“Drawing Muhammad”? Free Speech and Fake Goods

In general, I am in favor of free speech. The sole exception being when my sixteen year old daughter talks through re-runs of Seinfeld or Frasier.

I have even gone on (nuanced) record as saying that no one should be put to death for trying to represent the Prophet of Islam. My final verdict on the Danish cartoon debacle a few years ago is that the Danes aren’t very funny. No wonder Hamlet never smiled.

Not that anyone has the foggiest idea what Muhammad looked like, making the idea of “caricature” about as useful as painting Moses with eye shadow and ringlets. Oh wait: he probably did use eye shadow and have ringlets, at least until he discovered he was a son of Israel and not a prince of Egypt. My bad.

In general however: it is a bad idea to threaten someone for disparaging your religion. Especially when the disparagement in question does not even rise to the level of sophisticated satire, let alone to a level where it should be a test case in free speech.

I personally favor a United Nations Commission for Insult and Indignation (there’s one for everything, anyway) to vet all cases where insult or defamation has been alleged. The Commission (I am glad to offer my services as its first director) would distinguish between (1) “really good satire,” (2) “disgusting and unfunny ridicule,” (3) “pathetic attempt at humor”, and (4) “potentially blasphemous and insulting, even to bystanders.” It would take a unanimous vote of the Commission for anything to achieve level (4), which would require the offenders to dress up like altar boys and spend a weekend in a rectory.

I don’t have a category for “literary” works considered to be blasphemous but apparently the Nobel Committee does, which is why Salman Rushdie will never win the prize for Literature.

All of this is to say, that the rudderless and publicity-starved “Center for Inquiry” is at it again. And (according to the legal puritans in Buffalo) it’s all about free speech.

In its latest attempt to appear useful, CFI comes to the unsolicited defense of two improbable offenders: South Park and a contest to “Draw Muhammad” that never really got off the ground.

Religions have traditionally bristled when their core doctrines have been lampooned. South Park‘s spin is usually tasteless (Who doesn’t hum “Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo” during the holy season? Who can forget the vision of the Future in the Go God Go episode, when Cartman can’t wait three weeks until the Wii console is available and is transported into an atheist future where Richard Dawkins has become a messiah?)

When South Park “does” religion, it can be sweepingly irreverent and occasionally poignant. It is sometimes offensive,as Comedy Central discovered when it received veiled threats from an Islamic organization based in New York over its 200th episode where Muhammad is “represented” as being inside a bear suit.

The episode has attracted attention in the blogosphere, with young Muslim South Park fans expressing reactions ranging from “disappointment” to anger and frustration. A viewer named Bilal el-Houri says that Muslims should take the episode and the furore as a wake-up call, and instead of grunting, boycotting and screaming should be asking themselves why these depictions are now standard.

The so-called threat comes from a certain Abu Talhah al Amrikee and is pretty dull: “It’s not a threat, but it [violence] really is a likely outcome. They’re going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It’s just the reality.” The show’s producers didn’t know that was a likely outcome? Really?

Good satire is supposed to annoy the satiree–otherwise no game. And it is merely masturbatory for a secular advocacy group to enter the picture with a typically onerous lecture on how South Park has a right to be offensive. We know that. That’s why we watch it. Not because we see every episode as a cannon shot for free expression.

Besides, some young bloggers thought the South Park episode was less funny than it was deliberately provocative, a crass bet on a sure-fire reaction to any attempt to insult the Prophet. Wrote Sher Zeinab, “2 b honest 200 episode wasnt funny at all to me!” She then added, “Bringing Mohammad back! when you know it is a sensitive issue […] seems to me southpark is running out of ideas!!! that angle just brought everything down.”

In other words, South Park got what it wanted, or maybe more than it bargained for, with Episode 200–the same way you might get a faceful if you tell fat Mrs Murphy, your annoying neighbor, a series of “Yo mama is so fat” jokes. Are you really going to the cops when she tells you to desist or she’ll sik her Rottweiler on you?

Taste and discretion are not essential considerations if you just want to be tasteless and indiscreet, but the question of motive does arise. Free Speech? Solidarity? Puhleez. Save it for real cases of censorship.

That brings me back to my drum. Surely if secularists and atheists have the right to satire and what they are self-describing as “blasphemy,” offended parties have the right to bristle. Listen, atheists: no such thing as a free ride. Your right to deliver insult is matched by my right to be offended and to call you a tasteless cur. No good whining about your right to be dull and overbearing when I do–not even when I say–hyperbolically of course–that you need a good thrashing for your lack of manners and civility.

If you think the pope molests little boys, as a winning cartoon in the CFI Cartoon Cavalcade suggests, then be prepared for the Catholic Church to cry foul.

When Arabs produce cartoons of Jews eating Palestinians, prepare for the Jews to disagree.

