More on Weinberg on religion

Here is Jeff’s very fine comment on the Steven Weinberg quote in yesterday’s post:

Well, Weinberg did get his Nobel in physics, not psychology or sociology, so I mean no disrespect to his science when I say I think he’s wrong. What it takes for good people to do evil is any number of things, including temptation, the seduction of power, corrupt surroundings that cloud one’s moral thinking, guilt and fear that keep people from coming clean… in short, the whole panoply of human weaknesses. Religion might play into it, and sometimes does, but it\’s just scapegoating to blame religion for it in general.

Institutions, now–I think you’re on to something there. What led to the abuse coverups in the Catholic Church wasn’t the religion–and by religion, I mean not the church but the underlying faith that is the church’s reason for being–but, as you say, the belief that the institution was more important than the individuals being hurt. Even the slightest examination of the Christian faith makes clear that the faith is not about covering up wrongs, but rather shining a light into dark places. So the fear of hurting the institution (and the powerful, guilty individuals) led to wholesale abandonment of the actual tenets of the faith. It wasn’t the religion at fault, but a corrupt institution, and human weakness at its ugliest.

Jeff’s first point is obviously true.  But his second paragraph misses something that I believe is fundamental about religion and religious institutions.  Let me try a different way of stating what I think Weinberg is getting at: Religion uniquely empowers good people to ignore common conceptions of individual good in the pursuit of “higher” goals.  For a salvation-based religion like Catholicism, nothing in this world is–or could be–more important than its mission of saving souls.  It is really too facile to say that the sex abuse coverup in the Catholic Church is just about protecting an institution. The whole point of “not giving scandal” is to keep people from losing their faith and thereby risking eternal damnation.  And that’s what the bishops said they were worried about when they didn’t publicize the misdeeds of the priests in their dioceses.  Not giving scandal has to compete with other values within their faith, and sometimes the other values lose.

We can believe, I suppose, that this wasn’t the real reason for their actions, that they were really just trying to protect their own reputations and do everyday damage control.  And I suppose some of that was going on.  But I’m just taking their explanations at face value, because the concept of “giving scandal” is an essential part of their faith.  And, of course, the Catholic Church has done this sort of thing before.  The Inquisition had an iron-clad logic to it if you accepted the Church’s theological premises.  Heresy was an unmitigated evil for the individual who believed the heresy–but also for society at large, which must be protected from heresy at all costs.  If you could get the individual to recant his heresy, you were helping to save his immortal soul, and you were protecting the rest of the faithful from falling into the same error.  How could mere physical pain stack up against that?

Similarly, I’m trying to give Paterno the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t just an everyday creep who was protecting Sandusky in order to protect himself.  Probably there was some of that, but I also think that Paterno had the much the same motivation as Bernard Law. The Penn State football program was his equivalent of the Catholic Church.  Which is to say that I don’t think Weinberg has it entirely right.  Some institutions (communism also comes to mind) become like secular religions, with equally disastrous results.

By the way, all of a sudden there is a weird Red Sox angle to the discussion about Paterno.  Everything in life is ultimately about the Red Sox.


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