When good people do bad things

(Today is Memorial Day, a holiday in the US. Since I am traveling this weekend, I am reposting an old item, updated.)

Amongst Catholics, it had long been thought that children who die without being baptized have not had their original sin expunged and are thus excluded from heaven. While the church had no formal doctrine on this, there has been the belief that such children enter the state commonly called limbo, 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 in limbo and thus a danger of overcrowding?) Anyway a recent news report says that the Catholic Church has appointed a high-powered International Theological Commission to study this problem and now thinks that there is reason to hope that babies who die without baptism can go to heaven. (I always wonder what kind of “study” is involved when religious people discuss such things. It cannot involve any new data, surely. It usually boils down to people suddenly seeing in the same old texts the new meanings that they want to see.)

All Christians are familiar with the concept of original sin. This asserts that all people are sinful by their very nature. 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 famous story of Eve tempting Adam with fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge could not have occurred anyway. Since this story is the source of the ‘fall from grace’ and original sin, this made whole concept 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, if taken seriously, can 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 in an emergency 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 fortunately recovered. However 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 seemed 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 was a loophole in the rules that 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 all the myriad rules laid down by their own god.

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 as Christians. 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.”

(It would be interesting to do a survey to find out how people today answer the question: “Would you convert to another religion if that was what it took to get your child back?”)

Dawkins uses this story to make a telling point. Every person in this sorry episode was a ‘good’ person, in the traditional sense that they were acting according to the highest ideals of their religion. No one was trying to do any harm to anyone. The nanny was trying to save the child from limbo. The Pope (and the Catholic 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 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.

(In an ironic a post-script to this story, Edgardo himself seemed to consistently rebuff his parents’ attempts to get him back, even after reaching the adult age of 19 and being free to do so. In fact, he became a devout Catholic and at the age of 23 was ordained as a priest and became a missionary to convert Jews. Such is the power of religious indoctrination.)

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: Tech support in the Middle Ages


  1. says

    Have any of you seen Ben Affleck’s movie “Gone Baby Gone”? He directs and his brother plays lead along with a smaller part by Morgan Freeman… anyway it’s a powerful movie as it makes you think through good and evil and right and wrong… and it’s a difficult decision to know which is better to choose, as it’s all for the benefit of the child who has been abducted. Is it better to bring her back to her mother, who is not a good parent… or would it be better to leave her with the family that abducts her , who are very good parents… so the question lies in can the evil of the abduction become a good thing for the child or do we punish the abductors and the good people who take the child and return the child to be raised by her uninterested mother. The pendulum swings both ways in trying to make out what is the right choice in good vs evil….

    This is thought provoking just as is your article on deciding what is right and what is wrong, good vs evil.

  2. says

    It is intersting how few if any commentators on this passage in Dawkins’s book have probed the purely social issues of what conversion to Catholicism would have entailed for the Mortaras. They would in all probability have been cut off from their extended families, cultural origins and social milieu. They would not, as Dawkins seems to suggest, have been free to waltz back to their previous lives as if nothing had happened. Apostasy was a punishable crime in the papal states at that time, as Kertzer makes clear in his book The Popes Against the Jews. If it was so easy to get your kids back from the pope, I think many Jews would have discovered that loophole soon enough. The problem is immeasurably more complex than it seems at first glance.

  3. says


    You make a good point. It would not have been easy for the Mortaras to maintain a facade of Catholicism.

    But the fact that by doing so they would have been ostracized by their extended family and Jewish friends illustrates the problem. Those people would have been putting their allegiance to their god above the Mortaras’s well being. Otherwise why would they cut the Mortaras off at all? Why would they not be happy that the Mortaras had got their child back and even helped them in maintaining the pretense of being Catholics?

    So once again we see that people, thinking they are acting as god wants them to do, end up creating an awful situation.

  4. says

    I had never heard the quote you mentioned at the end, but I think it’s so relevant to everything that is going on right now. Every time I turn on the news I see people using religion to drive wedges between each other, and it seems there is no low to low for them to go. Between the “NYC Mosque” and those baptist who protest outside of soldiers funerals and the likes it’s just amazing what you see supposedly in the name of God.

  5. says

    To quote Weinberg “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.”
    While it has a good ring to it, and holds truth to it as well, there is no denying, more people have been killed in the name of religion than any other reason. At the same time it is imperative for people to realize that without religion the world would be a total jungle. All laws in all countries are based on Judea laws, there is no denying that either!

