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Activism, Religion

Religious Belief and Moral Compasses

Greta Christina has written an excellent article about the Catholic child rape cover-up and the seemingly inexplicable apathy by… well… nearly everyone including Catholics.  Read the entire thing HERE. The general point of the post is to ask current Catholics, “Why are you still Catholic?”

It’s a good question to ask.  Let’s imagine for a moment that any institution other than the church had done it:

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.”

Suppose that the Red Cross, or IBM, or the Democratic Party, or the NFL, or the Peace Corps had done what the church has done — institutionalized, facilitated, and covered up widespread child rape.  How would their revenue look after it came to light?  How long would it take before public outrage demanded a complete purging of everyone involved, with hefty fines, jail sentences, and punitive renumeration to all of the victims?  Entire companies have failed for far less offensive crimes.

So the question is, why are there still Catholics?

BenedictXVI-RosaryPrayer.jpg image by kking8888

Greta lists several of the most common reasons why people aren’t abandoning the Holy Church like rats fleeing a sinking ship:

  • Sincere religious faith.  Presumably many people genuinely believe that they have to receive the sacraments in order to get to heaven.
  • Unthinking religious faith.  Lots of Catholics disagree with the church on a substantial number of issues — birth control, gay rights, condoms for AIDS prevention.  But they still have inertia holding them to the general feeling that being Catholic is “good.”
  • The Church does lots of charitable work.
  • The social aspects of Catholicism are ubiquitous in many communities, so that leaving the church is literally the same as leaving the community.

To the clear-thinking moral mind, there’s simply no excuse for supporting the church because of their charitable work.  There are hundreds of non-Catholic organizations doing charitable work, and to the best of my knowledge, they don’t support child-rape.  Charity can be done without atrocity, and anyone who cites this reason is either being dishonest, or their moral compass is horrifyingly skewed.

I have some sympathy for people who live in completely Catholic communities.  But not that much.  All it takes to remedy the situation is to get the whole community together, sit down with the local bishop, and explain that there will not be a single dime coming out of the flock’s pocket until justice is done.  Imagine the effect if thousands of bishops all over the world reported this situation to the Vatican.  Would it be hours or days before there were a couple hundred heads lined up on platters, and a new pope in office?

How hard is it to look your neighbor in the eye and say, “Neighbor, do you support child rape?”  How many times in history have tight knit communities come together to boycott leaders who were perpetrating gross abuses?

This is all pretty clear, but what I want to talk about is the influence of faith on the perpetuation of atrocity.  There are those (who shall remain nameless) who seem to believe that religious faith, in and of itself, doesn’t really cause much of anything.  They believe that people will do what they will do, and faith is just a convenient justification for it.  If there was no faith, they’d find some other justification.

I think the Catholic child-abuse scandal belies this notion.  Are there people whose faith in the sacraments skews their moral compass so much that they are willing to continue to support the church for fear of their own mortal soul?  We’d be naive to suggest that there aren’t.  Part of the dogma that characterizes traditional conservative Catholicism is that the sacraments are literally the way to get to heaven.  Only a Catholic priest is sanctioned by God to administer them.  Without going to church, there is no way to get to heaven.  Especially in poor regions with under-educated populations, this form of Catholicism is prevalent.

Just this example ought to convince us that religious faith can and does skew individual moral compasses.  Let’s go back to my initial question.  Can we think of anything worse than systematic protection of child rapists?  Is there anyone with a well-functioning moral sense who would allow child rapists to continue raping children if they had any control over it?

I’m also concerned with the moderates who haven’t abandoned the church.  If anything, I’m more concerned with them than with the hardliners.  It’s one thing to exonerate someone who genuinely, deeply believes that his own eternal fate hangs in the balance.  But how can we do the same for moderates who believe in the divinity of Jesus but not the exclusive truth of Catholicism?  Assuming that Jesus also loves Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, what possible excuse can we give for the religious believers who stick with the Church?

Are we really suggesting that there are moderate Catholics out there who are afraid of telling their neighbors, “I’m sorry, Neighbor.  I’m not going to St. Mark’s anymore.  I’ve decided to go to the Lutheran Church because they don’t have a Pope who protects child molesters, and I think Jesus would prefer that I not support child molesters”?

