To many moral and ethical atheists, the statement from the Pope today is an appalling and disgraceful insult. To compare people who do not believe in a superbeing to the Nazis under Hitler is an monstrous insult, implying that it is the lack of belief that leads people to the inhuman acts carried out by the Nazis.
Ratzinger of course belonged to the Hitler Youth but that was because it was compulsory for boys of his age. He had no choice. The removal of his rights by Nazi society meant that he experienced the indoctrination of a state which glorified race above all else. It fueled the racism against the Jews, and the brutal anihilation of every organisation that expressed independent will. It's a bit like the lack of choice shown children educated in Catholic schools from an early age and it might be suggested that this relates to the torture and abuse of the Inquisition - just a thought.
But of course, such a crude simplistic interpretation of history is just plain stupid. Only prejudice would lead someone to such mendacious conclusions.
Atheism, by contrast, is simply the expression of disbelief in a deity. That doesn't imply that atheists are devoid of ethical judgement, or moral values. Atheists are every bit as moral and ethical as anyone else and they get those values from the society around them, from their peers, from all the cultural and historical influences to which they are subjected, just like any religious people.
Morality doesn't come from religion even in the case of religious people. It comes from the cultural mixture of influences in the society in which we live, and that's as true of Christians as anyone else. To imply that religion is necessary for morality is an enormous arrogance, and historical and socially inaccurate to say the least.
But what the Pope was really complaining about what the free expression of disbelief. In his world, if someone argues that religion is something that should not be foisted on children, that is interpreted as a violation of the child's rights. It seems that the Pope is utterly impervious to the blatant irony of this position, especially glaring given the manifest failure of the Catholic Church to even consider the rights of children during the recent child abuse enquiries.
But the expression of free will, free thought, the right to question values and social assumptions, is a sign of a healthy society. Being willing and able to question religious beliefs, just like political beliefs, is something we should encourage in our children.
The Pope sees this as an "aggressive form of secularism" but what he really means is that it is overt. Openly challenging beliefs is something that happens in a democratic society, a society very far from the cloistered secret world of the Vatican.
In his speech today, he drew attention to the attitude of Nazis to Christian pastors yet failed to mention the attitude of the Catholic church to dissidents and those of a challenging point of view. The Inquisition was hardly the most democratic of methods of opening a constructive dialogue.
People are increasingly turning away from religion for very good reasons. It is based on hypocrisy. It is internally inconsistent and externally inconsistent with what we know of the real world. There is no evidence to support any of the claims made by religions. It morally distorts those who cling to its precepts. It is politically disastrously reactionary. Historically it has always backed oppressors against the common people. And it relies on theologians to reinterpret anachronistic dogma in a vain attempt to make it relevant to modern society.
There is quite simply nothing offered by religion that is not already available in society from secular sources. Morality, ethics, open discussion, reason, compassion, love, caring and all the other valuable social qualities exist independently of any religious belief. People are better able to be moral and ethical people if they dismiss religion and think for themselves.
And that's why the Pope sees this approach as "aggressive". He is an anachronism, a wealthy, powerful man leading a largely secret and conspiratorial society of clerics, and in every sense he is no more progressive than the most reactionary of islamic clerics. More and more people are realising this and we should all be pleased with that.