When good people do bad things

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that “children who die without being baptized are with original sin and thus excluded from heaven, but the church has no formal doctrine on the matter. Theologians have long taught, however, that such children enjoy an eternal state of perfect natural happiness, a state commonly called limbo, but without being in communion with God.”

However, it seems that concerns have been raised about this because of the growing number of children who now die without being baptized. (I am not exactly sure why this is seen as a bigger problem now than before. Is there a finite amount of space and thus overcrowding in limbo?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high powered International Theological Commission to study this problem (really) and now thinks that there is “reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven.”

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature because they are born that way and thus must seek forgiveness to achieve salvation. I had rejected the idea of original sin at a very early age, even when I was still religious in other ways. The idea that newborn babies are sinners struck me as just too preposterous to be taken seriously. Furthermore, since I had never accepted the Genesis story as being literally true, the ‘fall from grace’ which is supposed to be the source of original sin and is depicted in the famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge, could not have occurred anyway, making the whole idea very dubious.

For me discussions about the nature of limbo (or even its existence) and the importance of baptism of infants for salvation are utterly pointless, similar to questions concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But such questions have serious consequences in the lives of real people. Richard Dawkins describes the tragic story of Edgardo Mortara in his book The God Delusion (p 311-315), which he takes from another book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I. Kertzer.

Edgardo was a boy born to Jewish parents around 1850 in Bologna, Italy who, as an infant, had a fourteen year old Catholic nanny. When the baby got very sick one day, the nanny panicked and thought that he was going to die. Not wanting him to end up in limbo, she discovered that anyone (not just priests) could baptize anyone else by sprinkling water and muttering the appropriate words, and she did so to Edgardo in order to save his soul. Edgardo recovered, however, and many years later, the news that he had been baptized came to the attention of church authorities and since a baptized child was legally considered to be a Christian, it was considered intolerable for Edgardo to be brought up in a Jewish home. So in 1868 the papal police, acting legally under the orders of the Inquisition, seized the six-year old boy and brought him up in a special home used for the conversion of Jews and Muslims.

His distraught parents naturally tried everything they could to get their child back but it was to no avail. In fact, the church was bewildered that anyone would even make a fuss about this. After all, the child was now a Christian by virtue of having been baptized and the church thought that being brought up in Christian environment was best for the child. A Catholic newspaper in the US even defended the Pope’s action as taken on behalf of the principle of religious liberty, “the liberty of a child of being a Christian and not forced compulsorily to be a Jew. . . The Holy Father’s protection of the child, in the face of all the ferocious fanaticism of infidelity and bigotry, is the grandest moral spectacle which the world has seen for ages.”

Although Edgardo’s story was highly publicized, it was by no means unusual at that time and this is what makes the whole thing so bizarre. It was apparently routine for well-to-do Jews to hire Catholic nannies, and this kind of surreptitious baptism and taking away of children from Jewish parents had happened before.

This immediately raises the obvious question of why Jews, although aware of this potential problem, would take the risk of hiring Catholic nannies instead of Jewish ones. The reason, it turns out, is that since observant Jews are prohibited by their religion from doing a vast number of routine tasks on the Sabbath, having Catholic servants enabled them to get things done without offending their own god. So the risk of losing a child was seemingly outweighed by their sense of obligation to follow their own god’s rules.

But even after the abduction of their child and when all their efforts to get him back through other means had failed, Edgardo’s parents still had one sure-fire remedy, and that was to agree for themselves to be baptized. Even if they did not believe in the Christian god, if they had agreed to have water sprinkled on themselves and the ritual words spoken, they would get their child back since they would now be considered Christian by the church. But they refused to do this, out of loyalty to their own Jewish god. As Dawkins says: “To some of us, the parents’ refusal indicates wanton stubbornness. To others, their principled stand elevates them into the long list of martyrs for all religions down the ages.”

