Why Is Anyone Still Catholic?

If your softball league or your children’s school did what the Catholic Church is doing, you’d quit in outrage. So why haven’t you?

Catholicchurch For any Catholics who might be reading this, I have a question for you:

Why are you still Catholic?

Presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the rash of child-rape scandals in the Catholic Church. I don’t have to tell you about the cover-ups, the shielding of child rapists in the priesthood from law enforcement, the deliberate shuttling of child-raping priests from town to town to protect them from exposure — thus enabling them to continue raping children. I don’t have to tell you about the Church using remote, impoverished villages as a dumping ground for priests who raped children. I don’t have to tell you that this wasn’t a few isolated incidents: it was a widespread, institutional practice, authorized by high-level Church officials. Including Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — who, among other actions taken to protect child raping priests, delayed the dismissal of a child rapist in the priesthood… for the “good of the universal Church.”

And presumably, I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s response as this scandal has been exposed. I don’t have to tell you that, overwhelmingly, they have stonewalled, rationalized, deflected blame. I don’t have to tell you about the Church’s “Come on, the kids weren’t that young, most of them were over 11″ defense, or their “Hey, everyone else is doing it” defense. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve equated the accusations against the Church with anti-Semitism. I don’t have to tell you how they’ve blamed the child-rape scandal on gays, the media, the Devil , even the rape survivors themselves. (No, really. From the Bishop of Tenerife: “There are 13 year old adolescents who are under age and who are perfectly in agreement with, and what’s more wanting it, and if you are careless they will even provoke you.”) I don’t have to tell you that the Church is opposing a measure extending the statute of limitations on child rape. I don’t have to tell you about the Pope’s dismissal of the child-rapist-protection accusations as, quote, “petty gossip.”

And I’m just focusing on the child rape scandal. I’m not even talking today about the other recent scandals in the Church: the gay prostitution ring, the Church banning the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS, the rape of nuns by priests and the ignoring/ concealment thereof.

You know about all of it.

So here’s what I want to ask you:

Why are you still Catholic?

If these scandals had taken place in any organization other than a religious one — would you still be part of it?

*

Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet, Why Is Anyone Still Catholic? To find out why I’m exhorting Catholics who are horrified over the child rape scandal to leave the Catholic Church — and why I’m so baffled that more of them aren’t doing that — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

He’s A Super Freak: Tiger Woods and Sexual Compassion

Textmessage Okay. Maybe I’m a freak of nature. But does anybody else like Tiger Woods better after reading the freaky text messages?

Or, maybe more accurately: Does anyone else have more sympathy and compassion for Tiger Woods after reading the freaky text messages?

Until recently, I had almost zero interest in the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Rich, famous, powerful man; maintained a squeaky-clean public image for years; turned out to be sneaking around on his wife with multiple mistresses and sex workers. Ho freaking hum. Wake me when something remotely unusual happens.

But then — pretty much by accident, since I’d been ignoring this story to an almost aggressive degree — I read about the text messages he sent to one of his sex partners, Joslyn James, which she saved and released to the media.

Including:

I want to treat you rough. Throw you around, spank and slap you

Slap your face. Treat you like a dirty little whore. Put my cock in your ass and then shove it down your throat

Hold you down while i choke you and Fuck that ass that i own

Then im going to tell you to shut the Fuck up while i slap your face and pull your hair for making noise

Where do you want to be bitten

I really do want to be rough with you. Slap you around

For years. And punish you for not seeing me more

I want you to beg for my cock. Kiss you all over to convince me to let you have it in your mouth

Next time i see you, you better beg and if you don’t do it right i will slap, spank, bite and fuck you till mercy

I read these texts. And my whole perspective changed.

All of a sudden, my perspective on Tiger Woods was no longer, “Powerful man with a sense of sexual entitlement, who cheats on his wife with impunity and doesn’t think sexual ethics apply to him.”

All of a sudden, my perspective was, “Oh. He’s kinky.”

And that’s a radically different perspective.

