Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 05/12/09

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.?    P.I.S.S.O.F.F.!

Or, "Suffer The Children (again)"

As I was saying a few weeks ago, these are not easy times in which to be an atheist, if only from the point of view of keeping our blood pressure within safe limits.

Following on from that earlier example of the inherent evil (and I can find no more nuanced word for it than that) of people allowing their own child to die rather than to admit that their 'faith' does not provide a practical solution for illness, we have had since a substantial revelation of what else can easily happen to children once you let organised superstition hold sway over you as an individual, or over the society of which you are a member.

I refer, of course, to the Murphy Report on the widespread abuse - physical, psychological and sexual - committed by priests of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin over a period of nearly thirty years (and probably for much longer than that, although those times were beyond the enquiry's remit).

That the Report's findings have not caused a great seismic shock amongst the Irish is, one hopes, solely because anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see would have known much, if not all, of what it makes public for a very long time. Anyone who had passed through the system of State-approved indoctrination which has comprised almost the whole of public education in Ireland since the establishment of the Free State would be able to tell of the practice of brutality-as-policy which has reigned over the children of that country.

And yet, the abuse continued and was allowed to be hidden by its perpetrators. How come? Because, basically, the Irish Free State and its successor Republic were set up as nothing much more than theocracies. Look at the Constitution of the Republic in its 1937 guise. More to the point, look at its Preamble:

"In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,

We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial...

...Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution."

Indeed, until its repeal in 1973, Article 44 of this document contained the following:

"The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens."

As far as successive governments of the Republic were concerned, 'special position' meant nothing other than the total control of Irish politics and society by one sect of Christianity. The fact that said sect was notorious for its thoroughgoing and uncompromising authoritarianism was of small concern to the political, social and economic élites of the land - after all, they were all graduates of that system, and after a period of great upheaval during the war of liberation and the ensuing civil war, having an organisation which would keep the population docile under the threat of hell-fire and purgatory for disobedience was, to say the least, useful.

The main consequence of this was that, during the rule of De Valera and for many years thereafter, Ireland stagnated politically, socially and economically, and the God-fearing peasantry ensured that the grip of the church remained unchallenged.

Which is certainly why, when rumours began to circulate about the extent and seriousness of the abuse of children in the care of the church itself, or of the many institutions it controlled in the fields of education, welfare and judicial matters, the immediate reaction of the church itself was to seek to cover it up in whatever way they thought necessary, knowing that they would get away with it, at least for long enough; and which is equally certainly why, when the victims of the church's callousness and indifference tried to report their concerns to the civilian authorities or to the media, those authorities not only did nothing to aid the victims, but connived - either actively or by indolence - to assist the Hierarchy in hiding what was going on.

And so it was that the abusers were simply moved from parish to parish, or were sent out of the country to continue their perverted conduct elsewhere, thus making it Somebody Else's Problem. The Gardaí made no move seriously to investigate the accusations; indeed, it spent four years in the mid-1990s supposedly inquiring into the allegations, but mysteriously found 'insufficient evidence' to prosecute any senior figure within the church. So it was also that senior politicians, although almost certainly aware of at least some of what was going on, sat on their hands for fear of transgressing against the de facto immunity which their State had granted the church. The victims could therefore safely be ignored by those who had sheltered (and continue to shelter) the perpetrators, or be bought off with a tiny proportion of the church's wealth should they insist on trying to get justice done and seen to be done.

Now, all we hear from the priests, the Polis and the pols is a litany of insincere apologies for their own sins of commission and omission (although I don't think we've heard that fine old British cliché "lessons will be learned" yet; but give them time), along with some quite bizarre attempts not so much at apology as apologia, whereby one senior cleric stated that the vast majority of his fellow priests were innocent of "unwarranted physical or sexual abuse" (which brings into being the possibility of there being such a fantastic concept as warranted physical or sexual abuse); and where a columnist in the Daily Telegraph, seeking to be plus Catholique que le Pape, claimed that there was no problem with the Catholic Church as such, only with the 'trendies' who had taken control of it since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Under the old style, what one might call classic Catholicism (that's like Classic Coke, except it gets even further up your nose) none of this would have happened. Or, at least, no-one would ever have dared reveal it for fear of excommunication or sulphurus ad eternem.

