I’ve been following the news lately, and have at last unearthed the most horrible, awful, evil thing you can do to a religion, the one simple thing that will get the faithful to melt down.
Oh, no, don’t you tell on the church! It ought to be the first commandment. Church leaders can engage in the most ghastly, demeaning, terrible crimes, like raping children, and the concern isn’t for the young people who’ve been hurt — instead, it’s a worry that the revelation of human imperfection among priests might diminish people’s dedication to the faith, so it must be covered up. The guilty can’t be punished because that would be an admission of failure by the hierarchy…so they get shuttled off to some new parish, their crimes concealed.
Personally, I find the crime of child molestation one of the worst — it’s a betrayal, and damaging psychologically and physically, and protection of our children ought to be one of the most important goals of a stable, successful society. Christopher Hitchens explains it clearly here:
One of the striking contrasts here is that the Catholic Church seems to think otherwise. Raping children is something to be tut-tutted over, the miscreant quietly shuffled off to some safe haven…their protests are reserved for those who tattle on them.
Here’s Bill Donohue, the ever-reliable paladin of the Catholic Church, turning about and finding the true criminals in the Wisconsin child-rape case: the families! A monster cloaked in godly authority takes advantage of an entire community, and Donohue’s words of condemnation are entirely for the families who were afraid to speak up for so many years.
Well, they’re speaking up now, Bill. They’re defying heavenly authority, no doubt torn because they’ve been told all their lives that their immortal souls are dependent on the intervention and aid of the man who has been sticking his penis in their sons and daughters, and you’re just confirming what they already knew: that testifying would only get them blame and condemnation from the ardent moralists of the church. Thou shalt not tattle, but if you do tattle, we’ll piss on you for not tattling soon enough.
That’s a mighty fine catch, that Catch-22.
There’s another excuse they’ll use. “Everyone does it”. You’ll find no more repulsive example than this article by a Catholic archbishop — his excuse is to list examples of doctors, judges, and teachers abusing children. See? Catholics probably aren’t any worse than other professionals! Except, of course, that medicine, law, and education aren’t closed institutions that go out of their way to protect molesters from exposure. And most of all, they aren’t institutions that insist, over and over, that they are society’s repository of moral wisdom.
That particularly galls us atheists. We are so tired of being told that we can’t be moral without an objective external source of goodness…yet here we have a group of people who most loudly claim as their professional calling a direct insight into the mind and will of the cosmic lawgiver, and what do we find? Violations of basic human decency at every level.
And the Archbishop’s excuse reveals another fundamental moral failing. What kind of child thinks that is a legitimate excuse? Matt Taibbi puts it well:
But even worse — what does Dolan’s whiny deflecting and excuse-making say about the church as an arbiter of ethical values? These pompous assholes run around in their poofy robes and dresses shaking smoke-filled decanters with important expressions on their faces and pretending to great insight about grace and humility, but here we have the head of the largest Diocese in America teaching his entire congregation that when caught committing a terrible sin, the appropriate response is to blame the media and pull the “All the other kids were doing it, too!” stunt!
Here’s another excuse. We atheists have been blamed for creationism by the likes of Ken Miller, so you just knew that someone with an even more exalted status in the church would find us a convenient scapegoat for even more serious problems. The Pope has an explanation for the atrocities in Ireland: “new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society.”
What? A priest buggered a little boy? Look! An atheist! It’s his fault! How dare he stir up disturbing changes in society…Father Murphy was so distressed he had to stick his penis in Timmy’s butt! Aww, poor Father Murphy…
One bit of good news: people are waking up. Even in the Pope’s home town of Traunstein, people are disillusioned.
“We were proud to have a German Pope,” one woman tells me, “but that pride has gone.”
“The abuse scandal comes as a shock,” says another. “Now people are leaving the Church.”
I have no confidence that the effect will be lasting — people seem to be very good at burying their material worries when someone with a pretense to religious authority tells them God wants it so. But most of all, and here’s a difference between Christian and atheist morality, I would not want to see even the complete dissolution of their odious faith if it could be achieved with the pain of a single child. We do not build our world on scapegoats and blood sacrifice and a belief that torture and death are redeeming. But they do. They can justify turning a blind eye to tormented children because it is a small sacrifice to make to an omnipotent god; they have saints who glorified poverty and misery; they’ll tell Africans to expose themselves to deadly disease because prophylactics are a sin.
There is a wonderful story by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, which is a fantasy tale about a beautiful city with wonderful people and a thriving, joyous culture, with one catch: it’s built around one necessary example of deep misery.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas,
or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there
is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps
in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed
window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a
couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a
rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar
dirt usually is.
The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet
or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a
boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is
feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become
imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose
and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits
hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is
afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it
knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and
nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes,
except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or
interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person,
or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the
child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at
it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug
are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people
at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always
lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s
voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good, ” it says. “Please let me
out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for
help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of
whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so
thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on
a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks
and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have
come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They
all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and
some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty
of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of
their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their
makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of
their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and
twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those
who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an
adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the
matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always
shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had
thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence,
despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the
child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up
into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed
and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were
done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight
of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To
exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that
single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands
for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within
the walls indeed.
In the story, some few people reject the terms of the sacrifice, and this is where I have mixed feelings about it: they quietly leave the city, alone, to go somewhere else, somewhere they can’t even imagine. They are “the ones who walk away from Omelas,” after all. They are the ones who will not accept bliss if it’s founded on another’s pain.
But I don’t know, it doesn’t seem enough. The story seems to accept that there is an act that cannot be committed: that protest and tattling are not an option, that no one ever sees that there is a justice in bringing the oppressed to light and doing something. Or even questioning whether a child’s sacrifice is at all causal in bringing about their happiness. It’s a thoughtful story, but it needs a sequel, “The Ones Who Storm the Gates of Omelas”.
So this is our sacrilege for the day: speak the truth, decry the crimes of those in authority, challenge the dogma that says we are sinful beings redeemed by the suffering of another.