often hear it said that religion, or religious belief, has the effect of
making people behave better even if the metaphysical claims of faith are
ill-founded or untrue. Bertrand Russell mounted a spirited attack on this
opinion, on what were mainly empirical grounds, in his essay Why I Am
Not a Christian. Actually, I rather like to see arguments in defense
of faith mounted in a utilitarian manner in their turn, because this
represents a huge if unadmitted concession to secular morality. However,
the falsity or inconsistency even of such a weakened position needs to be
exposed every now and again and—while Russell dealt chiefly with the
past—there is no time like the present.
During the notorious "Moors Murders" case in Britain in the late 1960s, when a series of children were tortured to death and then buried in a remote and hilly territory, the conservative novelist John Braine wrote a furious response to liberal relativism and its then-fashionable saying that in such cases "We are all guilty." He could not, he said, consent to any such proposition. Nor could he blame anything so amorphous as "society." Rather than do what the accused had done, he would prefer to have died.
I dare say that any reader of this magazine would affirm the same, whether they were parents, grandparents, or not. The prohibition against cruelty or violence to infants is quite ancient and very common to all cultures, so that we remember the exceptions—Sparta, for example—very well. It's probably encoded in us in some way; it hardly needs the very memorable condemnation that it receives from Jesus of Nazareth, who is supposed to have said that, rather than perpetrate such a hideous offense, it would be better for the guilty to have a millstone put around their necks and to try and hide their shame in the depths of the sea.
Given that, the existence of a vast pedophile ring in the United States in the twenty-first century is something more than an affront to "family values." And the fact that this ring is operated by named and senior churchmen, who continue to hold high office and to officiate at Sunday ceremonies, is something more than an outrage. Alleged "cultists" in Waco, Texas, who were only suspected of maltreating children inside their compound, were immolated by a bombardment of federal fire. The admitted and confessed enablers and protectors of rapists and child abusers are invited, at the most, only to resign their high offices. And even this suggestion is something that they feel strong enough to repudiate-and with indignation at that.
No doubt there are some secular institutions, such as prisons, where the incidence of sexual torture and rape is, so to speak, part of the system. But even these places take some care to protect the underage from predators. What continually strikes the reader of each successive case involving the churches is that the ghastly recurrence is truly systematic, if not indeed routine. I do not wish to seem sectarian, but I will risk the accusation. The Protestant churches and some prominent synagogues in Florida and New York appear to have been bad enough, in resorting at once to denial and to cover-up. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has been behaving as if, without the opportunity for sex with the underage, its whole ministry would collapse.
If I knowingly sheltered a torturer and abuser of children, or lied about my knowledge of him, or (aware of his record) pressed him upon my neighbors as a child-minder or babysitter, and if I stood to profit by these actions or inactions, I would expect more from the forces of law and order than a dirty look. So intense is our obsession with this crime, indeed, that many innocent teachers and even Web-site surfers have had their careers and lives ruined by even the suggestion of it. But here are the men of god, calmly engaged in the racket and evidently irritated by the resulting fuss.
It is quite obvious that, with recidivism at this level, one must look to the actual practices of the Catholic Church. The celibacy requirement, which is peculiar to Catholic Christians, is obviously a part of it. So is the renowned insistence of the Catholic Church on gaining authority over children, for doctrinal reasons, at the earliest possible age. The authority that is exerted, often by newly ordained and unstable young men, is a teaching entirely drenched in the obsession with all kinds of sex, and in the requirement to repress or prohibit a huge list of sexual behaviors. Moving along the continuum of priestly and episcopal hierarchy, one finds elderly but somehow useless men who may never have abused a child themselves, but cannot quite see why there is any outcry. I wager that they would not act like this if they had had the chance to be fathers or grandfathers themselves. Instead, they wager their supposedly immortal souls on the dogma that denies this opportunity to their subordinates, or which recruits from the maladjusted and inadequate.
To need love or sex only from the innocent, or to be able to express your needs only in that way, is obviously a terrible punishment in itself and can, in some circumstances, even call upon our pity (and our dearly bought secular and scientific knowledge about the possibility of care and help). But to become a hardened exploiter of children as part of your vocation, and to be defended by a coalition of stone-faced, ignorant patriarchs and hysterical virgins, is a privilege known only to the most devout. So who will now say that religion, for all its vast intellectual shortcomings, at least encourages the average Joe to be good (as the practical definition of morality used to run) while nobody is looking?
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.