What’s wrong is that by granting faith-based beliefs merit we end up warping our thinking to suit its assumptions about what is true, and when put into practice these beliefs often make the believer cause real harm to real people by exercising those beliefs in reality. Hitchens argues religion poisons everything; I argue that exercising faith-based beliefs poisons yourself… it’s bad for you because it interferes with your ability to interact honestly with reality.
What’s the harm in believing in some set of theological precepts that helps me to feel good about myself, helps me feel connected to some mysterious agency that cares about me, that has a plan with purpose for my life and helps to provide it with meaning? How can this be a bad thing?
Well, theological beliefs undermine our critical faculties by removing any possible constraints offered by reality. Reality is not accepted as the benchmark against which we can compare and contrast and test the beliefs’ truth claims to determine their truth value. That is why theological beliefs require ‘faith’ in the religious sense of the word, meaning trust and confidence in the truth value of the central tenets of the theology without strong supporting reality-based evidence… a ‘I heard it from a guy who knows this guy who read about this guy who was there…’ kind of witnessing. It supports taking actions in support of faith, trimmed from what’s true in reality, that are in every way indistinguishable from support of delusion. This harms one’s intellectual credibility and integrity.
As weak and tepid that evidence may be to earn trust and confidence for some extraordinary claim about reality – a claim in conflict of the laws that govern reality as we know it to be – we must embrace the theology’s truth claims as if they were true first in order for us to enter the sacred domain where the really powerful evidence for the truth of the claims exists.
This is the same path to gullibility that provides con artists a means to make a living: don’t trust reality nor use it as an arbiter of what’s true… trust first how the con makes you feel.
So. What does it matter if a few billion people reduce and minimize the evidence provided by reality and first maintain a set of faith-based precepts that are in conflict with what we know about it?
A lot, it turns out.
For example, let’s first assume the catholic version of christianity is true. Let’s assume that the vatican’s leadership absorbs revelations from its god for enlightening its moral leadership in the world community. Let’s trust these assumptions as true for a moment first and see where it leads in the case of caring for Irish children.
We are naturally shocked – Shocked!, I tell you – that a great deal of sexual abuse took place involving tens of thousands of children under the watchful eye of catholic clergy charged with their care. We are shocked – Shocked!, I tell you – that the local church leadership in Ireland failed at every step to put the safety and welfare of children in their direct care ahead of protecting the reputation of the church when all kinds of abuses took place. We are shocked – Shocked!, I tell you – to find out that they put the interests of the church first and did so under specific direction of the vatican leadership over many, many decades. We are shocked – Shocked!, I tell you – that for many, many decades abusers were protected and that the increasing numbers of victims over many, many decades were blamed for their own abuse including rape. Of children. By clergy. And we are further shocked – but not so much in this case – to find out that sometimes even those in positions of public trust within various secular authorities – both in government and law enforcement – helped the church cover up the misdeeds of its agents, assuming first that such widespread abuse had to be the work of ‘a few bad apples’, the exception of rare abuse, a temporary and unfortunate set of misdeeds by some of those church agents too easily swayed by the secular times and secular expectations of behaviour. But public officials in government and law enforcement are not in the business of being agents representing god’s vicar on earth as are the catholic clergy; their job is to make and enforce secular law. And raping children – even in Ireland – just so happens to be against the secular law.
In spite of previous investigations and settled law suits and orders to make changes and agreements how to implement these changes, there remains a problem of catholic compliance. I wrote about it here. And, yet again, we find the vatican interfering to first protect its reputation.
Another report was commissioned by the government called the Cloyne report. In its finding we are shocked – Shocked!, I tell you – to hear the author of the report tell us that ““words are not enough nor is condemnation sufficient” to describe what has been allowed to continue to happen. But how can this be?
Of news to no one is the idea that systemic child abuse within any organization is morally wrong. That such abuse is allowed to continue in order to protect that organization’s reputation – a reputation clearly contrary to what is practiced in reality – is morally wrong. That no one who has ordered this skewed protection (not only in Ireland but around the world) is held accountable and culpable is morally wrong.
How do we know?
Well, if we lifted this entire mess out of the workings of the catholic church and its Irish and placed it, let’s say, in the public school system of a secular country, the vatican and catholic supporters would be clamoring to be first in line to condemn this abuse of secular power. (Secularism, after all, is assumed by most religious believers first to be a bad thing because it is not beholden and submissive to some theologically acceptable doctrine.) But when the abuse occurs under an organization that claims moral leadership by the assumption that it is in such a privileged position because of the truth of its theological claims, then we have a never-ending stream of inadequate excuses and apologies and promises to do better later. I am not aware of god serving a summation to those charged with crimes for a specific and public court date. That’s why the abuse has gone on for as long as it has; no one is accountable for their criminal behaviour except under legal decisions of secular law.
In total, then, what we see in practice is a moral capitulation by all those who continue to support the catholic church from its rightful responsibilities in order to protect its ‘reputation’ as an assumed moral authority. Evidence from reality contrary to the truth value of the assumption doesn’t matter, you see. Belief is not beholden nor constrained nor restrained by what’s true in reality. And left in this belief’s wake in Ireland is tens of thousands of abused children with an unknown number yet to be sacrificed on the alter of the church’s reputation as a moral authority. For as long as the church is assumed first to be a moral authority as a matter of faith-based belief, then no evidence gathered from reality contrary to that belief will matter. And that belief – in action – causes ripe conditions for ongoing abuse that produces real victims of real people.
Whether the specific faith-based belief justifies this act or that, what we see are the symptoms. It can be argued that some faith-based symptoms are benign – like charity and aid and community work – while others are malignant – like misogyny and bigotry and abuse. What I am suggesting is that we have a faith-based problem: that reality and not belief must be granted primacy in arbitrating any truth claims. To grant theology the right to establish assumption and assertion and wishful thinking as equivalent in truth value without any outside checks and balances is to invite the conditions pregnant for abuse.
What is the vatican’s response to this report? I’m almost, but not quite, shocked – not quite Shocked!, I tell you – to find that they disagree:
Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, denied that a letter sent by the former Papal Nuncio to Irish bishops encouraged them to cover up abuse allegations. (He said that) harsh criticisms of the Vatican following the report were “curious”, claiming they “demonstrate little awareness of what the Holy See has actually done over the years to help effectively address the problem.”
And how did they help effectively address the problem of clergy raping children and avoiding prosecution? I’m sure it had nothing whatsoever to doing with failing report cases of abuse to the civil authorities as required under Irish law, failing to put a system of support for victims in place after promising to do so, failing to appoint an independent advisory panel after agreeing to do so, and failing to properly record cases of sex abuse (we wouldn’t want to help any secular investigators, now would we?). See how the lack of awareness is on the part of secular authorities? The proof – exempt from reality as usual – is how the Holy See says it is doing everything it can to be as
helpful while not doing whatever it can to be as unhelpful as possible.
When you are not beholden to reality to be arbiter of what is true, you are free to just make shit up and pretend it’s true. That’s what’s wrong with theology in that there is no way to tell in theory if it’s just made-up shit. And it’s bad for you because the inevitable result is behaviours justified within the context of the made-up shit that act contrary to what they pretend they are supporting. That’s why misogyny is presented as respect for women, bigotry against gays as loving the sinner but hating the sin (as if the two were separate entities), cruelty in law to honour god’s concern for us, and so on. Up means down, white means black, catholicism means moral.