*

Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, He’s A Super Freak: Tiger Woods and Sexual Compassion. To find out more about how the kinkiness of these text messages are giving me a new, more compassionate perspective on the Tiger Woods sex scandal — and about where that compassion ends — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

“But Everyone Else Does It!” Andrew Brown and the Defense of the Catholic Church Child Rape Scandal

If everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?

And if everyone else raped children, would you defend it?

St. peter's basilica The child rape scandal in the Catholic Church (like Stephen Fry, I am no longer willing to call it pedophilia or molestation or child abuse) has been heating up lately, with new stories about the widespread rape of children by priests in Germany, an admission from the senior cleric in Ireland that he was present at meetings where two abused teenagers were made to sign vows of silence, questions about Pope Benedict’s handling of an abuse case when he was an archbishop, and more.

Andrew-Brown So via Pharyngula, we have the story of one Andrew Brown of the Guardian, who has written a defense of the Catholic Church child rape scandal and an excoriation of those who are condemning it… on the grounds that everyone else does it, too.

No, really.

From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable…

and:

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.

and:

There are, however, some fragments of figures from the outside world suggesting that not many professions do better.

Etc.

Shudder.

Where to begin?

Elementary statistics First of all, as many commenters in the Pharyngula thread have pointed out: Brown’s analysis of the child rape statistics are appallingly ignorant, both of statistics in general and of these statistics in particular. There is every reason to think that child rape among Catholic priests occurred — and for all we know, is still occurring — at a much higher rate than in any other field where adults have access to children and authority over them.

But as far as I’m concerned, that question is only tangentially relevant. And for Brown to focus on it so fixatedly shows that he is completely missing the point.

What makes the Catholic Church child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is making it have the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church, is not the rapes themselves. Of course the rapes themselves are morally repugnant. And of course we need to be looking at whether there is some institutional force that makes Catholic priests more likely to rape children than other people in positions of trust and authority: such as the celibacy requirement for the priesthood, or the Church’s fear and loathing of sexuality as a central part of their theology, or the special power that priests have because they purport to have a special line to God, or religion’s veneration and armor against criticism which makes people less comfortable making accusations against it. (Indeed, it’s fair to look at whether it’s even true that Catholic priests rape children at a higher rate than other trusted authority figures.) But it is certainly the case that child rape does occur in other fields where adults are in positions of trust and authority with children: teachers, coaches, etc. Brown’s not wrong about that.

That is not where the depth of the scandal lies. What makes the Catholic child rape scandal so morally repugnant, and what is giving it the effect of turning people away from the Catholic Church in horror, is the way the Church handled it.

Deliver us from evil The Church knew about widespread reports of priests repeatedly molesting children… and instead of acting to protect the children, they acted to protect the priests, and themselves. Thus deliberately and knowingly putting more children in the way of known child rapists, solely for their pure self-interest.

Repeatedly. Time and time again. In every part of the world. As a cold-blooded matter of Church policy.

That is the scandal.

The fact that some adults in positions of trust and authority over children violated that trust by raping them? That is a tragedy. The fact that the Catholic Church knew about it — and instead of reporting the child rapists to the police, they deliberately shielded them from detection and criminal investigation? The fact that the Church moved child rapists from parish to parish, thus exposing even more children to them? The fact that they lied to law enforcement, concealed evidence, even paid off witnesses… purely to protect their organization from looking bad?

That, Mr. Brown, is the scandal.

You fucking moral imbecile.

We don’t know what makes people into child rapists. It is a serious mental illness as well as a profound moral failing. But the Church hierarchy who shuffled around known child rapists from diocese to diocese — not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, in a calculated attempt to prevent a PR disaster and protect their own self-interest? We know what makes people do that. What makes people do that is utterly craven moral bankruptcy. They don’t even have the excuse of mental illness.