Sharon as Cronus

And if Muslims cringe and mumble threats when they see their religion pilloried on South Park or by a desperate Seattle News cartoonist looking for spin (bad idea after a bad night at the bar?), please don’t try to sell this to me as real jewels: they aren’t.

They’re publicity stunts, nothing more. Not only that, but in a world where religious emotions are running high on our crowded planet they are stunts that raise the temperature–like yelling fire in a crowded theatre, nudge nudge.

It has been a long time since an atheist was burned at the stake for his unbelief or a philosopher roasted on a spit for being an Epicurean. Not so long for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even Catholics. Given a complicated recent history I’m not sure that South Park‘s post-religious take on heaven or its enviable skill in stirring the pot of religious sensitivities is the place for a serious meeting of minds on the question of free expression and tolerance.

The right to criticism and insult is, surely, the low bench mark in what the doctrine of free expression is all about. The principle does not command the assent of the offended: it condones vigorous disagreement and defense. And to call every case of disagreement and even “veiled threats” and overreaction an attack on the Constitutional guarantee of free speech reaches so far beyond common sense and sound judgment that it is difficult to know whether the atheist Lilliputians are really really afraid Gulliver is trampling on their rights or are simply inventing him to scare others.

The Myth of Reason

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick
(Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900)

“You can’t fool me. There ain’t no sanity clause.” (Chico Marx, Night at the Opera, 1935)

Once upon a time, believing in God was unfashionable. Now to come out an Unbeliever is almost as cool as–well, you know. Especially now that we know the Protestants were right in the sixteenth century about the Pope being the anti-Christ and how religion is really just the Devil’s costume party.

The problem is, now that everyone’s sticking it to religion, pop atheism is becoming as dull as people from Wyoming.

Imagine the following scene:

“Hey, Winston.”
“Hey, Sally.”
“What’s up?”
“Not much, how about you?”
“Still blogging about how fucked up religion is, though, right?”
“Not so much. Can’t think of anything new to say.”
“Yeh, me too. It’s like Dawkins said it all.”
“Or Hitchens. Hitchens had a lot of good points.”
“Good times.”
“I got no spin.”
“Not even. My religious friends have started talking to me again.”
“Not good.”
“Really, right? And when I reminded Jackie I don’t believe in God and how fucked religion is, she said good luck with that. Didn’t quote a single verse”

I’m not sure when pop atheism became unnecessary–but my notoriously eccentric opinion is that New Atheists done it in. Gave it too much oxygen, they did. “Weak opinions need but little air.”

The story hasn’t been about God–or his death or absence–for a long time now. It’s been about them, and what they think of him, or what their fan club thinks about them.

That’s important. Because in classical unbelief, whether we’re talking about Shelley or Hume, Dostoevsky or Huxley, it was mainly about him and the consequences of getting on in our moral life without the benefit of him. But that was yesterday. Yesterday’s gone.

Now it’s a repetitious lecture given mainly by pedants with a toff accent (a beard, or academic promise, will substitute for the accent if you’re American) who think that while God may be dead, he won’t lie down.

So time for someone to say, “Gracious me, you’re right. I don’t know how I missed three centuries of carping about God and religion. That’ll teach me to doze through philosophy classes. There isn’t a God. There never has been. Not really I mean. Just stories and theological postulates and churches. All a great waste of time and real estate. We’d better shut up now and stop being so damned reasonable. [pause] So…what do we talk about now?”

Once Upon a Time in the West

Time was, atheism was quaint and curious, distaff, contrary and therefore necessary. That was when people actually believed in the things they were supposed to believe in: the trinity, the Virgin birth, creation in six days (weekends off), sin, forgiveness of sin, life everlasting, transubstantiation, infallibility (papal or biblical–you choose), the holiness of priests and the wisdom of rabbis. That’s the short list, by the way, but it’s getting shorter.

Nowadays religious people just say they believe in the paraphernalia. Because they think they need to appearto be who they always thought they were: home-schooled Baptists, “pro-life” Catholics, liberal, all-embracing protestants, culturally rejectionist evangelicals–that sort of thing. Asking a religious person of the American species if he believes in some doctrinal alphabet is a bit like asking him if he believes in dressing warm in winter.

But the polls I read tell a different story. They suggest that to self-identify only with a denomination or a univocal religious position is becoming more and more rare, even among people with very white teeth and broad smiles who say “Christian” when you ask them their sexual preference.

When the beliefs I just named ruled the hearts and minds of European peasants, as opposed to school boards in Oklahoma and Texas, they were really believed. They had to be because the most ignorant people in the world were being taught these “truths” by the glittering brights of their day, intellectual thugs who had the power to enforce their gibberish with penalties ranging from arduous fasts (not recommended if you’re undernourished already) to excommunication–a sentence of spiritual death and existential despair.