In fairness, I don’t want to just assume that this is the only possible situation in which large numbers of people would sit by while an international organization protected child rapists.  I suppose I can imagine other pressures which could do the same thing, but that’s not really the point.  I’m just trying to demonstrate that religious faith is one way to do it, and that it’s a significant effect.

Could it be something else entirely?  The “Not My Child” syndrome?  Are most Catholics rationalizing this away by thinking that it doesn’t apply to them, or that their tithes aren’t somehow fueling the whole system?  I have a hard time believing that.  This is children being fucked in the ass by priests. How can we suggest that apathy is a normal moral response?  How can we even think it?  Can we think of another organization that we would be proud to identify with when they’d done these things?  I’m sorry.  I just can’t buy it.

How can a normal, rational, moral person look at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and call them immoral opportunists for getting behind an effort to bring child rapists to justice?  This is what many Catholics have said.  Can we suggest that religious faith has somehow not influenced this kind of thinking?  What if this was Republicans and Democrats?  As viciously divided as these two camps are, I can’t imagine a situation in which either side would vilify the other for demanding justice for child rape victims.

So in the end, we’re left with two groups of people — those who fear for their mortal soul if they leave, and those who don’t.  For the group that fears for their soul, how can we deny the causal effect of religious faith on the skewing of their moral compasses?  For the group that doesn’t…  how can we deny the causal effect of religious faith on the skewing of their moral compasses?  How can anyone be a Catholic today?  How are there any Catholics left in the world?

I think we have to blame faith.  It’s clear for true believers, but for social Catholics there are plenty of socially acceptable ways of saying, “I still believe in Jesus, but I’m not going to support child rapists.”  But that’s not what’s happening.  The pope is still touring, and crowds are still cheering for him.  And I just can’t imagine any other way of justifying this except for the exchange of ideology (faith) with innate human compassion.

Greta summed it up very well:

As long as Catholics stay Catholics, no matter how repulsively evil the Church’s behavior becomes, no matter how many children get raped as a result of its institutional practices, then the Church is not going to change. It will have no reason to change. As long as Catholics continue to attend church, to donate money, to be counted in Church rolls, to send their children — their children! — to church and Catholic school for religious education and the perpetuation of Catholicism, then the Church will assume that it can do anything at all, with impunity.

Or, as I said it a couple of weeks ago:

Let me put this succinctly.  If you are a Catholic, and you’ve put a dollar in the offering plate since this scandal hit the news, then you are responsible for facilitating child rape. If you are a sentient, adult person, and have not called for justice against the people who have perpetrated this evil, you have helped to allow it to continue.  This is not about religion.  It’s about child rapists using the cover of religion to perpetrate evil.  If there is a God, he will not be happy with members of the flock who have protected the “Holy Church” when it has systematically raped children.

Am I missing something?  Is there a moral justification for allowing this to continue?  Any justification at all?  If there is not, how do we say that any currently practicing Catholic is being a good person?

Seriously.  Somebody help me out here.  I’m trying to think of a way to NOT say that all practicing Catholics are morally wrong, but I can’t think of it.

Anyone?  Anyone?



11 thoughts on “Religious Belief and Moral Compasses

  1. Lets focus your same logic on Atheism..

    In the last 100 years, Millions of human beings have been MURDERED by genocide by misinterpreting and warping the Atheist ideal,

    Why are you still an Atheist?


    Posted by PG | May 26, 2010, 3:14 pm
  2. BTW,

    Isnt the Atheist concept of morality simply a by product of brain function and simply an ilusion?


    Posted by PG | May 26, 2010, 3:20 pm
  3. Your analogy is horribly flawed. No one pays tithes to be an atheist. There is no Atheist “church” using those tithes to help “priests” rape children. When that happens, you be sure to let us know, until then, go back to paying those asshats to rape children.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | May 26, 2010, 3:28 pm
  4. Alex,

    Lets see who has the flawed logic.

    There are countless number of teachers that have molested their students, so according to your logic,

    Why do we continue to pay teachers to rape children?

    Silly logic, huh. Its never a good idea to generalize and broad stroke millions of people as somehow contributing to the sadistic actions of a few.

