… Or, should I say, Richard Dawkins.
Apparently, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are consulting their lawyers to see whether the Pope can be charged when he visits Britain in September.
Mr Dawkins and Mr Hitchens believe the Pope should face charges for the alleged cover-up of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, The Guardian reports.
The Guardian reports that a letter written by the Pope in 1985, when he was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, urged that a paedophile priest in the US not be exposed for the “good of the universal church”.
Mr Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, told The Times: “This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”
Mr Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, added to the London-based paper: “This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalised concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded pay-offs, but justice and punishment.”
Several media outlets say the Vatican insists Pope Benedict is free from prosecution because he is a head of state.
This, in simple terms, is a stunt, and it makes me angry because it is a particularly egregious stunt. It irritates me even more because it is an egregious stunt perpetrated by atheists who in other fields are brilliant and persuasive thinkers. This applies with some force to Dawkins, who is probably in line for a Nobel Prize one day for his work on evolutionary biology.
I have always found the willingness of British courts to facilitate the prosecution of heads of state and former heads of state rather stunt-ish, even where the individual in question (Pinochet, Mugabe) was/is a monster of the first water. It’s undignified, and in any case I’ve long suspected that the best treatment for evil leaders is targeted assassination (so three cheers for Israel, just don’t nick my passport while you’re at it).
For what it’s worth (and those of you who know me will know my opinion of international law), I think the Vatican is right, and that the Pope does enjoy sovereign immunity. I note that Geoffrey Robertson (one of the lawyers involved in this bit of tedious one-up-man-ship) refers to the arrangement made between Mussolini and the Catholic Church before the Second World War to deny the Pope sovereign immunity. Perhaps Mr Robertson needs reminding of the principle of ‘general and consistent state practice’ where, pursuant to Article 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, courts have recourse to the behaviour of nation states as evidence for the underlying substratum of international law. The Pope has always been treated as a head of state, and relevant Vatican officials have always enjoyed diplomatic immunity. That the Vatican is not a member of the UN is of no moment; for many years, nor were Switzerland and Indonesia. That did not deprive either country of statehood.
In this case, however, the law is the least of my worries. My real concern is with an issue that I touched on in my ‘Cats That Will Not Be Herded‘ post: to wit, that the claims of atheism are largely epistemological, not moral. That is, atheism is a claim about knowledge, not morality, and — hitherto — it has been impossible to draw links between the epistemological claims atheists make and the moral (or political) claims they make. It is possible (as I pointed out in that post) for atheists to be politically conservative.
This isn’t to say that we should leave moral claims to religious people — far from it. Indeed, I do think it is very difficult, once one’s epistemological claims have been undone (as those of the monotheisms have been) to then build moral claims on a foundation no bigger than the head of a pin. However, that latter point is by-the-by. My concern — when I see stunts like this — is that atheism is morphing into a ‘movement’ with political and moral ‘views’ that must always and everywhere align. Well, let’s just say that this is one cat that will not be herded. I hope other atheists around the place (many of them read this blog) are also horrified at the thought of being drafted into some dreadful exercise in groupthink. Atheists, may I remind Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens, come in all political hues.
If it were not obvious, please do not think I am excusing the Catholic Church on this issue. It is abundantly clear that the organisation generally and the Pope in particular are under enormous institutional pressure, and that at this stage there is no telling what will become of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury has already made some trenchant (perhaps too trenchant) observations about ongoing loss of moral credibility for Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular. His remarks could (and should) be extended to Islam, although perhaps not to Judaism. It is worth exploring why Christianity and Islam are bedevilled by a grab-bag of criminals (paedophiles, terrorists), bigots (queer haters, misogynists) and idiots (creationists) in ways that Judaism is not. I have long thought that if one is to be monotheistic, one should be a Jew… but the Jews have always had the good sense to police entry to their ‘club’. To be a Jew is to take on a heavy burden, and not just the burden of history.
I do have one final point to make, and it concerns Dawkins in particular. I need to frame it carefully, because I am not a biologist and Dawkins is probably the world’s greatest living biologist.
It is Dawkins (in addition to Darwin’s pioneering work) who has revealed the extent to which we are the tools of our genes, and that genes are survival machines of the most powerful sort. For this finding, he has been made — by those who do not understand his work — into a wild-eyed prophet of laissez faire and a supporter of all and every sociobiological insight into human behaviour. This is quite false and most unfair, and involves a pernicious form of intellectual laziness. Here is what Dawkins has actually said on the difference between biology and our ability to manage our biology:
I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave.? My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature (The Selfish Gene, p. 2-3).
Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse; others may be easy to reverse. Some may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent is applied. The important point is that there is no general reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irrevocable than environmental ones. (The Extended Phenotype, p. 13).