What this all exposes is twofold: firstly, what can happen (and usually does) when you allow your society, your polity, to be dominated by any institution founded on irrationality, especially when that institution cannot even keep to what it claims to be its own underlying principles. Whilst condemning to penance any of its lay adherents for the slightest transgression against those stated principles (although, as far as I'm aware, Jesus had nothing to say on the subject of masturbation; although neither did he say, "Suffer the little children to come unto me. I will then bugger them senseless, deny everything and buy off the police and the legislators"), the Catholic church, seemingly as a matter of routine, sought to cover up the sheer criminality of some of its priesthood, or to smear the names of their victims. In which aim they have largely succeeded, mostly because they were allowed to succeed.

Secondly, that the demands of religious groups (of whatever stamp) to special treatment, inordinate privilege under, over and within the law of the land is an abomination to any notion of running our societies on just or equitable lines. And yet, that it precisely what they do demand, and not merely in priest-ridden societies such as Ireland has been until very recent times. Indeed, the UK government's Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham, recently announced the setting up of a special group of religious leaders to advise the government on such matters spiritual as...erm...the economy...and discrimination...and the treatment of gays...and the treatment of women. Given that such a group does not represent more than ten per cent of the UK's population, and that its members could hardly be said to come to the table with open minds, one wonders whether this is an early example of the opposite of 'blue-skies thinking'; what we might term, 'scorched-earth thinking', perhaps?

Add to this the privileged position of one religion in the (largely undocumented) constitution of the UK, and the position of extreme privilege accorded to one small sect of that religion, whereby for example, a couple of dozen of its senior clerics - past and present - are allotted permanent residence in the legislature; and the fact that that one sect is - in England at least - the 'official' church, and you can see the dangers.

Which is why those with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are have become uneasy with the increasing unwillingness of we atheists (or is it 'us atheists'? Is there a grammarian in the house?) to remain silent, and our increasingly regrettable tendency to say what we think in public.

One thing is for sure: it makes for a series of interesting public debates. Another thing is equally certain: in the public mind, the ranks of the faithful are losing. One reason is because the advocates of superstition have very little to offer in a proper debate; if they are too genteel to resort to the sort of name-calling and threat-making beloved of the more extreme adherents, then they are left to fall back either onto woolly thinking ("Like fuzzy logic, only more so" - Terry Pratchett) and claiming that either we do not understand the intricacies of theology (the theologians are, apparently, thinking of hiring the Large Hadron Collider in an attempt to finally sort out the question which has bedevilled them down the ages, namely how many angels can dance on the head of a pin); or that we are so hung up on the notion of evidence that we discount the richness of human experience (old hands will recognise this as being a small step away from the commonly-implied and thoroughly nasty suggestion that to be without a religion is to be without any viable sense of ethics too).

The other reason that the goddists have such trouble in convincing is that they seem seldom able to put up advocates in these debates who appear to be capable of being insightful and persuasive, preferring instead to send into the fray those who invoke the nebulous as a catch-all for all doubts, or those who argue that it is so because it is so because it is so, and so forth.

Two recent examples may suffice to show what I mean. Firstly there was this debate from a month ago (video now removed from YouTube, unfortunately) in which Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry were set against the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria) and the increasingly absurd figure of Ann Widdecombe MP to debate the motion, "Is the Catholic church a force for good in the world?". It is fair to say that a certain amount of floor-wiping went on, what with having a vacuous cleric and a shrill right-wing politician up against two people who use words for a living and use them very well. The highlights were Hitchens' description of the Catholic hierarchy as "a clutch of hysterical sinister virgins", and the passionate intensity of Fry in his winding-up (we have since discovered that Fry was on his way into one of his depressive episodes, from which one hopes he is ascending nicely).

The second such debate in recent weeks, hosted by the same organisation, Intelligence2, spoke to the notion that "Atheism Is The New Fundamentalism". For the 'ayes', we had yet another cleric, the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, and Charles Moore, former editor of the right-wing rags The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph. Opposing them were the philosopher A C Grayling and the scientist Richard Dawkins.