    Posted by PG | May 26, 2010, 4:53 pm
  5. Okay, I’m bored enough to address the burning hunk of stupid today. PG, please be aware of one thing: I am not addressing you, because you are clearly an ignoramous who won’t listen to reasoned argument in any case – which is also why I’m not bothering to be polite to you. I am free to be honest about my contempt for your appalling lack of wit and character because I am not trying to convince you of anything, concluding from the idiocy you’ve written here that you’re unwilling to listen. Instead, I am addressing anyone and everyone else who might read this thread and feel nauseated by seeing your idiocy left unaddressed.

    Atheism is the lack of belief in any god or gods. The most common reason for someone to adopt atheism is that there is not, when one examines the question honestly and critically, any reason whatsoever to believe in any gods (or spirits, or ghosts, or immaterial souls, or any other supernatural gobbledygook). There is no “Atheist ideal” there to be warped, except the wild-eyed idealistic notion that one should actually be able to cite some evidence that supports one’s claims about the world. I defy anyone to twist a basic minimal standard of evidence for beliefs into a motive for murder WITHOUT adding some very substantial additional claims to it.

    In truth, no one in the entire history of space and time has ever committed murder simply because they lacked belief in god. I can only assume that what you intend to do is pin the blame for genocides committed by Stalin and Mao and the like on the fact that they were atheists. (And, if you’re typical of your breed, you’d probably throw in Hitler too, even though he was not in fact an atheist at all, nor did the National Socialist Party more broadly embrace or support atheism in any way.) The problem is, Stalin and Mao (and Pol Pot and Lenin and many others) clearly did not murder who they murdered for reasons that had anything to do with atheism. Read what they wrote, read the histories of Stalin’s purges and the Cultural Revolution, and you will read all sorts of reasons why Stalin and Mao wanted people dead and all sorts of reasons why people willingly followed those leaders and carried out mass murder on their behalf – and nowhere will you read “We killed for the cause of atheism, to advance atheism, because the people we killed were the enemies of atheism” – or anything that can be plausibly interpreted that way.

    Even when Communist tyrants murdered religious leaders (who were not, in fact, regularly targeted in those revolutions – which is why, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church survived and resurged dramatically the second official Soviet government disapproval began to wane), their motivation for those murders were clear: Victims were targeted because Communist leaders viewed those religious leaders in particular, and religion in general, as a threat to their political power – and to the rigididly held ideological dogma which supported that political power. Marx said (for very cogent and defensible reasons, I might add) that religion was the opiate of the masses, so Communist ideologues who treated Marx as a saint and every word he ever wrote as holy writ (getting the theme here?) dogmatically declared atheism as mandatory and religion as forbidden. For Communists, atheism was just as much a faith-based belief as the historical inevitability of the rise of the proletariat or any other element of dogmatic Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist/Communist/whateverist ideology. And while it is possible for atheists to be dogmatic, it is not typical. And when dogmatic atheists do violence, it is whatever dogmatic ideology they hold (of which atheism is but one part) that motivates their violence, not the atheism in particular. Again, how does one get from “I don’t believe in god” to “therefore I’m gonna kill you”? There is no way from one to the other that does not take a serious detour. In contrast, the path from theism to murder and other evils is very clear: “I believe in God –> this book (or this religious authority figure) tells me that God says X is bad and X-ers are abominations –> you believe/do X –> therefore you are an abomination and must die.” By that mental chain of “justification,” Muslims stone women for the crime of having been raped and Christians assassinate abortion doctors and that’s just two modern examples of a gazillion possibilities I could cite.

