The Sciences

The Pope, the Church, and skepticism

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitApr 14, 2010 4:44 PM


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Introduction This is a bit of a long post. As such, I've broken it up into sections, to help me corral my thoughts, and make it more likely people will actually read what I've written before leaving comments. Yes, that's a hint. I've spent quite some time wrestling with these issues the past two days, and I'm interested in rebuttals as well as supporting arguments. I urge people to comment, but please read what I've written first, and please keep it civil. So. By now you've probably heard that the Pope is in trouble. A letter written and signed by him seems to indicate that he was complicit in, at the very least, holding up discussion on what to do with an Oakland priest who was a pedophile. That's pretty awful, even more so when considering that it took him four years to get around to even writing this letter after he was informed of the trouble, and during that time the priest was still working with children. At worst, it looks very much like Ratzinger, at the time a Cardinal, may have actively stalled the Church's actions against the priest. Let me be as clear as I can here: if Pope Ratzinger in any way stalled or prevented an investigation, Church-based or otherwise, into any aspect of child molestation by priests, then he needs to be indicted and brought to trial; an international tribunal into all this is also necessary and should be demanded by every living human on the planet. Obviously, a very thorough and major investigation of the Catholic Church's practices about this needs to be held. It is a rock solid fact that there are a lot of priests who have molested children, and it's clear that the Church has engaged in diversionary tactics ever since this became public (like the abhorrent Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who says homosexuality lies at the heart of this scandal). The skeptic community has been up in arms about this, as one would expect, since organized religion is a major target of skeptical thinkers. There have been rumors and misinformation about all this, including a dumb article (one of Rupert Murdoch's papers, natch) that said that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins -- both noted skeptics and atheists -- were going to try to arrest the Pope if he visited England. This has been debunked by Dawkins himself. But the idea of Dawkins swooping in to arrest the Pope got a lot of people fired up, notably in the skeptic community. A lot of folks have sounded off about what the skeptic community should do about this as individuals, as organized groups, and as a whole. But the ideas being tossed around, to me, are a bit confused. The bottom line is, what role does the skeptic movement, such as it is, have in all this? It depends on which part of this issue you mean. First there's the Pope's behavior. Then there's the Church's behavior, and then why the Church did the things it did. Finally, there's the issue of the skeptics' behavior. Here are my thoughts. 1) The Pope This is actually pretty cut and dried. I agree in part with Rebecca Watson's premise that the Pope needs to be called before justice. However, I do in fact care who does it and why; more on that below. But the important thing is that there is a fair trial and justice is served. Basically, it seems that the Pope was putting the Church before the children, children who were being sexually molested. That is so abhorrent that words fail. However, I don't know if this is specifically a skeptical issue. It's more a human issue, and a criminal issue. If the Pope had said that the Bible says it's OK to molest children, then yeah, critical thinking and skepticism come into play. But if he was trying to protect the Church and was breaking laws (moral or civil) to do it, then see my comment above re: resignation and indictment. That's something anyone should understand, whether or not they are a skeptic. Skepticism deals with issues of the paranormal, issues with faith, issues where scientific evidence can be used to test a claim. In this case, I don't see skeptics needing to be involved more than any other interest group. 2) The Church This in many ways mirrors what I said about the Pope. As an institution, it was trying to protect itself, and sacrificed a lot of children's lives to do it. If this is the case -- and it seems very likely -- then again the perpetrators need to be hauled in front of a tribunal, and, if found guilty, they get to find out first hand how child molesters are treated in prison. 3) The Church's behavior Here's where things get interesting to me. In this country for sure, religion gets a free pass that a lot of other institutions don't enjoy. They live tax free. They can say all manners of bizarre things, and people just blow it off, saying that personal beliefs are sacred. And religion can get all kinds of tangled up in politics, and again it gets a pass because it's faith-based. If the Catholic Church covers up, stalls investigations, moves priests around, and does other reprehensible acts to save itself, that's one thing. But if it then says the Bible commands them to do it, or uses the religious authority people invest in it to let things slide, or says that the Pope is infallible and therefore what he did must be right, then yes, absolutely, 100%, skeptics need to jump in and cry "foul!" But that raises the question: how should this be handled by skeptics? 4) The Skeptic Response It is no stretch at all to say that skeptics in general and atheists in particular don't enjoy a positive reputation outside of their respective groups. More people would rather see a gay President than an atheist one, and there are many polls that show atheists to be the least trusted demographic in the United States. So skeptics are already at a disadvantage before they even open their mouths. Worse, a lot of Catholics are bound to be very uncomfortable right about now, and possibly more than a little defensive. Imagine that you've believed fervently in an institution all your life, and then you found out that it is rotten from within, even at the very highest level. You'd be disenfranchised, terribly distraught, and not, perhaps, in the best frame of mind. This is the absolute worst position a person can be in if you're trying to convince them of something. Clearly, tactics will be needed. A ham-fisted attack on religion and the Pope will probably not make you any friends, no matter how evil a deed they've done. I have seen claims thrown around that it shouldn't matter who leads the attack, because clearly moral religious people will rally behind you. That is monumentally naive. If skeptics and atheists jump in, that will be seen as an attack from the outside, when at the very best Catholics will want to see this handled by their own. Put yourself in their shoes. Let me make up a scenario: imagine rock-solid evidence came up that Randi had embezzled the Million Dollars, and a few days later -- after all the discussion and arguments and self-immolation that would occur on the blogs and fora and the media about it -- Sylvia Browne said she would be leading the charge to see him brought to trial. Tell me honestly: would you rally behind her? Honestly? So charging in with guns blazing is not a good idea. In her post about this, Rebecca said that skeptics jumping in cannot hurt the movement. But I think they can, if this is not done carefully and with tact. Specifically, she said:

