Friday 22 May 2009

Scandals and secularism

The revelations of industrial-scale child abuse in Catholic-run institutions in Ireland are truly horrifying. The victims have been made to suffer terribly, firstly as children who were physically and sexually abused, then as adults, trying to have their stories believed and the perpetrators held to account. Needless to say, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is a massive body-blow to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Not only did clerical and lay church personnel commit unforgivable crimes against defenceless children, but their superiors covered up their offences and did little to stop them.

However, I disagree with those who regard the scandal as evidence for atheism. One of my bugbears, as regular readers will know, is the tendency of contemporary religious apologists to defend faith on the grounds of its personal and social usefulness, rather than its truthfulness. And one of my criticisms of some anti-theists is the way they muddle up arguments against the claims of religion with endless lists of the shortcomings of religious individuals and institutions.

To me, this has always seemed like a pointless and unresolvable argument. For every scandal I cite, you can produce a saint; for every rabid fundamentalist I mention, you will point to a thoughtful religious philosopher; for every authoritarian reactionary, a nice Christian liberal, and so on. But if we’re going to argue that the example of saintly believers doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, then equally we have to accept that the existence of wrongdoing by some believers - even wrongdoing as dreadful as revealed in the Irish child abuse scandal - isn't a clincher for unbelief either.

I don't say this very often, but Madeleine Bunting has actually written a half-decent article about the whole sorry affair, from the perspective of a Catholic whose faith has been sorely tested by this and other recent clerical abuses. She writes: 'For years now, I've had an intermittent conversation with an admirable and devout relative: How long can we hang on? When do our fingernails break?' A number of commenters on the article urge Bunting to let go and make the break with Catholicism. But surely the only valid reason for leaving a religious organisation is that you no longer agree with its core beliefs, not because of the antics (however terrible) of some of its representatives? In this sense, a church is unlike a political party, where beliefs have to be shown to 'work' to be valid. When Krushchev revealed the crimes of the Stalin era in the 1950s, thousands forsook Communism because the revelations demonstrated (in their eyes) that this political creed led not to liberty but to tyranny. Religious faith, by contrast, depends on the acceptance of core beliefs about the nature of the world and the purpose of life, and these aren't necessarily invalidated (though they may be tested to the limits) by the actions of its adherents.

However, even if it's not an argument for atheism, the Irish child abuse scandal is certainly an argument for secularism. One of the reasons why the abuse was able to continue for so long, and be covered up so effectively, is that the state virtually contracted out the care and rehabilitation of troubled and troublesome children to the Church, and allowed the values and priorities of the Church to stand in for those of the nation. The scandal should give pause to those who argue for 'faith-based' welfare as a viable alternative to state-run services.

As well as reinforcing calls for a stricter separation of church and state, the affair might also have the positive outcome of inducing a little humility in religious spokespeople, especially those who have the gall to suggest that secularists and atheists are 'not fully human'. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good description of those devoutly religious people who beat and raped children in Irish children's homes.

The Catholic blogosphere has been strangely silent about the whole affair so far. I'd be really interested to read the reflections of thoughtful Catholic bloggers, such as Martin M and Maria, on this sorry business.


When I wrote the above, I hadn't read Martin Meenagh's post here - apologies.


Martin Meenagh said...

Hi Martin

I thought this whole affair was awful, but suggested dissolving the Christian Brothers and placing their assets in a fund for victims of the abuse. Whilst the church itself, in the form of the vatican, is not rich, dioceses and orders can be, and I discussed that.

Most of the time, I found myself feeling my way through what seemed to me to be just plain evil.

Sorry that I haven't been on the blog much, I've been out and about. Hope that everything is alright, and all the best,

Other Martin

Martin Meenagh said...

By the way--sorry for multiple comments--I've always thought that the American model of a first amendment freedom of religion, but which separates church and state, is the best practical one. I would also suggest that, though catholics can't be put in one box, christian democrats or evolving Burkeans like myself ought to be able, if there is a logic to the faith, to argue political philosophy in most matters from a parallel secular point of view. That said, I was educated at a catholic comprehensive, and reasonably happy to be there--ofsted having shut it down in some unknown deal with the northamptonshire diocese susequently. Apres moi, les inspecteurs....

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments, Martin. Sorry, I hadn't seen your post about dissolving religious orders - but I have now. I don't know if you take the Tablet (so to speak) but coincidentally, in the same week the scandal was revealed, it carried an article by Peter Stanford about the Christian Brothers school in Liverpool attended by Vincent Nichols - which was almost entirely positive, nothing about abuse, lots of about giving high academic aspirations to working class Catholic boys. I suppose there are two sides to every story, but most of what I've heard about the CB from Catholic friends has been pretty grim...


Martin Meenagh said...

I'm not a 'Tablet' reader, no, but thanks for pointing me that way. The CB do have a very high reputation with some of their former charges, and in some places, and are a global education order (confusingly, there are two of them, in fact).

However, the tragedy of their existence is that they moved from being parasitised by very bad men to incubating them, if the stories of cover-up and deliberate official inaction or worse are true. I think as a practical point, especially in english-speaking legal systems, this wound will bleed the whole church. Should a victim of the abuse see that, of course, they'll think, well, just desserts, but I think that things can't just be allowed to go on like that. Over one fifth of humanity is catholic and the church shouldn't let them be abandoned because of a monumental evil that struck it and polluted it.

Many thanks for the kind words on another post on my blog by the way. I think dialogue and reasoning together move everyone along.