    Dogmatism is a rigid black-and-white view of the world that is characterized by certainty about everything and rejection in advance of any doubt or criticism or contrary evidence: Dogmatism is a natural source of violence because it has no other resource to protect itself from critical analysis. When someone has a position grounded in reason and evidence, he or she can respond to criticism or doubt by presenting an argument – and moreover, he or she has demonstrated a willingness to listen to evidence and reason and the capacity to be swayed by further evidence, or lacking that to potentially arrive at a compromise or some other grown-up response. When someone has a position characterized by rigid conviction and certainty without any supporting evidence and reasons, they have no grown-up way to respond to criticism or doubt and have demonstrated an unwillingness to be swayed or to compromise: They uniformly react to criticism with resentment that their dogma has been questioned at all, and they have no response strategies available except to shout down their critics – and, when that doesn’t work, violence or the threat thereof. Doubt and critical thinking do not inspire anger and shouting and violence, and indeed those reactions are contrary to and directly undermine critical reasoning. At worst, non-dogmatic people feel exasperation towards and impatience with those who reject reason and evidence and argument. Faith is not always necessarily rigidly dogmatic, but because it rejects reason and evidence in favor of “I believe this is so because I believe it, and any justifications I offer are glommed-on, after-the-fact rationalizations of what I already believe without real justification,” it has no better set of responses than a more rigidly dogmatic position: Non-dogmatic faith is just less likely to lead immediately from resentment to shouting and violence when criticized than dogmatic faith. (Note, however, that faith always reacts to criticism with resentment – even the gentle, naive, determinedly ecumenical faith of the Dalai Lama.)

    Moreover, just because totalitarians are atheists AND totalitarians are also oppressive and murderous doesn’t mean that totalitarians are oppressive and murderous BECAUSE they are atheists. That makes about as much sense as saying that you are an idiot and you are also a male (I’m guessing about the latter – most dogmatic trolls are men), so you must be an idiot BECAUSE you’re a male.

    And before you criticize any non-theistic account of morality, PG, go read Plato (specifically, The Euthyphro) or any of the thousands of people since Plato who have offered extremely rigorous and convincing arguments which demonstrate why theistic accounts of morality are either not really theistic or not really moral. When you have read and understood any one of those arguments, you may come sit at the table with the grown-ups and make your case against secular morality and for the moral authority of religious doctrine.

    Posted by G Felis | May 26, 2010, 4:56 pm
  6. Yawn…

    G Felix,

    Too bad the 7th Court of Apeals ruled in 2005 that Atheism is a religion. That discredits you as someone who doesent know what the F#@$ they are talking about or worse yet, they base their entire belief system on their wrong assumptions!

    You can come sit at the grown-up table once you get a clue about what you are talking about!!!!

    Here is a good place to start getting educated on your religion!!!


    Court rules atheism a religion
    Decides 1st Amendment protects prison inmate’s right to start study group

    Posted: August 20, 2005
    1:00 am Eastern

    © 2010

    A federal court of appeals ruled yesterday Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate’s rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion.
    “Atheism is [the inmate’s] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said.

    The court decided the inmate’s First Amendment rights were violated because the prison refused to allow him to create a study group for atheists.

    Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, called the court’s ruling “a sort of Alice in Wonderland jurisprudence.”

    “Up is down, and atheism, the antithesis of religion, is religion,” said Fahling.

    The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described “secular humanism” as a religion.

    Fahling said today’s ruling was “further evidence of the incoherence of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

    “It is difficult not to be somewhat jaundiced about our courts when they take clauses especially designed to protect religion from the state and turn them on their head by giving protective cover to a belief system, that, by every known definition other than the courts’ is not a religion, while simultaneously declaring public expressions of true religious faith to be prohibited,” Fahling said.

    Posted by PG | May 26, 2010, 6:05 pm
  7. I think most Catholics see the church and God as two different things. There’s probably just a horrible double standard at work here.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | May 26, 2010, 6:37 pm
  8. Ahhh – the prison system… PG, be aware that incarcerated persons have a penchant for filing law suits for cruel and unusual punishment by the system. Prisoners will do just about anything to get that tiny extra perk – and there are enough jail house lawyers to get it done. Forming a study group? I can’t imagine what they “study” because it is hard to study a lack of something… like examining a non-stamp under a microscope… but I would be willing to guess that the Court opted to allow for this “belief system” (which it is not) out of the “better safe than sorry” ideation.

    Posted by PaigeB | May 26, 2010, 7:37 pm
  9. I think we Skeptics would be doing ourselves a massive disservice by NOT reading

    It shows preciously how to deal with matters like this.

    I think we should guilt them into action with their pens [or in more modern terms keyboards.]