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person and institution in this sorry episode was a ‘good’ person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The church honestly seemed to believe that it was in the best interests of a Christian child to be brought up by and amongst other Christians. Edgardo’s parents were trying to observe their religion by hiring a Catholic nanny (despite the known risks) so that they could faithfully observe the Sabbath. And in not agreeing to go through even an insincere baptism, they were acting to avoid incurring the wrath of their own Jewish god because he is well known to be a jealous god who gets really angry at any form of allegiance to other gods, even the Christian god. Presumably the parents sincerely felt that their god would not understand and forgive a baptismal charade, even though their motives for agreeing to a phony baptism would have been unimpeachable.

These were all ‘good’ people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg’s statement: “Without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins and Bill O’Reilly

You can see the clip of the exchange here. O’Reilly basically said that because he believes in the Christian god, what he believes must be true. He also said that the tides going in and out, the sun rising and setting, all could not happen without god. In short, he trots out all the simple and fallacious arguments that should be familiar to readers of this blog.


  1. dave says

    “These were all ‘good’ people, not setting out deliberately to do evil. They were all acting very devoutly according to their own religious lights. But the net result of their actions was evil – a family torn apart and a child deprived of the love and companionship of his parents.

    This sad story illustrates better than any other the truth of Steven Weinberg’s statement: “Without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things.”

    While living abroad I witnessed something on a train. A mother and daughter, both dressed in dirty and tattered clothes, were moving through the train begging for money.

    The mother would stand at the junction between cars and watch the daughter move from foreigner to foreigner. The girl, maybe 5 years old, would kneel in front of a foreigner, put her head in their lap, and lift her small left hand palm up.

    I watched this and it hurt my soul.

    The mother would catch up to the girl at the end of the car and they would move to the next compartment.

    The mother was seemingly acting in the best interest of her child and self. This was probably their best means of support. The desire to provide food for her daughter indicates this was a good thing.

    The daughter, wanting to be an obedient child, followed the mother’s instructions. This also seems to be a good thing.

    The foreigners gave money. Obviously a good thing as it provided support for these needy people.

    Yet, watching all these good acts hurt me deeply. No religion involved. Just good people trying to do good things. Yet, somehow, the net result seems evil.

    Weinberg’s statement, like most of Dawkin’s book, is too simplistic.

  2. says

    for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

    I think it’s pretty undeniable that religion has been at the heart of some the most horrific events in human history.

    I don’t, however, think this is solely the province of religion: instead, these horrific events (the inquisition, the My Lai, the holocaust; actually, wikipedia has a list of massacres) are all the result of human institutions gone horribly awry. They can all, I imagine, be attributed to a group of people making some awful decisions; either because of a charismatic leader, or simply groupthink.

    I strongly disagree, however, that good people doing evil is the sole province of religion (just as I vehemently disagree with the sentiment that good deeds & charity are the sole province of the religious).

  3. says


    To me Dawkins story doesn’t compute-its weak and frankly I don’t see a point to it. There are so many implicit assumptions in it. For instance, I would have to assume that it was a good thing for Jews to hire Christians to get around the sabbath-that this in some way shows their allegiance to their god and religion. Well I am not buying that and I refuse to play along. That smacks of legalism to me. I wouldn’t say they had ‘good intentions’. I would say they had legalistic intentions with a side of rationalization and trivial discrimination.

    Second, taking the child away from the parents in the name of your religion isn’t a good thing! Something isn’t good because someone thinks it is or because of their intentions!!!!! Using the very tired (but horrifically graphic) example of what happened in Nazi Germany is a prime example. Hitler’s plan wasn’t a good plan. It was an evil plan carried out by evil men-his intentions do not matter one bit. The fact that these men thought it was right or had good intentions is inconsequential outside of a simple-minded post-modern argument about everything being relative. What they (the ‘Christians’) did in this story is called kidnapping and it is just as wrong today as it was then. The rightness or wrongness of the act are not effected by the epoch of time or by the rationale used by the perpetrators (which are referred to as intentions in your post). Finally, it is unbelievable to me that this story was somehow twisted into some kind of statement about religion at all. Outside of involving individuals who used religion as a means to justify in their own minds legalistic or criminal acts, this has nothing to do with actual religion. Gimme a break. When scientists have to retract papers because they get caught making up data this is not a story about science other than it involves a scientist or group of scientists. The story would be about human failings. It would be about lying and it would be about the truth. It is no indictment on science. Dawkins is a brilliant man but some of the stories he tells to make points are just as pointless and folksy as those he accuses religious apologists of making. Even smart people say dumb things.