  6. says

    To quote Weinberg “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.”
    The question that begs an answer is “What makes something Good or Evil” If we leave that up to the human mind alone we end up with a Stalin who killed over 20 million people in the name of communism “the good for all people” or all other ideologies. And a decaying immoral society. Only G-d can really tell us what is Truly Right or Wrong and only one religion claims that G-d spoke to ALL the people together and gave them the laws of “Good and Evil”.

  7. says

    To quote Weinberg “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.”
    The question that begs an answer is who is to decide what is good and what is evil. Stalin felt that communism is “good” so he killed over 20 million people in the process. Letting everyone do what the want is self explanatory as to what the outcome will be, just look at the immoral decaying society around us now.
    Only G-d can tell us what is truly Good and truly Evil and there is only one religion that claims that G-d spoke to all the people at once and told them the Good and the Evil.

  8. says


    Since you did not specify the religion in your first comment, I was not sure if you were referring to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastriansim, Christianity, or any of the many other religions as the ‘one religion’ that spoke with authority.

    I am guessing by your use of the the word ‘G-d’ that you are referring to Judaism. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) If so, then presumably the Old Testament is the place where we find out where god tells us what is good and evil.

    So do you accept as good god’s demand that we stone to death all children who are rebellious and talk back to their parents (Exodus 21:7, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21)?

    Is it also good to stone a man to death if he gathers wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)?

    There are a lot of other things that god commands stoning to death as punishment, which I can specify if you like.

    Are all those good things to do?

  9. says

    Excuse my nickname,but my friends actually call me that being that is what I sell and am busy with all day long. But of course everyone must still save time for studying the scriptures even if they work very hard.
    That being said to the best of my knowledge the Testament says you stone to death a child who hit his parent, not who talks back, check it up.
    Regarding collecting wood on the Sabbath, could you relate to somebody who does not recognize a king’s sovereignty as deserving of death?
    Well someone who desecrates the Sabbath is in effect denying that G-d created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th.
    Anyway you sound like a pretty intelligent and learned fellow, how do you think the world came into existence? Don’t you think the power who made this world did it for a good reason?
    How should we know what that reason is if not it being in the old testament, where the G-d who created the world actually came and told us how we should lead our lives?
    All said and done it is nice to see people discussing things of substance and not discussions about the latest blockbuster.

  10. says


    I actually did check it up and gave you the relevant passages. Leviticus 20:9 says “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.” And Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”

    So I assume that you think it is a good thing if someone stones their own children to death if they are stubborn, rebellious, or curse their parents. After all, this is what the supposed word of god tells us we should do, right and what god says has to be good, right?

    To make sure that I understand you correctly, you would also approve the stoning to death of someone who gathers wood on the Sabbath. After all, god supposedly also said that, so it must be good, right?

  11. says

    I was referring to the verse in Exodus(21:15) where it says “One who strikes his father and mother should be put to death.”
    When you wrote that “talks back to their parents” I didn’t quite know which verse you were referring to.
    As you later corrected yourself in Leviticus it does say one who “curses”….
    Would you concede that one who curses G-d is deserving of death, then you must understand that cursing a parent is in a way the same thing. After all it takes 3 forces to create man, His father, mother and G-d.
    One who can curse his parents has no inclination of higher authority and is a threat to society and will likely end up killing other people and is not deserving of life.
    Regarding the rebellious son, it is quite ambiguous, isn’t it, as to what he actually did?
    It must be interpreted as to what he actually did, but it is the same idea that I mentioned before, the actions which he has done tell us that he is headed on a non-returning path of persecuting other people including murder and
    rape. Now it is quite understandable is it not,
    We are actually saving these people from the bad they will end up doing while protecting society at the same time!

  12. says


    Actually, I gave the Leviticus reference in my first response so it was not a “correction”, but no matter.

    If I understand your logic, you are saying that someone who curses his parents is doing the same thing as cursing god and will inevitably end up committing murder and rape so we should stone them to death before they go down that path. So presumably you think we should create a legal system in which all children who curse their parents or are otherwise rebellious are stoned to death.

    I find it appalling that people who speak of a good god can end up justifying, even advocating, the most horrendous policies. Your comments are a good example of the point made of this post.

  13. says

    If it would be your daughter or wife who ends up getting raped by that vagabond G-d forbid, would you still feel that way?
    A wise man once said, he who has pity on cruel people, ends up being cruel to the ones he should have pity on.

  14. says


    Are you saying that every single person who is rebellious or curses his parents should be stoned to death on the remote chance that that person will commit some crime in the future?

  15. Nathan says


    “…But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Hmmm… one should not in general make such strong statements. Are we to believe that there is not a single “good” atheist who has done an evil thing? It seems like a certifiably false statement. I think perhaps if you looked at your own life you would find a few counter examples. Just a guess… but you might.

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