So is this effort going to somehow hurt the “skeptical movement?” You may notice that I use the quotation marks here, because I can’t bring myself to seriously consider a movement supposedly based on the defense of rationality that would turn its back on children who are raped by men they trust because those men claim a supernatural being gives them power, wisdom, and the keys to eternal life with a direct line to God’s ear.

I want to parse her argument carefully here. To be clear, the question isn't whether to act at all or not; I don't think anyone is advocating sitting back and letting the Church and Pope get away with these horrid crimes. The question is, is this a skeptic issue in the first place? The answer, to me, is: yes, it's a skeptic issue if the Church uses a supernatural defense. Sure, it enjoys the power bestowed on it as a faith-based entity, and I have little doubt it was the corruption of that power that allowed the rape culture to exist. That is surely something for skeptics to take on. But we have to separate out arguments based on that versus secular criminal actions the Church has undertaken, and what the skeptics should do about it. And all the while the skeptics have to tread very carefully indeed if they don't want to tick off the rest of the world. As Rebecca points out, if the Church is relying on blind faith, acceptance of authority, and diversion of blame (like Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone did) then those are absolutely within the skeptic realm, and something we should be talking about. And to my point about cooperation, I also agree with Rebecca that the religious people themselves need to step up, especially leaders in the Catholic movement, and condemn what the Church has done (her calling out Bill Donohue was especially wonderful). Of course Donohue never will; he has been so vicious and so antireality for so long that he will knee jerk against any bad mouthing of the Church. And he in fact has, attacking the New York Times and defending the Pope. Shocker, I know. But that's my point. People will not rally behind skeptics or atheists simply because they are doing the right thing. Quite the opposite. People will attack the skeptics. And even if there is iron-clad evidence of the Pope's wrongdoings as well as the Church's, Catholics will not just suddenly see the light and stand beside skeptics. We know this is true from endless studies of how people behave, how they change their minds, and how defensive they get when their core beliefs are attacked. See my point about Randi and Sylvia Browne again, and search your feelings carefully about it. Skepticism's role in this is very delicate and very important, so we must be mindful of how we do it. If not for our own reputation, then for our ultimate goal of getting everyone to understand the real issues here. That's what skepticism is all about, but I sometimes think a lot of skeptics forget that big picture. And there are most definitely ways of going about this that will deeply tarnish the reputation of skeptics. I don't think PZ Myers' comments, for example, are helpful. They may foment (some of) the troops, but no Catholic of any stripe seeing that statement will suddenly realize the folly of their ways. Quite the opposite I'd imagine, as I pointed out above. How we say things matters. You can argue that Catholics all over the world should be rising up and taking action -- and in fact should have been all along, years ago -- and obviously a strong case can be made that the culture and nature of the priesthood in Catholicism enables child molestation. But inflammatory and hyperbolic rhetoric won't help, and is in reality contrary to the cause. I'll note that there are some 75 million Catholics in the U.S., a huge number. They outweigh atheists (and skeptics) by a fair margin. Ticking them off, insulting them, saying "I told you so" is not going to help, and in fact will hurt in the longer run. I would think this is patently obvious. Conclusion The one thing skeptics pride themselves on is the use of rationality and reason when making a case, yet it seems to me that quite a few are letting their emotions and prejudices get the best of them. If you perceive Catholicism as the enemy, then so be it. But when faced with overwhelming numbers against you, sometimes a head-on assault isn't the best idea. I'm angry over this, damned angry, and heartbroken over the lives destroyed by it. But anger is a place to start, something from which we can draw energy and motivation, but we must not let it take over. We don't always need warriors. Sometimes we need diplomats. My point, after all this, isn't too hard to grasp: if the Pope did what he has been alleged to do, then he needs to be brought to justice. The Church itself looks to have been complicit in hushing up this scandal for years, decades. They too need to face criminal justice. And as skeptics, we need to be vocal about the methods employed by the Church, where those methods can be analyzed using critical thinking and the arsenal skeptics employ. But just attacking them because they are a religion is the wrong reason to do it, and attacking them with abandon, with insults, and with vitriol will not help. Those 75 million American Catholics should be outraged by all this. If you think skeptics and atheists can bring down the Church's administration and authority by alienating that population -- a quarter of the people in the U.S. -- then you are not applying skeptical methods at all. All of us need to be standing up to the horrors the Church has perpetrated, just as we would if any organization did such a thing. And where skepticism applies, we should apply it, but we should have a care when doing so. If the ultimate goal is to change the hearts and minds of people, then we need to be human and humane. I would say that's critical.

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