But the brightest and best of our day are not bishops and Oxford friars. That puts religion in a corner it has not been in, fully, until the twentieth century, playing defense for a “narrative” that is no longer compelling, clinging (selectively) to doctrines that seem either fanciful, impossible, injurious or wrong, and where its explanation of the world and recipe for human happiness, based on a world-denying hope for future, unmortgaged treasure, seems–doomed.

The inversion of authority and explanation from religious to secular changes everything. Religious persons, caught up in without catching onto this new reality, are seldom aware of the shift. And they are encouraged in their wistfulness by politicians and popes whose job now seems to be polishing the illusion. They live in a world where change is rapid, certain and financially profitable, even for them, but still revere “timeless truths” that are neither.

Atheists, who often complain about the second bit–the culpability of religion and politics in encouraging fantasy–need to be more attentive to the first bit–the difficulty of accepting a reality that may take another century (or longer) to be fully formed and probably will be born without an atheist midwife. After all, atheism is neither science nor authority. Rather than being an explanation of the world, it is only a stance toward implausible explanations.

Predictions about the end of religion and the dawn of a new age of scientific progress are centuries old now. They have been wrong on two counts. Religion hasn’t gone away and science has not vindicated the “reasonableness” of the species.

I don’t believe for a minute that even the prayingest, spirit-stuck pentecostal, in the privacy of her trailer, doesn’t have moments of serious doubt about her beliefs. Even Jesus-besotted Oklahomans live in a world where religious belief, every time it bumps up against scientific explanation, comes out a loser.

Believers (who come in different wattages, by the way) feel besieged by a world that leaves almost no room for traditional belief and value. Many of those beliefs are foolish and some of the values are dangerous and risible. But not all. When the congregation of the Abilene Temple Assembly of God try to be faithful to inherited religious ideas, in the same way they try to be faithful to their marriages, the results are…mixed. As a lived thing, they feel good when they are being good about religion, just as they feel good when their marriage is going well and the bills are paid–if that isn’t saying the same thing. It is not unreasonable or criminal to prefer security to anxiety.

For most of us (and not just people in Oklahoma) the “normal” state of affairs is to prefer the security of the familiar to what you don’t want to risk or lose because you don’t fully understand it, or can’t fully judge the consequences of not having it anymore. Religion is like that. It may be true that smart people find the immensity of the star-spangled cosmos more awesome than the idea of a creator and cosmic father. But smart people should also be able to apprehend the creature-feeling that has found immensities and galaxies empty of any meaning beyond their mere existence.

Yes, I know: we’re meant to take creationists and “Dims” as a “threat” to civilization and progress, and to bristle every time someone says that America is a Christian country. But, Jaysus help me, I don’t. I just think this is a position into which the course of knowledge has shoved the people who got a D- in high school biology their third time round. Atheism will never reach them. If religion has not made their life better, no religion will make it immeasurably worse.

Besides, loads of what the faithful believe and assume to be true is neither written down in Scripture nor taught by any church.

I heard from a Catholic student two weeks ago that her mother had received a “dispensation in the ‘nineties to have an abortion.” When I looked skeptical (did she mean for an annulment or permission to marry a non-Catholic?) she said, “No, really.” Remind me to review the documents of Vatican II again for this loophole.

And some years ago, a Christian student of mine regaled me with an interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (when to have a disobedient son stoned to death by the city elders) in which he concluded that the families for whom this law was intended were “not Jewish.” “That makes all the difference,” I said. God is indeed good.

Most Catholics who are militantly anti-abortion are not so militantly protective of the pope’s superhuman authority–from which the doctrine derives. They think of course, that the Church and the Bible are always in harmony because that’s what the Church wants people to think. You cannot be a good Catholic and believe otherwise, but you cannot be a bishop and believe that. Most protestants who cling to the literal meaning and inerrancy of scripture are really addicted to the ingenuity of private interpretation, the only way to get around its embarrassments and fatal flaws. God is as absent from these theological gymnastics as he is from Lucretius’ universe.

All of which is to say that unlike the atheist caricature of religious belief, the mistaken idea that by trivializing the complex you are just simplifying an equation in order to “solve”a problem, religion isn’t simple. It is unsimple both because it emanates from the complexity of human cognition and behavior going back to the formative age of the species and because the behavioral and cultural systems it has created flow outward; their direction cannot be reversed to a single source easily–maybe not at all.

It’s a favorite ploy of the new atheists especially to say that religion is the simpleton’s method for explaining the world and nature without astronomy and physics–a “default position” for dummies who don’t understand science. Maybe so.

But even if that judgment holds water, from the standpoint of the social sciences anyway it is merely a shabby and unscholarly opposite, the default position of men and women who don’t understand religion.

Maybe this is why so few serious scholars who happen to be unbelievers (most, in my experience) have time to be public about their atheism and why the sharpest criticism of the atheist popularizers comes from within the academy, where (by the way) the serious study of religion takes place.

