he had quoted did not reflect his own views, and offered an apology to Muslims for the "misunderstanding".
It is not known whether any further comment or clarification will be forthcoming about his views on atheism.
Although the pontiff's advisers have made it clear that criticising what he see as anti-religious secularism will be a major theme of his UK visit, he is not due to meet any humanist or secularist organisations to talk with them about this.
Historians point out that both religious and non-religious people and organisations, Catholics and Protestants included, colluded with the Nazi regime in the 1930s, as well as being persecuted by it.
Hitler himself sometimes claimed to be Christian and at other times poured direct scorn and contempt upon Christian belief. He sought to create and manipulate a 'Reich Church', in the face of opposition from a determined minority of Christians, but in later life he more openly rejected traditional religion and during his adult life chose not to practice the Catholic faith of his upbringing.
Telegraph newspaper columnist and events editor Tim Chivers, who is himself an atheist, but has said "I honestly hope the visit goes well", criticised the Pope's remarks as "demonstrably wrong" but also urged a thoughtful response on all sides.
In a 16 September blog post for the paper (http://tinyurl.com/32xvklh), he wrote: "[I]n this febrile atmosphere, when secularists are accusing Catholics of covering up child abuse and Catholics are accusing secularists of causing moral decline, and everyone’s shouting at each other, it would have been nice if the man at the centre of the whole storm went and tried to calm things down a bit. [He] is hardly pouring oil on troubled water."
Quoting pronouncements by Hitler which have been used to make exactly the opposite point to Benedict, he wrote: "[To say] the horrors of Nazism were the fault of Christianity [...] would be idiotic. They were the fault of Hitler and his coterie, of the political thinking of the time, of the propensity for humans to get swept up in the madness of crowds, of the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic, and, yes, of too many ordinary Germans. But to blame atheism for them is not only idiotic in exactly the same way, but demonstrably wrong: Hitler, and most Europeans of the time, were Christian, and doubtless many thought (wrongly; we can all agree that) that they were doing God’s work."