    Anyway, now I feel better.


  4. Kathy says

    Re Steven Weinberg’s statement…

    A few days ago you wrote that we should judge people solely by their actions, not by the nature of the belief that motivated their actions.

  5. says


    I think you are making the same point that Dawkins, Weinberg and I are making, that we cannot take our standards of good behavior from religious texts but must apply more general humane principles. We all agree that forcibly removing a child from his parents for anything other than serious abuse or cruelty is intolerable. So we are applying moral standards that exist independently of religion.

    The point here is that these people all presumably acted according to their sincere religious beliefs. They were not benefitting personally from their actions, excpet in the belief that they were doing god’s work. You may call them ‘bad’ Jews and the Pope a kidnapper, but they were following their religious convictions.

    The analogy of cheating scientists does not work because there is no scientific standard that says that cheating is a desirable thing. A scientific cheater cannot claim that he was following the ethical principles of science the way that all these people could claim that they were following the ethical principles of their religions.

  6. says


    Exactly. I think that what was done to Edgardo was wrong according to general moral principles that we can all agree on irrespective of our private beliefs: that forcibly separating a child from his parents is wrong unless the child is in danger from serious abuse or cruelty or something like that.

    But the point here is that all these people can claim that they were not doing anything wrong because they were following their religious convictions.

    My point is that religious convictions should not have any standing when judging behavior. It is not a justifications for actions to say “This is what god wants me to do.”

  7. says


    I’m afraid not. That is not at all the point I was making. Although of course I believe that the world-view we have (secular, religious, etc) does influence our everyday decisions and actions I do not hold to the theory that as long as we “profess” to do something in the name of our world-view that this is necessarily saying something about our world-view in a broader context. My point was almost the exact opposite of what you, Weinberg and Dawkins are trying to make. As I see it the point you are trying to make is (and I’m generalizing here) that religious beliefs are bad because they can twist an ordinarily good person into doing something bad-I think that is fair. You’ve argued in the past that nationalism can have the same effect. I can’t believe you don’t see this but if your right then there is no world-view that exists that cannot be convicted on the grounds of some person somewhere who did something horrible.

    The people described in the story are presented as if they are guided by religious principles and convictions as you call them. That somehow they were following the “ethical principles of their religion” (the justification for the implicit assumption in that statement that they were in fact doing this is that it is true because Dawkins and by proxy you say it is). The story was told that way (and to work it must be told this way) in order to set up the exact situation needed for the straw man and then the straw man was destroyed. Of course if I get to define what your religious or secular convictions, beliefs and guiding ethical principles are and I get to project upon you the reasons for your actions based on those beliefs and I get to assume that there is in fact a 1:1 correspondence then I can easily make some point about how illogical or horrible they (your beliefs) are in general. Dawkins gets to define the ethical religious principles, he gets to assign the thought process to the perpetrators who carried the act out, he gets to say with his authority (given to him by him) that there is a 1:1 correspondence and then he gets to say, “see how dangerous religious beliefs and specifically Christianity is!”. Wow! talk about a god delusion-it must be nice to have that kind of power for your arguments.

    Did Joseph Duncan, a self-professed atheist, rape and murder the little boy in front of his sister a few years ago because he figured, “well, there is no god and so who cares and lets just do whatever feels good”? Did he do these things because of his atheism? And besides, let’s just say that Duncan actually says that he did the crime for exactly this reason. What would this tell us about atheism? What about the actions of Stalin or Hitler or Pot, etc. The list is endless in both directions.