More critically, it needs to be pointed out that the books on the subject have been written by men with credentials no more adequate for writing about God and religion than I would have writing about the phylogeny of nematodes (about which, however, I am endlessly curious.) Which is to say: the New Atheism by its amateurism and short-cutting undermines the work of description and analysis that might make unbelief a better understood phenomenon in the contemporary world rather than, as it is in the hands of the simplifiers, an underanalyzed “position” on a subject that is greatly misunderstood.

The Myth of Reason: Of Self-Evident Truth

Is the non-existence of God a self-evident truth? It’s a fair question and I would like to see it debated by Aquinas and Ayer, preferably in Latin.

One of the reasons I have trouble with the American Declaration of Independence is that it enshrines the concept of self-evident truth, a phrase propagated in the eighteenth century by men who believed in the myth of the Reasonable Man and Common Sense. It was a significant moment in the history of the West because by propagating the myth it became possible to believe in your own reasonableness–just as centuries before, believing in the myth of salvation encouraged you to believe that you were on the fast track to heaven.

But let’s not forget, for most “men” of the Enlightenment, belief in God was both commonsensical and reasonable. Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man is one of the most confident poems ever written, its central message being that the God of Reason has put us on earth to figure things out (“Say first, of God above or Man below/What can we reason but from what we know?”). And as for common sense, sometimes considered the underpinning wisdom of the American form of democracy–a structure built on the shoulders of farmers and laborers (don’t mention the slaves), not on gentility and inherited wealth (don’t mention the robber barons of industry and trade): Just look at the silly governmental structure Americans put into place in 1789, only because the revolutionary horde couldn’t wait for the British monarchy to descend into the irrelevance that was its fate. Can you imagine a reasonable organ of government anywhere in the world creating the filibuster?

I know freethinkers are an ornery bunch when it comes to packaging, but most are happy to believe in the equality, liberty and good life decreed as the gifts of an impressive creator to his remarkable creature without pausing to consider it’s a package deal. No creator, no self-evident truth, no gifts.

Would explicit atheism have helped us to bring about a better system? Would the cult of Reason have spread if, instead of doubting the Virgin birth, as Voltaire, Jefferson and Paine did openly, they would have begun by decrying the backwardness of the populace (which was pretty backward and remains stubbornly so) and sponsored blasphemy contests instead?

The proto-unbelievers of the Age of Reason could make a distinction between belief in God as a premise (or a useful metaphor for excellence), perhaps even a necessary fiction, and belief in a church that claimed proprietorship of the concept.

The great intellectual battle of the age wasn’t about whether God existed (though it was discussed) but how to wrest him from the pharisees who entombed him in church dogma. Most, in fact, tried to do the same thing (unsuccessfully) with the historical Jesus, for whom they had an intuitive respect. A bit later, the poet Matthew Arnold effused about the “sweet reasonableness” of Jesus’ character and message.

Beyond the Myth of Reason: Intolerance?

One of the reasons I’m not a cheerleader for the “New Atheism” (as anybody paying attention to this blog knows) is that it exploits the myth of Reason after rejecting the myth of God. It takes the reason-myth as self-evident truth, which is a very dangerous way to handle any myth, including theistic ones.

True, these are different myths with different coefficients (reason is human, God divine). But the reification of reason is a cheat. A cheat because reasonable people find different things reasonable, and many of these things are as crazy as ever rang a belfry bell: eugenics, nuclear proliferation, cheap energy, strip mining, even the war on Terror–yes, even that, a bicameral legislature.

For every Jew killed by the Catholic Inquisition, ten people have been killed by science and reason, millions using the the best Nazi technology, thousands in Stalin’s pogroms and to bring the Cold War in with a bang at Los Alamos. Putting Science in God’s throne doesn’t make the diktats humane: it just changes tyrants. Atheism of a certain stripe descends into intolerant fanaticism. It becomes a cause, an organized frenzy for people out to document their liberation from the demons of ignorance.

Needless to say therefore that it appeals to people who need demons to feel like angels, a terribly religious emotion.

Do I exaggerate? Not when a New Atheist website screams:

“Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.”

Holy Mary: I wish I had a plowshare to beat into a sword.

Popular Atheism has become unnecessary partly because it became dull at the same moment it became popular, loud when it might have begun to talk in reasoned measure. Like the brightest flashing of a meteor before it becomes interplanetary dust, or the point at which milky sludge becomes ice cream, just before it melts.

So now what do we talk about?

The Heat of the Moon: A Crisis for Inquiry

This article, written before Paul Kurtz’s death in October 2012, recounts my last face to face meeting with him. It is a sad personal reflection on a friendship that lasted thirty years–from my graduate school days until the end of his life and the ruin of the work he started at the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, after 2009. rjh

I had dinner with Paul Kurtz recently. As many of you know, he is the founder of a number of organizations that were brought together in the early 1990’s under the somewhat mysterious moniker “Center for Inquiry.” What was a Center is now a Crisis.

