Do you remember them? I dredged it up from my rather worryingly selective memory – a soap in the shape of a pope on a rope so you could hang it conveniently in the shower.

Reading some of the stuff about the imminent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that lots of otherwise reasonable people would be quite happy to see the Pontiff suspended from a rope. The nature and degree of the personal venom directed against him raises other questions about what it is that fires such vindictiveness.

Cards on the table: this Pope is a PR disaster and, while being as brainy as one could hope for in a spiritual leader, seems to have little or no grasp of symbols or gestures or how these work in relationships or communications at any level. I disagree with some elements of his social ethics (contraception and condoms being the obvious target), but I do know how he gets there. I don’t like the way he has taken the Roman Catholic Church back towards a pre-Vatican II map in which Rome sits bang at the centre and everything else revolves around it.

But, on the other hand, I respect a man who refuses to go along with ‘contemporary’ cultural and ethical mores simply because he is expected to. Benedict has a brain. His arguments need to be heard and understood before a response is offered. What we are reading this week doesn’t show much of a rational grasp of what all this is about.

Sorry to pick an easy target, but the sheer sloppiness of Polly Toynbee‘s tirade (yes, another one) in today’s Guardian is breathtaking. Let’s be clear: a rational, reasonable, informed, credible critique of the Pope and his assumptions should be achievable and might even be welcomed by Christians (among others). Get the argument going. Tackle the philosophical and theological assumptions which then shape the Pope’s doctrine and ethics. Prove him to be flawed, stupid, wrong, misguided or dangerous – if that’s appropriate – but just to throw things at him from your pram is both inadequate and sad.

Here are some examples from Polly Toynbee’s piece (which seems to have been rather uncritically welcomed by many readers whose sentiments she articulates):

…sex lies at the poisoned heart of all that is wrong with just about every major faith.

Er… and at the heart of nothing else? Sex and how we handle it (so to speak) is a human issue, not just a religious issue. It is not self-evidently true that ‘sexual freedom’ sets us free and improves human relationships or well-being. Everyone wrestles with sex (if you see what I mean…).

Women’s bodies are the common battleground, symbols of all religions’ authority and identity. Cover them up with veil or burka, keep them from the altar, shave their heads, give them ritual baths, church them, make them walk a step behind, subject them to men’s authority, keep priests celibately free of women, unclean and unworthy. Eve is the cause of all temptation in Abrahamic faiths. Only by suppressing women can priests and imams hold down the power of sex, the flesh and the devil. The Church of England is on the point of schism over gay priests, women bishops and African homophobia. The secular world looks on in utter perplexity.

So, let’s pick on the worst elements of religious expression (which millions of religious people also find weird and/or dodgy), shall we, and ignore the rest? What response would I get if I used Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and the other usual suspects as the epitome of secular atheism? Like everything else in this world – the real one in which most of us live – religious institutions or movements comprise huge ranges of agreement and dispute with just about everything the institution or movement lays claim to. There is no objective monolith – not even when leaders pretend there is.

And, just to be really clear, (elements of) the secular world looks on with utter perplexity at all sorts of religious motivation, belief and behaviour: self-sacrifice, humility, generosity, etc. (There I go again – generalising…) The mere fact that ‘the secular world looks on with utter peplexity’ tells us nothing other than that some people are perplexed by other people – it says nothing about the subject of the perplexity itself.

But the Vatican still talks of a few bad apples requiring internal discipline, the pope refusing to hand rapists over to secular law.

The Vatican might not want me as its defender, but that is simply nonsense. But why let reality intrude into a good rant?

The other dominion the religions control is death. Were it not for the faiths with their grip on hospices and palliative care, the law on assisted dying would be reformed.

Good grief! Clearly the assumptions behind Polly Toynbee’s view on the ethics of assisted dying are self-evidently true and the development of palliative care through the hospice movement (which is also concerned with the whole person in the context of the whole family, etc) is clearly a destructive fraud on dying people. Oh, right. No need to argue that point, then.

Where once secularism and humanism were relics of a bygone religious age, its voice is important again. But pointing out the blindingly obvious need to keep faiths in their private sphere has united religious gunfire against secularists.

Now, that really is breathtaking. It seems ‘blindingly obvious’ to some of us that Polly Toynbee has not bothered to listen to any challenge to her root assumption that her world view is self-evidently true – and therefore needs to have privileged place in the public square – while that of religious people is self-evidently stupid and dangerous and needs to be confined to the private sphere where it can’t do any harm. This nonsense has been knocked on the head in the last twenty years even by atheists.

All atheists now tend to be called “militant”, yet we seek to silence none, to burn no books, to stop no masses or Friday prayers, impose no laws, asking only free choice over sex and death.

No, not all atheists are being called ‘militant’. That’s ridiculous. That’s like bleating that all religious people are being labelled ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘brain-dead’. It might apply to some, but not to all. Please give us the rational atheists (of which there are plenty) instead of this sort of unthinking tirade.

And, actually, you are ‘wanting to silence’… by insisting on religion being confined to the private sphere (like an unmentionable hobby or embarrassing habit). You can’t have it both ways.

Religion deserves its say, but only proportional to its numbers.

Really? We all know how to play with numbers and proportions. Add the membership of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society together and ask if they would have any voice anywhere in proportion to their ‘numbers’. And, if the argument is that many more people are secularists than belong to the formal societies, then the self-same argument can be made for religion. Which gets us nowhere.

No privileges, no special protection against feeling offended.

At last, I agree. But it is amazingly easy to offend those who object to the ease with which religious people are offended. Watch this space…

Anyway, there are reasons for objecting to the Pope’s visit and the basis on which it has been set up. But, Polly Toynbee’s argument isn’t one of them.