    The God of the Christians does not condone kidnapping to get converts-this is not a Biblical, Christian principle! At this point, arguments like this usually go in the direction of someone pulling some quote out of the Christian Bible (see Matthew 28) to weakly prove a point and usually by someone who has either not read the Bible or who is purposely twisting the meaning for their own purpose-well lets see them-I’m ready. But the argument put forth in the story is ridiculous. It is not a Christian conviction that one should kidnap Jewish children in order to save them (go forth and make disciples of all nations does not in any way condone kidnapping) and anyone who thinks that (whether it is you or the perpetrators in this case is misinformed or fooling themselves). That is the straw man you and Weinberg and Dawkins set up. They didn’t do the action because they were Christians-they did it because they were human. They used human rationalization to attribute their evil actions to their religion.

    So no I am not making the same point that you guys are making. Moral standards do not exist independent of religion (that is the absolute rock upon which they are built). Note that this does not mean that you have to be religious or believe in a god to discover or follow them.

    Have a great weekend everyone:)


  8. says


    I am not sayiing that because some religious people did some bad things, then religion is bad. As you point out, any world-view can be criticized on those shallow grounds because it is a classic correlation-as-causation fallcy.

    I am saying that the people in the Edgardo story did these things as a result of believing in official religious dogma and trying to follow them. Limbo is Catholic dogma. The Pope is the decider and enforcer of dogma. Not doing lots of stuff on the Sabbath is Jewish dogma. Avoiding paying homage (by baptism) to other gods is Jewish dogma.

    You may not agree with that particular set of dogma (though as a Christian you presumably agree with much of Catholic and Jewish dogma) but there can be no doubt that these people were religious people by virtue of their actions. I am curious. Since you disagree with the characterization of their motives, what other reasons can you suggest for the baptism of the child? For the taking away of the child? For the parents hiring a Catholic nanny despite the known risks? For the parents not agreeing to be baptized themselves?

    To invoke a parallel with Stalin, etc., you would have to show that his actions were a result of following some prescribed atheist dogma, that he had reason to consider himself to be a good atheist for doing what he did.

    Also Dawkins is referring to an entire book on this story. I have not read it but if you are skeptical it should not be hard to see if Dawkins is fabricating or there is an actual historical record to substantiate his version of the story.

  9. Kathy says

    I was objecting specifically to Weinberg’s statement, which implies that “good” people can do bad things only when motivated by religion. (And pointing out that you had earlier said that motivation is irrelevant.)

    This is ridiculous. It implies that you, as a good person and also an atheist, can by definition never do a bad thing.

    And that I, as a religious (and presumably also good) person, will do bad things only under the influence of my religion. I’ve done plenty of bad things that had nothing to do with religion.

    Just the premise of dividing people into “good” and “evil” is childish and dangerous. I was surprised that you called this statement true.

  10. says


    Of course people do good and bad things due to many reasons. That is not at issue here.

    The point of this post, and Weinberg’s comment, is that religion can make people do bad things while still thinking they are doing good according to their religion.

  11. says


    I don’t think so at all. Dawkins makes no bones about it, “I am not attacking any particular version of god or gods. I am attacking gods, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” I am sure you have heard this before from his interview for the book-he uses this provacative statement to help sell the book. Your blog is in many ways a mirror of the things he says (although you have your own spin on it of course). I am not questioning his intellectual honesty. I do not feel he is making the story up or whatever but he is adding his own twist to it that is meant to send a message deeper than what you give him credit for. What is the point in just repeating the story from the book he got it unless he has something to add? He is trying to add his own twist to it and be entertaining and sell books. He is definitely not just trying to make the point you describe in your post-about good people doing evil via religion. That may be part of his point (which I still contend vida infra) but it is not the extent of it. He believes strongly that not only is religion an invention of man (as you would agree) but that it is a dangerous one at that and this story is meant to be an example of exactly that. So I think you and I will simply have to agree to disagree about that.