The name was an attempt to stitch together his two pet projects and their respective publications, The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine and organization devoted, basically, to investigating pseudoscience and the paranormal, and Free Inquiry, a magazine and organization devoted to the promotion of Kurtz’s ideas about secular humanism–a name not coined by him, but one intended to connote that humanism to be humanism needed to be non-theistic.

For many readers of the magazines, the difference between secular humanism and atheism was a difference without distinction. And in fact, the Council for Secular Humanism, one of the parents of the Center, was never totally interested in driving home the difference.

Between 1982 and 1992 robust atheists were drawn into the mix along with a fairly loyal cadre of skeptics, agnostics, perennial doubters, former fundamentalists, hopelessly lapsed Catholics and secularized Jews. Even though these groups had nothing conspicuously in common, they were bound together by a vague and sometimes outspoken antipathy toward religion, dogma, and the nibbling away of first amendment rights and protections by the churches and church-loving politicians.

The Center, when it became the Center in the early 90’s was an amalgam of two or three loosely confederated organizations and publications. On the skeptical side, readers of the Skeptical Inquirer were treated to a steady diet of articles about crop circles, weird medicine, weeping statues, spontaneous combustion (of people), Bigfoot, apparitions of the Virgin to impoverished Mexicans, the shroud of Turin, and ESP. (Remember ESP?). On the humanist side, Kurtz pursued his philosophical interest in finding moral alternatives to the dogmatic ethics of organized religion. He refused to believe that nihilism—the cliff of free choice where atheism gets you—was the only possible outcome of unbelief, and he opposed the use of ridicule as a means of argumentation. In fact, I learned from Paul that there is no need to be unkind to people who disagree with you, even if they are a bit slow.

The Center for Inquiry was always a work in progress and at the time of Kurtz’s very public ouster from the organization in 2008 was far from being a finished portrait of his thinking. Kurtz had visions of making it a “think tank” for the principles of secular humanism. The problem with such a plan was that few of his closest associates and co-workers and not all readers of the publications signed on, in a strict sense, to the vision—which (after all) was a rejection of dogma, which (after all) is what makes religions cohere at the level of belief and action. “Free-thought,” however you designate it, is not a system that leads to baptism, marriage vows, or fidelity.

CFI specialized in conferences featuring “big name” speakers. The Center developed a formula that involved, basically, appealing to the readership and a modicum of outsiders through the star-power of participants, then incorporating the “talks” from the gatherings in Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer. The conferences were themed and ranged from public discussions of biblical ethics to the war on science—a theme CFI patented long before the issue became a hot button under George W. Bush.

The advantage to the organization of these magazine-based events was a steady supply of articles by important voices, not all of whom agreed with each other and (certainly) not all of whom were atheists. The advantage to secular humanism was in being able to claim that the conference participants either endorsed the humanist stance of the Center or were apostles for for secularism. The advantage for the readers was that it validated their antipathy towards religion (“If Isaac Asimov and Steve Allen are atheists, I must be pretty smart, too”) and encouraged the belief that the Center for Inquiry was populated by free-thought heroes, public intellectuals, and top notch scientists.

To shore up this belief, Kurtz created the “Academy of Humanism” – a list of significant intellectuals and public figures who had made outstanding contributions to humanistic learning. The Academy was an important “concept”—not least because it called attention to the fact that there is a link between human progress in the sciences, arts and professions and the system of belief (or unbelief) that formed a crucial part of the biographies of illustrious, straight-thinking women and men.

But Paul Kurtz’s mission was always about education. He recognized that humanism was really the intellectual legacy of the western world and that while—in its fragmented, departmentalized and highly specialized form–this legacy is foundational in our best universities–there was no organization that saw “humanism” as a subject matter in it own right, one that both promoted the values associated with the intellectual tradition and existed to protect it through outreach and education.

The tricky bit in turning this vision into reality was in urging the “atheist believers” to understand that secular humanism was not an endpoint on an intellectual path to being bright and right, but a process. It included discipline, thinking, skepticism (not just about religion, but value in general). It was surprising—to me at least–how few atheists were prepared to move beyond the cul de sac of full-frontal unbelief to the questions of meaning and value. And how many found atheism a self-authenticating philosophy that evoked no further questions.

When New Atheism was loosed upon the world, birthed by writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, the Center for Inquiry was plunged into a crisis. It wasn’t seen that way at first: the language of Dawkins seemed, at one level , entirely comportable with some of what CFI had been saying for decades. But Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens were not especially interested in humanism (or tolerance, or kindness) and as a “new generation” of ungentlemanly soldiers they were not especially interested, either, in doing business with religion, at any level.

