Who can mock these atheists?

(Updated with further thoughts.)

Tim Minchin’s “Pope Song” has been blazing through the blogosphere. Here it is — and it’s not safe for work.

The shameful choice of the Vatican — and of this Pope — to protect those who harmed innocent children, rather than protect the children themselves, is well-documented in many other places and I won’t dwell on the details here. But in an article titled “Who Can Mock This Church?”, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof rises to the defense of Catholicism’s more humble workers, who have nothing to do with the sex scandals rocking the Church’s centers of power, and who dedicate themselves to the service of others with courage and conviction. He singles out individuals: a priest who runs four schools for children in the Sudan; a nun who risked her life to protect peasants in El Salvador’s civil war; a priest who saved thousands from the Rwanda genocide; and so on.

Kudos to those brave souls, and I mean that with all sincerity and admiration. But Kristof points out what he sees as “a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole,” and pours scorn on a hypothetical “New York cocktail party” whose attendees supposedly “sniff derisively at a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS” — the implication perhaps being that all secularists critical of the Church are upper-class urban sophisticates who are themselves out of touch with the good that the grassroots Church actually accomplishes in the world:

I understand why many Americans disdain a church whose leaders are linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms — but the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican.

And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

Well, excuse me. If Kristof is going to rail against critics who paint the entirety of the Church with the same broad brush, perhaps he himself shouldn’t use that brush to paint all nonbelievers as having the same social milieu and unexamined, snobbish disdain. (I can’t remember the last godless New York cocktail party I attended myself.) And no one is claiming that religious people are incapable of noble and praiseworthy acts; to Kristof’s list of worthy Catholics I’ll add Oscar Romero and the advocates of liberation theology, as well as the good Jesuits who ran the school at which I received a solid education, and who did so much for the poor of my home town. Criticizing the cravenness and corruption of Church leadership, and the unquestioning respect for religious authority that allows such corruption to fester, and even the soundness of certain basic religious tenets, is not the same as criticizing the bravery and humanity of individual religious people.

Many atheists are clear about challenging religion as an idea and as an institution without disparaging the worth and potential of individual believers as human beings, and I wish Kristof would acknowledge that. A poster in the comments section (perhaps religious, but I share his opinion) makes this distinction clear:

A friend of mine who has served a parish here in the Philippines for twenty years has told me that eight out of ten priests have lost their sense of mission. A retired Director of a seminary who has served the institutions for 25 years has written on the national daily with the widest circulation in our country that the affluence that surrounds priests in training has ill prepared them for their mission to be with least privileged. I have also had the opportunity to peek into the inner workings of the Catholic Church while advising a well meaning Vicar General on his social projects. What I have found is an archaic, corrupt, and dysfunctional institution. It is no wonder therefore why the Catholic Church does not seem to mind that our country which has the largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia is also the third most corrupt in the region. As a management practitioner, I have to conclude that an archaic and monolithic leadership structure, great wealth, and absence of accountability are the sources of failure of the Catholic Church as a whole to be a force for good in society. The exceptions of course are the heroic individual members of the Catholic Church who are practicing their faith with genuine zeal among the underprivileged. It is also not surprising that they are usually in the fringes and far from the center of corrosive power and affluence as Jesus Christ has been.

The humanist A. Philip Randolph (front row, second from right) joins Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

I think it’s also fair to ask whether those who fight for social justice do so because of their religious belief in the supernatural, or whether they would be moved to such acts no matter what their faith — or their lack of it. I would remind those who see nonbelievers only as grumbling Scrooges who mock selfless Catholics while standing on the sidelines that atheists, agnostics, and secularists have also courageously rendered noble services to humanity.

The writings of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine — who both would have faced the prospect of hanging if the British had won the Revolutionary War — inspired the founding of America. Yet Jefferson famously questioned the truth of Biblical assertions, including the divinity of Christ; and Paine, derided by Theodore Roosevelt as a “filthy little atheist,” was a ferocious critic of religion who attacked the Bible as “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought heroically for abolition and women’s rights — and also vigorously criticized the Bible’s teachings and Church orthodoxy as being hostile and degrading toward women.

Civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the March on Washington and founded the largest civil rights coalition in America today — and also signed the 1973 Humanist Manifesto, which declared “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”

And the rationalist Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture movement — arguably a “religion” without the necessity for supernatural belief — whose focus on serving the community led to the establishment of the free Visiting Nurse Service in New York, and of free kindergarten classes (the first free kindergarten in America) for the city’s poorest children.

Perhaps I should counter Kristof’s closing lines with my own: Unless you’re willing to lay your life on the line for liberty like Jefferson and Paine, or stand up to bigotry like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or fight for civil rights like Asa Philip Randolph, or join the Ethical Culture movement in caring for the sick and educating the poor, or struggle alongside countless secular humanists every day as we strive, for nonreligious reasons, to live morally and to better the world, you have no right to disparage nonbelievers and our legitimate complaints against religion.

As another commenter succinctly puts it:

There is no difference between serving humanity because it is the right thing to do and serving humanity out of religious conviction. So let’s hear it for good people doing good things, not good Catholics or good whoevers. And if the Church weren’t so neanderthal about contraception and condoms, Catholic Relief Services would have a lot less to do.


Update: The more I think about Kristof’s defense of the Catholic rank-and-file, the more specious I think it is. It’s a bit of misdirection: “a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS” is absolutely fair game for legitimate criticism, but Kristof tries to point our attention elsewhere: “But look at how awesome these specific individuals are!” It would be as if he argued that we have no right to criticize the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, because American soldiers are courageously doing their job; or that we have no right to question the policies of the Education Department, because the public school teachers we know are terrific people. But no one is arguing that these teachers and soldiers aren’t terrific, and we can hardly be expected to preface every criticism of the Church with an acknowledgement that the Church, like any other institution, has some good people. Isn’t it already obvious?

I also wonder if Kristof’s argument isn’t really about tone: It’s not the fact that the Church is “linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms,” which he readily acknowledges (and aren’t these moral crimes despicable enough to justify outrage?). Rather, it’s the fact that we’re just being so damn disrespectful, with the liberal secular snobbishness and the derisive sniffing and the mockery. But this seems to me a rather shallow argument; with all the very many things seriously wrong with the Catholic Church, we’re being asked to criticize it gently? What secular institution, if plagued by the same chauvinism, homophobia, criminally misguided health policies, and pedophilia scandals, would deserve such respectful treatment?

In any case, as many have pointed out on other sites, there are plenty of secular organizations — Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Amnesty International — that are doing vital humanitarian work without being hobbled by any of the Church’s problematic attitudes. As Sam Harris contends: “[R]eligion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available.”


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