    As for the point about religion having some sort of special ability to make good people do bad things I still disagree and I stand by every idea I have weakly tried to argue so far. The story about the boy is the same thing as Stalin if I were to argue it on your terms. Stalin believed that he would make the country stronger by doing away with dissenters. His dogma (I could argue) was his belief in the communist party and the USSR (as to whether atheism came into it or not I don’t know but I suspect in his case it did). And as the supreme dictator of the country (like the Pope)he often got to decide what the dogma would be from one day to the next. Having dissenters killed or banished in his view, was a good thing. He felt he was being a good communist, making the mother-land stronger and purer idealogically and helping to stamp out the evil that was/is the west and their antithetical views of life, reality and government. So just taking the Weinberg quote alone as it is, as it was intended, it doesn’t hold water. I have provided a very significant historical reference point where a group of people (the communists led by Stalin) who were not religious (for the most part) committed acts that they thought were good because of their ideology, that even a post-modernist would agree were some of the worst human atroscities ever perpetrated.

    Just for clarity though (if such a thing can be had at this point) I am not arguing any of the above. I don’t think from a pure ideology point of view that the Stalin part of history says much about communism itself (I have read Marx and I don’t see anything in his writings that say it is necessary to murder millions of people for communism or socialism to work). I only offer it to show that the idea of the post is flawed on its own terms and Weinberg’s quote just doesn’t hold water. I think Kathy hits it right on the head in my opinion. Every single day people do things that they feel are good in the name of whatever beliefs they profess (and often it is not religious) and they are not good things at all. Granted most are not nealy as tragic as what the selp-professing Christian kidnappers did or the athiest, communist flag waving Stalin did, but they are not good things nonetheless.

    My real argument is over the very idea that the people in the story (specifically the kidnappers) were in fact actually doing good according to their religion because in my opinion that is closer to what Dawkins was trying to say.

    Thanks again for the great site-I really enjoy reading it.


  12. says

    I can’t stop thinking about Dawkins book and this story he relays in it and the Weinburg quote. To me it is a rediculous attempt to score points in this silly game. I think the Stalin example really shows how off the mark it is but there is a critical difference between the Christian kidnappers and Stalin. In the case of the kidnappers the story says they had “good intentions” and were “good people”. I made a point earlier that the story has to be told that way to work and make the greater point I feel Dawkins was trying to make in his book the God Dilusion. I do not know how in a story this tragic intentions matter at all or how the criminals can be characterized as “good” but I can see the point and concede that the Christians will get some sympathy in this story from some people (not me). After all, they were just doing what their religion told them to do as commanded by the Pope. Of course all of this is bunk even if they really thought this and weren’t just using it as an excuse for a darker reason (perhaps they were antisemites?). They (the Christians) probably get a bit of a free pass because of all the good that is done in the name of their religion. We tend to hammer Christians on this site for all the horrible things that have been done in the name of Jesus (and there are many) but Christians have done many, many good things in the name of Jesus as well (of course I would argue more good than bad but that is another argument), especially in the western culture we live in. Stalin’s intentions on the other hand are always called into question and few if any would characterize him as a “good person”. The story Dawkins retells wouldn’t work with Stalin because his intentions do not matter to anyone even if they were genuine-what he systematically did over all of those years was so horrible that saying, “but he did it for the good of the communist party” kind of rings hollow. Just a thought.

  13. dave says

    Another problem with Dawkins book is he tells a story and then says, ‘See, all religion is bad.’

    I wonder how Dawkins deals with the Amish. They are an Anabaptist Christian sect. Pacifists, hard-workig, and very content to stay within their own community they probably leave the smallest footprint on this earth of any organized group.

    Surely the things Dawkins says about Christians cannot be said of the Amish. And if one Christian group is honest and true -- then perhaps it is not the religion but the people within that religion.

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