Programmatically, it was possible to feature them at conferences. Name-value is name-value. Educationally it was impossible to factor their proselytizing, self-promoting and sometimes academically weak approach to matters of belief into the growing academic and intellectual work of the Center. For CFI to endorse their message and mission wholesale was essentially to abandon any pretense that the Center was involved in “free inquiry” or serious intellectual pursuit in favor of playing the role of the Village Atheist loudly and proudly.

The delicate task of arguing the academic bona fides of humanism, especially its commitment to rational objectivity, was negatively offset by “a bevy of loudmouthed amateurs who simply want to see the end of religion and consider all religious persons morons.” I am quoting myself; but the quote serves to illustrate the dilemma. The gospel preached by the new atheists was not a lesson that could be taught in any secular classroom in the United States. Not because religious bigots control the classrooms, but because the classroom, in a democracy,is a value neutral place with respect to religion and irreligion. It was not religion, ironically, that brought CFI into crisis but the unkind and ungentle Unbelief of the atheist bigots.

Jesus Does His Nails: The Spirit of Sponsored Blasphemy?

My own sense two years beyond the flood is that the organization had no way out. There is a fine distinction between a message that’s muddy and a message that’s nuanced. For all the chatter about what CFI stood for and being “honest” about “who we are,” the ones most prone to invoke the challenge about identity—the Outists, if you will– were stolid atheists who had mounted an insurgency within the organization, despised nuance, found intellectuals useful only insofar as they could draw a crowd (most cannot) and were determined to drive the organization away from the academy and intellectualism.

In 2008 I resigned as a senior vice president and academic “czar” of CFI. At that point CFI had five PhDs on its payroll, not including Kurtz himself. It possessed an educational entity called the Institute, a growing summer educational program, several research projects, an articulation agreement for offering an Ed.M. degree in conjunction with the University at Buffalo, the country’s largest free-thought library, a strong evening lecture series, a summer camp program, a Sunday Platform series, a significant array of non-stipendiary fellows, and an advanced plan for a permanent MA program in humanist studies on the drafting table. It was a primary, if not the only, non-university resource for subjects it had made its own: secular ethics, religion in the public square, pseudoscience, and even controversial subjects such as the historical Jesus and the origins of the Quran. It was enthusiastically invited to hold its conferences on University campuses (an important index of the growing legitimacy with which its programs were being received): Between 1984 and 2007, it had held meetings at, among other places, the Universities of Michigan, Southern California, Richmond, Oxford, Cornell, UC Davis. As its academic visibility increased its intellectual capital grew proportionally.


It had become, painfully slowly but surely, not just another secular or church-state separation advocacy group (plenty of those begging for time and money) but the only organization committed to the preservation of humanist values through research and education.

There were two problems with this picture, rosy as it seems. First, it was expensive, and had to compete for attention and funding with CFI’s other priority: expansion and outreach. Second, none of the long-timers associated with Kurtz from the hand-to-mouth days of CFI’s Buffalo beginnings bought into the “educational model.” From the “business model” that had evolved over time, only established projects could be defended. The charge was always that education and academic pursuits were luxuries, did not represent the core values of CFI (not true), did not bring home the bacon (partly true) and needed to be subsidized by magazine sales and conferences (entirely true) which were diminishing. Vision is far more expensive than diamonds.

I left CFI in a bad mood, with a good conscience, but also with the conviction that the organization had become unmanageable, confused, incoherent and headed for disaster. Tom Flynn, the editor of Free Inquiry and a full frontal atheist, was committed to making the Center and its magazines a beacon of atheist thought. Barry Karr, the chief operations officer, was determined to keep investigation of the paranormal at the top of the Center’s to-do list, despite the fact that magazine sales had plummeted in tandem with loss of public interest in freak psychology.

Paul Kurtz himself, at some point along the way, became diverted by expansion and left it to his lieutenants to call the shots while he focused on a mission and message that had not quite come together. He was unaware, as only a founder can be, that he had become a thorn in the side of a movement that was trying to outlast him and intent on driving programs in a different direction.

In 2008, by decree of a fumbling board of directors, a Washington, DC lawyer named Ronald A. Lindsay was named CEO of the Center for Inquiry. While Lindsay initially professed to share Kurtz’s interest in humanism, he was mainly interested in First Amendment issues and public policy.

Effectively, he took on an agenda that had suffered the predations of time and tide—the remains of a leader who was not going to be successful in achieving coherence and outreach at the same time—and scuttled it. The position toward religion became not investigative but adversarial. Educational programs were curtailed, threatened with obliteration. Research projects were put on indefinite hold. An organization that stood for the First-Amendment right for blasphemy to occur became a sponsor of “Blasphemy Day” and puerile anti-religion Cartoon Contests.