And for Andrew Brown to defend this moral bankruptcy? For him to use the “Everyone else does it, too” defense — a defense that doesn’t even stand up at third grade recess, and that absolutely has no validity in a serious adult discussion of morality? For him to insist that the Church is being picked on, unfairly singled out among all the teachers and coaches and babysitters and so on who have raped children?

That suggests a moral tone-deafness that makes me physically ill. Brown is essentially doing exactly what the Church has consistently done in the face of this scandal. He is placing a higher value on the well-being of the Catholic Church than he is on the people, the children, who trust in it.

Shame on him.

Sexual Harassment or Religious Freedom?

Sexual harassment on the job Does the First Amendment right to religious freedom include the right of religious organizations to fire people for refusing the sexual advances of their employers, and for reporting those advances to the authorities?

You would think that the obvious answer to this would be No. You would think this would be the textbook definition of a no-brainer. You would think that nobody on this earth would even have to think about the answer to this question.

But apparently, the answer to this question is less obvious than you’d think.

Friendly Atheist has the story of Mary Linklater, former choir director at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, who was sexually harassed by her pastor and another prominent church member; complained; was cruelly retaliated against and eventually fired; sued; and won. The church is now appealing the judgment…

…on the basis of the “Ministerial Exception” — the legal principle that, because of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, religious employers have more leeway in hiring and firing than secular employers do, and can hire and fire based on religious criteria.

I’ll say that again.

The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is claiming, in court, that resisting the unwanted sexual overtures of your pastor and boss is a “religious criteria.” They are arguing that screwing the pastor when he asks you to is part of the religious doctrine they adhere to, and that they have the right to fire someone who doesn’t adhere to it.

That’s sure what it looks like to me, anyway.

Ted_haggard What gets to me isn’t just the grotesque immorality of this position. I mean, of course, yes, that does get to me. But by now the idea that some religious leaders are repulsively unethical hypocrites, claiming a superior morality from their supposed special relationship with God while behaving in ways that a psychopathic chimp would find ethically revolting… this is so common that it barely registers on my radar anymore.

What gets to me is that this is their public, legal defense. This isn’t just how they rationalize their behavior to themselves, in the privacy of their brains, in the dark night of their purported souls. This is what they’re saying in public, the position they’re officially and openly painting themselves with. They apparently have no idea what a massive P.R. disaster this defense could be. Their rationalization is so deeply rooted, they seem to have no idea what it might look like to other people — parishioners, other church employees, the public at large — to insist that the right to sexually harass their staff and retaliate when they complain is a religious freedom, a doctrine of their faith that they have the right to expect their employees to comply with, guaranteed them by the First Amendment.

Pope It reminds me all too well of the Catholic Church, arguing in court that they have a First Amendment/ freedom of religion right to discipline their priests as they see fit, and to assign and re-assign priests as they see fit… including shuffling child-molesting priests around the country to shield them from arrest and prosecution.

I mean, think about it. Is that really the position you want to be arguing? That shielding religious leaders who commit crimes — especially sexual abuse crimes — is part of your religious expression, a tenet of your faith that you have every right to practice? Even if by some freakish twist you win the court case… is that really what you want to be telling the world about your faith?

Or perhaps, would you rather tell the world, “We are so sorry this happened, this is not who we are or what we stand for, we ask your forgiveness and will do whatever we can to make up for it?”

I’m just sayin, is all.

Haiti and the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort

I’m finding it hard to say anything about Haiti that hasn’t already been said. I’m even finding it hard to say anything about Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti that hasn’t already been said. I may have something to say about it all in a few days. But for now, I just want to say this:

Logo-CFI-Share-Campaign Atheists/ humanists/ other godless people who want to donate to Haiti earthquake relief through a secular humanist organization: SHARE, the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort, is now accepting donations directed to the Haiti relief effort. The money gets sent to Doctors Without Borders, who you can also donate to directly if you prefer. And Partners In Health is an amazing organization that already has a good, up-and-running infrastructure in place in Haiti to help people who need help.

I don’t need to tell you what the people in Haiti are going through. Please do whatever you can to help.

