Religious Atrocities in the Age of Transparency

English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger L...
Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger Literaturherbst, October 19th, 2008, in Göttingen, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sooner or later, every atheist blogger writes about religious atrocities (e.g., clergy sexual abuse). Howls of protest sound from religious readers as they insist that the behavior in question would have happened without religion and that it is unfair to characterize it as religious in nature. And while we acknowledge that it is true that something like sexual abuse certainly takes place outside of religious organizations, we also point out that it is the religious who continue to insist that they are morally superior to the rest of us. We may also address how clergy are put on pedestals and children are taught to trust and respect them in ways that we rarely see elsewhere. Sure, the teacher or Scout leader occupies a position of respect, but few can threaten one with hell for failing to keep a secret quite as convincingly as a priest.

Cepheus (Bitchspot) has been writing his Horror Show Sunday series for some time. In today's post (update: link no longer active), one about a Christian pastor's arrest on allegations that he sexually assaulted a 16 year-old girl during a private prayer session, he asks an important question:

So what do we do about this? I don’t know that there’s anything we can do, mostly because the people we need to convince not to trust these preachers are exactly the people who fall most heavily under their sway. If the flood of sex abuse cases in the media isn’t enough to keep parents from leaving their children with religious workers, I have no idea what is.

I suspect that this is one of those questions that almost every atheist blogger has asked. It screams out for a satisfactory answer.

I left a comment on Cephus' post in which I said,

The question of what we do about this is a great one. For now, I think that posts like this are an important part of the answer. We need to keep informing people that this crap continues to happen and that it happens more frequently than many realize. I consider spreading the word about this sort of thing to be an important public service.

I had something in mind when I wrote that: a YouTube video of Daniel Dennett's presentation from TAM 2014, "Can Churches Survive the New Transparency" (I've included the video below).

Dennett makes the point that one of the most important things we atheists, secularists, and skeptics can do to hasten the demise of religion is to contribute to "the new transparency." What he's referring to here is the simple notion that light is an excellent disinfectant for bad ideas and bad behavior. Dennett points out that the Internet has ushered in a new era of transparency in at least two important respects:

  1. When religious individuals or representatives of religious organizations do bad things, more people learn about it today than has ever been the case at any previous time in human history.
  2. As more of us learn about these things, we are all acutely aware that everyone else is learning about them too.

Take the issue of sexual assault by Catholic clergy as an example. In the Internet age, word spreads about these cases so quickly that it has become almost impossible for the Church to conceal the crimes or spin them in ways they used to be able to pull off. This would fall under the first point above. What Dennett regards as even more important is that everyone - including the Catholic Church - now knows that everyone is aware of these incidents. The more they try to hide and spin, the worse they end up looking because it is too late - we already know, and we know that everyone else knows too.

Knowing that everyone else knows can certainly be frustrating in the sense that Cephus notes. But Dennett suggests that religious organizations are going to have a difficult time surviving in this new age of transparency where we know that word is spreading about religious atrocities and that people are getting information like never before.

What can we do to contribute to the transparency and even help to accelerate it? In the short term, we can contribute to it by continuing to do just what Cehpus has been doing in the Horror Show Sunday series - we can do our part to amplify the reach of this information to make it more likely that people will encounter it. We can also identify the efforts of religious organizations to conceal crimes, spin bad behavior, and blame victims. We can encourage our news media to cover stories like this by letting them know that we appreciate it when they do so. We know they face tremendous pressure not to run stories that religious organizations do not like, so it is important to let them hear from us. We can engage religious believers in order to provoke critical thinking about some of the belief systems that allow religious atrocities to continue.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I'm sure there are plenty more. Feel free to share some of your own in the comments.