CFI moved from being a beacon of sophisticated speculation about religion and secular values to becoming a support group for angry anti-religionists and college faddists. An organization that used its stable of worthies to fund worthy projects had chosen instead to become a celebrity booking agency for sideshow atheism. If atheism once had an ugly face (think Madalyn Murray O’Hair) this was its reincarnation.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

The old star-power had its purpose: to create something of radiance, put it at the center of the humanist universe and let it shine. The “New” Center for Inquiry will have to trade on the words and wisdom of people whose vision need not correspond to much of anything and hope to bask in its glory. It’s the difference between sunlight and moon-glow.

Atheist Denominationalism

Most atheists have never read H. Richard Niebuhr. That’s too bad. Because now that unbelievers are fighting with each other about how much of God not to believe in, they have a lot to learn from the battles fought among God’s people for primacy of position.

Niebuhr was primarily an ethicist and while influenced by philosophers and theologians as far apart as Barth, Troeltsch and Tillich, he was solidly grounded in the reality of social change. He knew that since the Protestant Reformation Christianity had become restless and incoherent. When monolithic belief in God’s holy church and her sacraments was demolished by the phenomenon of “fissiparation” (churches quarreling over picayune differences about inconspicuous doctrines and forming into ever more minor sects), the stage was set for a religion that could hardly claim to be what Christ had in mind when he expressed the wish that ‘all may be one’. Not of course that Jesus was speaking, if he was speaking, of the church when he said that.

Countries around the world experienced the Protestant Reformation in different ways: Europe at a theological level, and then in skirmishes that grew into full fledged wars. No longer able to contain the confusion by executing the odd heretic or sending the forces over the hill to rout the Huguenots, Europe settled finally into a state of religious détente that grew eventually to boredom and finally to a comparative loss of interest in religion and an acceptance of secular values. One of the reasons the “priest abuse scandal” has been so shocking to Europeans is that this generation of Irish, Italians, Germans and French have a hard enough time remembering the autocratic church of their grandparents’ day, when papal and episcopal fiat were good enough for relatively docile laity. It is the idea that society—the secular—stands against and above the church in all legal and judicial respects that makes the crisis almost unfathomable in modern terms.

A Protestant Scene

America experienced the Reformation as an export, a receiver nation. Whatever you might have learned about America being solidly “Christian” at its foundation is not only not true, but not true because the seventeenth century was the era when Christianity itself was being redefined. The puritans of New England did not share the religious interests of the commercial men of Massachusetts Bay, a “factorie,” and the relatively softer Baptists followed on their heels within a generation. Harvard had fallen from Calvinist grace by 1702 when Yale was founded to preserve its true religion (the mottoes are revealing: Harvard, Veritas, Yale Lux et Veritas). By then, Jews were aboard, or off ship, in Rhode Island and the first waves of Catholics were about to arrive in Lord Baltimore’s Maryland. Go a bit further south and boatloads of low church Anglicans had disembarked in Virginia decades before, and Presbyterians would squeeze into the gaps in the Carolinas, named for Charles II. Georgia (the name first suggested to a delighted George II in 1724) would be transformed by Wesley’s followers into a colony for Methodism. Go a little deeper and change colonial masters: waves of Catholics driven from New France by the pursuing forces of the British General Wolfe, would arrive in the bayous of the Mississippi Gulf region and learn to call it home.

A 'Cajun' (Acadian) Scene, 1898

The grab bag of religious immigrants that came together at the end of the eighteenth century was not an especially remarkable mix. It was a powder keg of competing denominations with explosive potential. In their wisdom, as Americans like to say of the founding fathers, the authors of the Constitution were savvy enough to make sure that religion and government should stay apart: that’s what the first amendment was devised to do. But they were equally savvy about the instincts of these displaced and largely yokel Europeans. Whether it was debt, famine, crime, adventurism, a loveless marriage, a lost fortune or religious persecution that had brought them to the New World, it was entirely likely that their faith came with them. So, what the founders gave with their right hand to government they took away again with their left by delivering to these competing sects the “free exercise” of their faith. Congress would never pass a law constraining the free exercise of religion. And in saying that they passed a law concerning the free exercise of religion. America became the most religious nation on earth and the most fertile field for growing new religions.

Mormon Trek

Niebuhr of course knew all of this, the son of a distinguished immigrant German theological family himself. He knew that the ragbag culture of American religion would always be a supermarket of choices–and not only that. There was something in the nature of Protestantism that was friendly to competition (as Weber had argued at the beginning of the twentieth century), from strong belief to weak belief, from Born Againism to Ask me Later. If ever Feuerbach needed confirmation of his idea that religion makes God in man’s image, the proof could be found in the American Experience.


* * *

Modern Atheism is a continuation of the pattern of denominationalism and derives specifically from it. It is the fatal last step in the journey from strong to weak belief. Just as secularism emanates from the religious acceptance of tolerance and pluralism, necessities imposed by competing sects living in close cultural proximity over a long period of time, atheism is that point on the belief scale where God becomes not optional but impossible.