Spiritual Piracy and Lousy Jewish Christmas Songs: Garrison Keillor and Christmas Bigotry

Garrison-keillor This is either really ineptly done satire… or some of the ugliest bigotry I’ve seen from a beloved icon of liberal culture.

Or else it’s the latter, thinly disgused as the former.

I’m talking about Garrison Keillor’s recent screed in the Chicago Tribune against atheists, Jews, pagans, and others who would dare to besmirch the right and true practice of the Christmas holiday. In which he says, among other things:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off.

As Donnie B. pointed out in the Pharyngula comments (of course I got this from Pharyngula): “I think I can detect Keeler’s mascara running: “Leave Christmas alone!!'”

I usually like to cut people slack and think the best of them until proven otherwise, and I’d love to think that this was just horribly misfired satire on the very attitudes he’s apparently expressing. But this isn’t the first time Keillor’s expressed religious and other bigotry, and unless he comes out with a sincere, grovelling apology, I’m afraid no slack is forthcoming.

So here’s what I posted in the comments at the Tribune:

*

This is truly ugly.

Mr. Keillor, on what authority are you deciding for other people how they should celebrate Christmas? Who died and made you the Christmas police? And what has made you so ugly and hateful about it?

As others here [in the Tribune comments] have pointed out: traditions change, and many supposed Christmas traditions have actually been adopted from other sources. Which is as it should be: traditions should change to meet the needs of the people practicing it. And you don’t get to decide who those people are. The reality is that Christmas is a cultural holiday as well as a religious one. It’s a U.S. Federal holiday, for goodness’ sake. And as a non-believer, if I have to get Christmas shoved down my throat every year, I see no reason why I and my friends and family shouldn’t adopt its traditions to make them work for us. (If “Greensleeves” can be rewritten as the Christmas song “What Child Is This,” why can’t Silent Night be rewritten to make it more Unitarian?)

As for “spiritual piracy”: Christianity is overwhelmingly the dominant religion in Western culture. I am heartily sick of Christians acting like they’re being thrown to the lions every time they don’t get their way in everything.

And the crack about “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year” is deeply ugly. Did you stop and think about what that would sound like before you wrote it?

*

Christmas_tree_washington I would have gone on for longer. Especially about cultural hegemony and Christianity being the dominant religious culture, and how being the dominant culture means you have to suck it up when other cultures adapt your traditions and put their own spin on it. And double especially about Christmas being a Federal holiday, and if he doesn’t want it secularized he shouldn’t expect it to get government recognition. And triple especially about the entitled ignorance of decrying other people “pirating” Christmas traditions when most Christmas traditions have been pirated from other cultures.

And a hundred times especially about the grotesquely ugly “lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys” crack. Which, frankly, I didn’t even know how to reply to, as it just left my mouth gaping in “Did he really say that?” aghastness.

But the Tribune comments limit people to 1400 characters. So I had to keep it concise. Merry Christmas, spiritual pirates!

Atheists and the Closet: or, Keith Olbermann, Tonight’s Worst Person in the World

Keith olbermannIf you’re an atheist, and you’re promoting atheists coming out and knowing that they’re not alone — but you, yourself, are not entirely out of the closet about your atheism — does that make you a bad person?

Keith Olbermann seems to think so. In his fabled “Worst Person in the World” segment tonight, he had this to say:

Tonight’s worst persons in the world. The bronze: To the person who donated the scratch for ten thousand dollars worth of ads on the sides of buses in New York City, promoting atheism. They read, “You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person.” The hope, from president Ken Bronstein of the group NYC Atheists, is to get people to stop hiding their non- belief — to stop hiding it. No complaint about the message — however, while Bronstein says, “We want to get atheists to come join us, to get out of the closet,” unfortunately the donor who made the ads possible is keeping his identity anonymous. (Contemptuous eye-roll.)

Okay. Here is my question for Mr. Olbermann.

