George Tiller and Bill Donohue: How Religion Twists the Moral Compass


George tillerYou’ve almost certainly heard about George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was murdered yesterday: most likely (although we don’t know for sure yet) by a religiously- motivated anti- abortion vigilante.

WilliamdonohueYou may or may not have heard about Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who, commenting on the latest scandal about severe and widespread institutional child abuse in Catholic schools in Ireland, has been vociferously defending the Catholic Church: downplaying the well- documented and horrific abuse, accusing victims of being “gold diggers looking to get money from the Catholic Church”… and screaming at rape victim Colm O’Gorman to “shut up.”

I want to talk about the power that religion has to twist the human moral compass.

Cccp russian propaganda posterI’m going to start by being fair. Religion is far from the only belief system or ideology that can inspire people who think they’re doing good to commit terrible, heinous acts. Political ideology, for instance, can do the same thing: as we’ve seen in the Stalinist Soviet Union, or the United States in the W. Bush administration. The process of rationalization is far from limited to the world of religion. And because rationalization is often self- perpetuating — when we do something bad, we find a rationalization for why it wasn’t bad, which makes us more likely to do that bad thing again — it can lead otherwise sane and moral people, step by step, into committing atrocities we would otherwise recoil from in horror. This is not limited to religion: it is a fluke of how the human mind works.

But here’s the problem with religion. Here’s what makes religion special, uniquely suited for twisting the human moral compass.

Reality checkWith religion, there’s no reality check. There’s no expectation of a reality check. There’s not even any sense that a reality check is a reasonable thing to expect. Heck, in many religions, expecting a reality check is actually considered a bad thing: a sign of weak faith at best, heresy at worst. (Doubting Thomas, and all that.)

In any other moral system, you’re expected to come across. The ultimate criteria of your actions are, you know, your actions, and the affect they have on the world. We can see those actions, and those effects. And while people can argue that their apparently bad actions will have good effects in the long term or in the big picture, eventually they have to come across with those good effects — or else see their moral system condemned, and have it fall by the wayside.

South park heavenBut religion is ultimately dependent on belief in beings that are invisible; voices that are inaudible; entities that are intangible; and events and judgments that happen after people die. In religion, the Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong is invisible, and doesn’t judge until after you’re dead and can’t tell anyone. And in religion — in most religion, anyway — the Invisible Arbiter in the Sky takes precedence over the actual human reality staring you in the face. You don’t ever have to come across. A belief that your actions will have good effects in this world will only take you so far; a belief that your actions will earn the approval of an invisible god has no limits in how far it can take you.

And therefore, religion has a unique power to twist people’s innate sense of right and wrong. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will commit murder in the name of protecting life. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will defend or trivialize or explain away the horrific abuse of children — the literal, physical and sexual, institutional abuse of thousands of actual human children — and still decry putting a nail through a cracker as a vile offense against all that is right and good. More than family loyalty, more than patriotism, more than political ideology, more than any other belief system, religion has the power to bend the moral compass until it breaks.

(Some of these ideas were developed in a comment thread on Pharyngula.)

Comments

  1. David Evans says

    “With religion, there’s no reality check.”
    Such a simple point, but I hadn’t thought it through to the consequences until I read this post. Very nice.
    Of course dogmatic Marxism has the same problem when it justifies everything in terms of a future utopia. There are always reasons why the utopia was delayed (sabotage, usually)

  2. says

    I think I’m going to go out with an ax & hammer and bust up a whole chifforobe of crackers right now.
    That was one scary audiotape, Greta. I had to dillydally awhile before I could bring myself to listen to it.
    So weird, too, on a minor note, when people like Donahue brag that they were beaten as kids and it didn’t do them a lick of harm. The whole time you’re thinking, “Oh yes it did!”
    I, for one, was slapped by nuns and it really fucked me up, like everyone else in my class. We had a class reunion a couple years ago and it was like a rehab receiving room.

  3. jemand says

    I don’t get how he keeps going on and on about how “lack of attachment” is no big deal. These are frickin CHILDREN! It’s been DOCUMENTED that failure to thrive, severe emotional and psychological and even physical trauma can result from a complete lack of love or acceptance or affection.
    “Lack of attachment” is a SERIOUS issue, especially as it was endemic. Also, inadequate heating? He throws that out like it’s nothing. But I can imagine that inadequate heating could be extremely harmful.
    Those are the things he thought he could dismiss without question… but he even trivializes far worse abuses.

  4. Angel Kaida says

    Greta, thanks for this post. What with his violently angry comments section, I think PZ felt like he had a responsibility to talk about how this is not just religion’s fault – but I was yearning for him to acknowledge and articulate the very real fault that religion had here, and I’m glad to see you do that so eloquently.

  5. says

    Thanks, Greta.
    I think we will not make much progress in ending religious atrocities like this one unless we address the root of the problem. Religion — FAITH — is necessarily a bad thing, regardless of whether or not it drives people to heinous acts. Its very nature is such that it can only take away truth. It can never add it. Faith is a plague upon humanity.

  6. sav says

    Great post, Greta.
    Donohue blames the other side of doing the same things they’re accusing the church of doing. It’s the “I refuse to listen to you” tack, the “oh I’m so fucking persecuted and afflicted can’t you just canonize me now as the saint that I am” tack. Catholics have a serious persecution complex. I know. I witnessed it every Sunday for over 18 years.
    It’s all about loss of power for him and anyone who even attempts to defend the indefensible. He is such a completely despicable human being.
    On the upside, Colin McGorvan (sp?) from the ACLU was magnificent. He took Donohue down.

  7. Kevin R Brown says

    “Of course dogmatic Marxism has the same problem when it justifies everything in terms of a future utopia.”
    …Out of curiousity, how many book by proponents of communism and/or Marxism have you read?
    I ask because I used to say the same thing, right up until I actually bothered to see what the early Marxists (Trotsky in particular) had to say for themselves.

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