    I think you’re wrong about it not being the “Not my child syndrome”, I think they really believe [i.e rationalize] that their money isn’t going to the protectors.[read the book in the link]

    The way to get around this is to get them to write to their bishop/clergy expressing the need for justice and open investigation in the church.

    They will most likely rationalize it as “Well, it’s not MY church that’s doing it”. They may be right seeing as I believe the actual molestation rate is about 4%, however, the higher ups sure knew something about it, and the way to get to them is through local clergy.

    That is we are taking down their rationalizations. [Gee golly, it’s almost as if by understanding how these cognitive mechanisms work, we can do something about them?]

    Believe it or not, the majority of these Catholics are really moral people, however the hooks of rationalization got into them [as can happen with anyone].

    What we need to do is to get it out the hooks out of them and we have to know what we’re doing and what the problem is to do it.

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 26, 2010, 10:45 pm
  10. I’m not really sure if PG expressed himself properly, but I can try to understand what he’s getting at at least. Essentially, what he’s saying is that it’s an illogical leap to go from “people are doing something bad so therefore everything they do is bad.” It’s almost like a distributive property or something, just applied to thoughts.

    It’s like saying that you really hate tomatoes, so therefore pizza, salad, and their ilk are all just terrible. And people who grow tomatoes and who produce tomato products are all terrible people, too, who should stop growing tomatoes.

    Now, I realize that this IS child rape we’re talking about, but you’re morally opposed to child rape, which does bias that decision a bit, yes? I am just as biased. I think it’s bad for an adult to stick their penis into a child. It’s punishable by law, and by death. Maybe even by rape. This is solely my opinion, not fact.

    However, isn’t that a doctrine? A moral doctrine that establishes a consequence for another action? Isn’t that essentially the same as someone saying “Thou Shalt Not Steal?” With the punishment thereby being eternal damnation?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong for being offended. I’m glad people can be offended. I just don’t think someone should be so quick to say that it’s through perfectly flawless reason that their conclusions are drawn, when a lot of personal bias that establishes a humanitarian moral doctrine for your own personal “faith” really enters into it as well.

    And in addition, legal fees aren’t cheap. To investigate some of these allegations, there’s sometimes work undertaken for years and years, and it’s going back years and years. That takes both time and money to really take care of. The tithe is to “help the Church’s monetary woes.” That might include legal fees. Maybe you’re unaware of what a tithe actually represents, but it’s not a “membership tax.” Sometimes people don’t put any money in their weekly collections. It actually happens a lot. Part of being Catholic isn’t to require a tithe. Sometimes you need to spend money though, to get scum out of the white robes they put on.

    For the shuffling of the mad grabbers, I can’t defend that, or even find any kind of advocacy. The closest I have is “they needed to investigate fully, so they removed them from the place being investigated,” but I can’t say that with 100% trust or truth.

    I also just feel like there’s a better way to go about all these logical arguments, and it doesn’t involve spouting opinions into a user interface. I feel like it’s more about analysing for yourself and making a decision based upon such self-analysis. That could also just be me. But it feels like every time someone gets up in front of an audience, they just firebrand and attempt conversion, almost like you’re doing now.

    There’s also a reason or two for still wanting to be Catholic not on your list, but mentioning them would cause such a massive shitstorm and I really don’t want that, because honestly, I can’t defend them, but I know that people have them.

    Essentially, I’m only responding to this because I saw it on Stumble and just decided to say something. You can completely ignore me if you like.

    Posted by Assistant Devil's Advocate, or ADA | June 8, 2010, 5:42 pm
  11. The Moral Compass Foundation
    Celebrating Our Common Moral Compass

    If you are concerned about society’s moral compass and are searching for a clear secular moral compass as an ethical benchmark. Read the Moral Compass Foundation’s project to promote social cohesion with the “Celebrating Our Common Moral Compass” campaign at

    The Moral Compass

    Never instigate the use of coercive force

    Accept responsibilities for personal actions and the consequences of those actions

    Practice a duty of care

    Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination

    Put the truth first

    Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.

    Be honest

    Honour agreements

    Treat others as you want to be treated yourself

    Leave a positive legacy to future generations


    Adrian Bishop
    The Moral Compass Foundation

    Posted by Adrian Bishop | October 7, 2011, 6:05 am

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