If you were doing a segment about an ad campaign designed to let gay people know that they weren’t alone and to encourage them to come out of the closet — and one of the major donors to the campaign wanted to remain anonymous — would you decry them as one of the worst persons in the world?

Dont ask dont tellOr would you understand that coming out as gay can — yes, still, even this day and age — be a hazardous enterprise? Would you understand that coming out can mean alienating family and friends, losing your job or your kids, getting beaten up or even killed? Would you understand that people have to come out on their own timetable, and that a person who wants to take action to support gay rights and gay visibility still might not be completely out of the closet? Would you understand that even gay people who are out to their families and friends and colleagues still might not want their name, and their gayness, splashed all over the national news?

And if so, then why don’t you understand it about atheists?

There are some realities about living as an atheist that you may not know about, Mr. Olbermann. Coming out as an atheist can have serious real-world consequences. Parents get denied custody of their children for being atheists. People get harassed and vandalized by their neighbors for being atheists. Teachers get suspended for being atheists. Teenagers get harassed and suspended from school for being atheists. Politicians whip up anti-atheist fear to try to get elected. (And that’s just in the US. I’m not even talking about parts of the world where atheism is a crime, punishable by imprisonment or death.)

Coming out dayI wish atheists would come out of the closet, too. It is the single most powerful act we can do to gain acceptance and understanding. And there’s definitely a Catch-22: the world isn’t safe for atheists since so few atheists are out… but as long as atheists don’t come out, it will continue to be unsafe. Some of us need to take the risk, so it’ll be easier and less risky for others.

But I also understand that that is not my decision to make for others. I understand that, while I can encourage atheists to come out, I can’t judge them if they decide they can’t do it. I understand that coming out is not as easy for some people as it is for others. It was pretty easy for me: my family are atheists; my wife is an atheist; I live in San Francisco, the world capital of alternative culture and “who gives a damn what other people believe”-ism; I work for a hippie punk-rock anarchist business; I don’t have kids. (And even I lost friends when I came out as an atheist.) I understand that not everyone is as lucky as me: I understand that there is a substantial amount of anti- atheist bigotry in this country and in the world, and that some people have workplaces, neighbors, schools, custody situations, etc., that make coming out as atheist untenable.

Is there an irony in the fact that the major donor behind an atheist visibility ad campaign is choosing to remain anonymous? You bet there is. But that irony should not be making you think, “What a hypocrite that person is. They’re one of the worst persons in the world.” It should be making you think, “What a messed up world it is we live in — that even the person promoting atheist visibility doesn’t feel safe being completely open about being an atheist.”

Speaking Ill of the Dead

GravestoneFor what are probably obvious reasons, I have been thinking about the strong social taboo against speaking ill of the dead.

And I’m trying to figure out if I think it’s an irrational superstition, or a reasonable gesture of respect to people who are in mourning… or some combination of the two.

In the case of private individuals, it makes perfect sense. When people are mourning their Uncle Larry, they don’t want to hear about what an insufferable jerk he was. It would be trivializing their feelings of loss and grief.

But with public figures… it seems like the rules should be different. And yet, they’re clearly not. If we don’t personally know the person, and don’t even know anyone who knew the person… we still feel the taboo against speaking ill of them. Even if we found them repulsive at best and morally reprehensible at worst; even if we think it’s very likely that they were guilty of one of the worst crimes imaginable; even if, cutting them the greatest possible slack and taking them entirely at their own word about their actions, we still find those actions to be grossly inappropriate and unethical… even then, when a person has recently died, we tend to either say something nice, or not say anything at all. (That’s right… I’m talking about Richard Nixon.)

The only exception I can remember seeing is Spiro Agnew, who the press was merciless about when he died. I’m sure there have been others — I’m sure that when Stalin died, nobody outside the Soviet Union was writing gushing eulogies — but they are wildly few and far between. (And I strongly suspect that Agnew got slammed, not because he’d been so much more evil than any other dead person, but because he’d been such an insulting schmuck toward the press.)

And I’m trying to figure out if this taboo is reasonable.