Harries was not much more convincing than his Catholic counterpart had been before him, reduced to variants of the argumentum ad auctoritatem, such as that as T S Eliot was (in his view) a great poet and a very public Christian, then that proved (somehow) that Christianity was valid. Moore, however, as befits his position as former chief of some increasingly nasty publications, spent most of his time making ad hominem attacks on Dawkins (happily unaware, it seems, of the existence of Godwin's Law), and ended with a peroration which managed to combine the histrionic and the hysterical in roughly equal proportions.

By contrast, Dawkins and Grayling were calm, cogent and much to the point in the question being debated (I would say that, wouldn't I? But look at the way the vote swung after the debate and tell me I'm wrong).

One finds oneself wondering if this is really the best religion can do? Are Harries and the Archbishop of Abuja, are Widdecombe and Moore, really the pinnacle of religious debating talent? Are their edifices built not on rock but on sand after all?

The point is that religion insists on demanding 'respect' from everyone. But what its adherents really mean by the word 'respect' is actually deference. In the case of Christianity in the British Isles, for example, it has had a position of not merely de facto but de jure dominance for so long that it has grown to accept this as the natural state of being. So when some uppity natives start not merely to question that position but actively begin to challenge it, they become uneasy and defensive, and that defensiveness begins to express itself as offensiveness. So it is that writers in newspaper and magazine columns start to rant about something they call 'The New Atheism' (by which they mean atheism which is no longer prepared to be passively silent), and about how the fundamentals of society are being undermined by people who have the audacity to question established Authority. They grind on about, for example, how Richard Dawkins is 'strident', when anyone who has ever heard him speak and converse know that he is almost invariably calm and measured, reserving any real anger for those who still insist that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is just simply wrong because their myths-scratched-on-parchment of choice say so.

They fight back in other ways as well. In the UK, having long had far too many of our schools under the control of churches (I was educated in one), we now have the scourge of 'faith schools', institutions set up and run primarily for the benefit of cliques of the pushy, and which are allowed to discriminate in their pupil intake, before committing such crimes against their developing young minds as trying to assert that creationism is a scientifically valid position. And this is all paid for by our taxes.

Come here, there's more, and in our end is our beginning, so to speak. In Ireland, an eejit Justice Minister has just shoved through a new law criminalising 'blasphemy' (which the novelist Robert A Heinlein described as one of the two stupidest offenses ever created by the mind of man, 'obscenity' being the other) with fines of up to €25 000. 'Blasphemous matter' is defined in the new statute as:

"...if (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."

(And this is at a time when anti-'blasphemy' statutes in the UK have been allowed to wither and die through a combination of disuse and a growing sense of the absurd).

So, once again, 'respect for religion' means in effect 'protection from ever being offended by someone being rude enough to say something you disagree with'. Including, presumably, pointing out that the main instiutions of religion in Ireland have connived at the most appalling criminal acts against children. Again, this is not respect, it is seeking to silence criticism.

If 'respect' is to allowed to retain any meaning at all, it must surely be this: people have the right to believe what they choose to believe (and, by extension, the right to not have to believe something), and think what they choose to think. They also have the right to express those beliefs or thoughts, so long as that expression is done peacefully and without intention towards violence or encouraging others to violence. It most emphatically does not mean immunity from being offended for anyone, religious or otherwise. That way lies oppression, and the sort of fearful silence which leads to such appalling behaviour as that made manifest by the Murphy Report (amongst others) to be covered up, and to its perpetrators escaping even the slightest justice.

Actually, the whole reason for my spending the whole of my Saturday evening writing this was in order for me to republish this cartoon, by the American cartoonist Don Addis, whose work featured in the St Petersburg Times in Florida for some forty years (archive here). It is the cartoon referred to by A C Grayling is his contribution to the debate at Wellington College (which was, of course, named after that famous warrior the Duke of College):

Cartoon about the religious demanding respect from those they attack

Footnote: by one of those strange coincidences which cause the godless to smile ruefully and the god-smitten to jump up and down proclaiming that this proves something-or-other about God, Don Addis died on the very day that Grayling referenced his work.