Human beings have a massive cerebral cortex that allows us to engage ‘manual override’ of our biology. It’s one reason why we don’t have a baby every 2 years like we’re programmed to do (‘come in, Charlie Darwin, we hear you’). In the best Humean tradition, therefore, Dawkins is not trying to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap. He is not saying that because biology drives us in one particular direction, (the is) we have to ‘go with the flow’ (the ought) and organise society accordingly.
He is, however, pointing out that engaging in manual override of our biology may sometimes be very, very difficult. In some cases, our institutional structures may have to acknowledge the immense power of the biological drivers, and sometimes, ground will have to be conceded. It does appear that staffing an entire institution with celibate males stretches the biology too far, and can’t be carried off without massive institution-wide complications. Regular commenter Lorenzo is a medievalist, and he has a pile of posts at his place on how the Catholic priesthood has been disproportionately (although not majority) same-sex attracted since LATE ANTIQUITY, and that people were starting to notice it even then.
He has researched the penalties handed out to nuns in medieval convents for ‘rubbing’, for example (this was usually a fine). The blokes, however, tended to get burnt at the stake (he has some horrible period images). It is one of the few cases where sexism impacts disproportionately on men. The reason, of course, that the priesthood became disproportionately same-sex-attracted was social hostility towards gays and lesbians. They literally had nowhere else to go. They could, however, hide within the Church.
He has done so much writing on this topic that rather than link to specific posts, I’ll wait for him to turn up in the comments and provide links to his most revealing research.
That apart, Dawkins is also capable of nuance on this point. In The God Delusion, he makes a cogent case (based partly on his own experience of being molested by a school teacher) that we as a society are far too hung up about ‘improper sexualisation’, and that we are just going to have to accept that sometimes authority figures and their underlings will bonk each other and — generally — a good time will be had by all. What causes the problem for us is pretending that it won’t happen, or that we can always and everywhere stop it from happening:
Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692 [...]. The mob hysteria over pedophiles has reached epidemic proportions and driven parents to panic. Today’s Just Williams, today’s Huck Finns, today’s Swallows & Amazons are deprived of the freedom to roam that was one of the delights of childhood in earlier times (when the actual, as opposed to perceived, risk of molestation was probably no less). (The God Delusion, p 315-6).
Dawkins goes on to point out that
All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affection for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless if, 50 years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience). (The God Delusion, p 316).
That people can elide the difference between sexual predation and murder is amply evidenced by this brain-explosion from Bob Ellis, where he equates Catholic pedophilia with Islamic terrorism and argues that, ergo, we should bomb the Vatican. Sorry, Bob. One of these things is not like the other. Even the most serious sexual offence (rape) should not be equated with murder.
However, the extent to which the prosecutorial Dawkins of this attempt to go after the Pope is not like Dawkins the biologist author of The God Delusion is evidenced by this observation:
The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonised over the issue, especially in Ireland and America. I suppose some additional public resentment flows from the hypocrisy of priests whose professional life is largely devoted to arousing guilt about ‘sin’. Then there is the abuse of trust by a figure in authority, whom the child has been trained from the cradle to revere. Such additional resentments should make us all the more careful not to rush to judgment. We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. (The God Delusion, 316)
Dawkins then goes on to argue — very persuasively — that the physical abuse meted out by the Christian Brothers in Irish schools and by nuns in the infamous Magdalene Asylums (much of it borne of a hostility to human sexuality that refuses to engage with biological realities) was worse than the sexual abuse, but that physical abuse attracts no compensation cheques. He has a point.
What is the upshot of all this? Does the fact that, biologically, we are highly sexed, mean we should screw around to our heart’s content? No. Does the fact that, biologically, we are highly sexed, need to be taken into account in institutional design? Yes. The Catholic Church’s troubles stem in large part because they’re trying to reason backwards from an ought to an is. I suspect this is just as impossible as the version Hume originally assayed. Do we all need to get over our issues with TEH GAY? You bet, and if we’re lucky, we can have the debate now, as uncomfortable as it may be. Do Dawkins and Hitchens represent all atheists? No way. In fact — if Dawkins’s arguments in The God Delusion are to be believed — this stunt doesn’t even represent Richard Dawkins. Legally, too, Dawkins and Hitchens don’t represent the victims of the abuse. They are harnessing their dislike of the Church to the legitimate grievances of the victims, and I do hope that the English courts are bold enough to say, ‘bugger off, you two, you don’t have standing to sue’.
I do not pretend for a moment that any of this is easy, but we should be able to do better than take cheap shots and engage in mean sniggering. I have the greatest respect for Dawkins and Hitchens, but what they are doing is cheap and mean. In doing it, they do not speak for this atheist.
One final word: the title of this post comes from a track by a band called The Low Anthem. Their beautiful and haunting song about ‘Charlie Darwin’ as they call him is below. It has a wonderful claymation clip, and some great lines.