Richard dawkinsI do get that people feel personally attached to public figures, even when they never met them. A little while back, I saw a blog headline that made me think, just for a few seconds, that Richard Dawkins had died. That he’d been murdered, actually. I was filled with shock and grief; despite the fact that I’d never met the man, I felt a deep sense of loss of someone very important to me who’d made a big impact in my life. And complicating my emotions was that fact that one of the people around at the time (we were travelling, and had some people around us we didn’t know very well) was a hard-core Christian who’d been making no bones about shoving her beliefs down everybody’s throat. The thought of having to go through my grief around this person who I didn’t trust to respect it made a terrible situation (or what would have been a terrible situation) much worse.

So there’s a part of me that really does get it.

But there’s also a part of me that thinks this is dishonest. And while I don’t actually treasure honesty as the single greatest virtue we have, while I do understand the social and even moral value of keeping your mouth shut from time to time… in this situation, there’s a part of me that’s greatly troubled by it.

Richard nixonIf it’s a public figure who I just didn’t care for or find interesting, that’s one thing. I’m happy to keep my mouth shut. But if it’s a public figure who did serious and lasting harm to people — again, think Richard Nixon — it seems that lavishing unfiltered praise on them upon their death is insulting to the people they harmed. I get that we don’t want to be trivializing or callous about people’s grief when someone they care about dies. But I also don’t want to trivialize the damage done by said person… and I don’t want to be callous about the impotent outrage their victims must be feeling when they see the person who harmed them lavishly eulogized all over the world.

So I can’t figure this one out.

Thoughts?

Iran and the Battle Against Theocracy

3rd_Day_-_The_Green_Vicrtory_SignI don’t know if I have anything to say about the situation in Iran that hasn’t already been said. And normally, that’s enough to keep my mouth shut. But this time, despite my near-paralyzing fear of being trite, I feel that I need to say something:

I support the protesters in Iran.

And not just for the obvious reasons. Not just because the recent election was almost certainly rigged; not just because legitimate dissent is being violently suppressed; not just because the Iranian government is shooting its own citizens in the streets.

I support the protesters in Iran because they are striking a blow against theocracy.

6th_Day_-_Not_My_PresidentWhen Ahmadinejad’s “election” was pronounced as valid and Allah-favored by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — the leader of the Iranian theocracy — the protestors took to the streets anyway.

And when Supreme Leader Khamenei warned the protestors that their demonstrations were illegal and that further demonstrations would be firmly shut down and harshly punished… the protestors took to the streets anyway.

In Iran, this is a big honking deal. This isn’t just garden- variety anti- authoritarianism. This is defiance of the very notion of theocracy. Faced with a choice between a hope for a legitimately elected government, and a religious/ political leader telling them what to do and calling it the word of Allah… they’re going with the hope for a legitimately elected government. The very idea that a religious leader has political authority over them is being rejected, in the most blunt manner imaginable.

Tehran_protests_A_New_GreetingThis is not an original idea with me. It has been said before, better than I’m saying it. But it’s important, and it bears saying again, by multiple voices: Plenty of people in Iran do not support the brutal, despotic, nutball, Holocaust- denying, theocratic government. Plenty of people in Iran are even pretty okay with America and Americans — even more so, now that Americans on Twitter and Facebook have been so instrumental in getting the word out about what’s happening there. (Remember this when you remember the right-wing tirades about the axis of evil, or John McCain’s clever little “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” ditty. These are the people they were talking about.)

I doubt that many of the protesters in Iran are atheists. Most of them seem to be moderate Muslims. And I obviously don’t agree with them about that. But that is completely irrelevant. They are fighting theocracy on the front lines, in ways that I strongly doubt I would have the courage to do. I am supporting them against the Islamic theocracy of their government, and I want to help them in any way that I can.

To find out what you can do to help, you can follow Mousavi’s page on Facebook. No, really. His favorite movie is Groundhog Day, and he’s looking for an untraceable cel phone in Mafia Wars.

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.)