By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that atheism is religion. That is a limp, tiresome, historically uninformed debate. But atheists would be very foolish not to understand themselves connected through history and process to the developments that help us to understand the phenomenon of denominationalism. If a hard core atheist cannot believe in creation ex nihilo, it would be pretty silly for him to believe that any social or intellectual position can be equivalently wrought.

It also seems clear to me that atheists, in accepting that they have their origins not in Zeus’s bonnet but in a social process, should also accept that atheism will also experience its own denominationalism, its own sectarian divisions This process has been under way for a long time. We are seeing its latest eruption in the “debate’ between old and new atheists, as in the twentieth century in differences between religious humanists and secular humanists. Even the terminology used to express the differences (as Niebuhr pointed out) becomes crucially significant: Labeling is one of the properties of the protestant spirit. Just as it isn’t enough to say Baptist without specifying Southern, American, Freewill, Particular or Seventh Day, the day may come when one atheist will demand of the atheist sitting next to him at a bar “Old,” “New,” “Bright,” “Strict,” “Friendly” or “Prickly?”

What denominationalism teaches is that human beings despise norms. I suspect there will never be a more impressive “norm” than the rules and doctrines and liturgies of the Catholic church of the sixteenth century. If you want to know what God looked like at the peak of his game, it was then. But “then” is when the Reformation happened.

I suspect that atheism had something like that heyday in the 1940’s when it became, normatively speaking, a sexy bad boy philosophy associated with the likes of Julian Huxley and Bertrand Russell, and slightly later with (certain) existentialists, especially Camus. It had a prior history of course, and a later one. But I tend to think the potential for variegation in atheism goes back far into history. Maybe it goes back to Hobbes, maybe to Lucretius or Epicurus. But wherever it goes it is always in juxtaposition with religious values, and often enough (especially with the French) with particular religious doctrines. Read the forward to Marx’s doctoral thesis to see what I mean.

Atheism follows the religious pattern of denominationalism not only because it behaves religiously but because its central question is a religious question—or more precisely a question about religion. It should surprise no one that what we are seeing now are permissive, soft, hard, pluralistic, total rejectionist, possibilist, impossibilist, and accommodationist responses to the question of God’s existence and the “meaning” of religious experience. Why would we expect anything else?

What we can hope is that the process doesn’t take atheists too far down the denominational road as they jockey for position as the True Unreligion: Once-born and twice-born atheist is a distinction we can live without.

“Who was You?” On Hiding from What You Are

The Boston Lowells knew who they were. From their perch on Beacon Hill they enjoyed a perspective that encouraged them to believe in the Unitarian credo: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the neighborhood of Boston. When William Filene opened a discount store in the basement of his father’s store to sell overstock and closeout merchandise through his “automatic bargain basement” (off the rack, serve yourself), Beacon Hill was a swarm of indignation. The son of a (Jewish!) peddler would throw Boston society into disarray. Cheap clothes that looked like finery? Now even Irish women who worked as chambermaids could look respectable. That is, if you didn’t look too closely.

Never to be persuaded without a firsthand look, Anna Parker Lowell walked into Filene’s downtown store near Washington Street, coiffed and umbrellad, sought directions “to the so-called Basement” and took the steps with the polish of someone who was used to grand staircases. Once aground she saw women flipping through racks of dresses like playing cards–choosing, refusing, playing tug-a-war, even threatening bodily harm if a latecomer tried to prise her find away from someone with a prior claim. “Disgusting,” Mrs Lowell tsked to herself. “Just look at them.”

Just when she had satisfied herself that Edward Filene’s brainstorm would mean the end of high society in Boston her eyes lit on a beautiful taffeta gown that looked just the thing for the spring ball at Harvard. She moved closer for a better look. As she reached to collect her prize, a woman of questionable pedigree snapped it from the rack and headed for the till. “Not so fast my dear,” said Mrs Lowell. “I was about to have that dress.” “You was,” said the woman without slowing. “I don’t think you understand.” I had chosen that dress. I was just about to collect it.” “You was,” said the woman, unable to evade Mrs Lowell’s pursuit because of a crowded aisle. “Look here, madam. I didn’t want to tell you who I was, but I will if you persist.” The woman stopped, turned, looked Mrs Lowell in the eye, and said “Ok dearie: Who was you?”

I have always wondered what people mean when they say “That’s who I am,” but usually they mean something silly and parochial: I’m a Catholic, a democrat, a creationist, a car dealer, an ex-con, a neo-con. It’s the substitution of code for argument, a conversation stopper rather than an invitation to discuss a position or idea. Clearly identity matters, but the twentieth century was distinctive in breaking down the sorts of identities that isolated people from majority communities and power structures.

There are big identities and small identities, weak and strong. Part of this has to do with the nature of language and part with the nature of things. Being a democrat or a used car salesman are weak identities: you can change those things tomorrow if you change your mind or lose your job. Being an African-American or a male, despite the fact that we know a lot more about race and sexuality now than we did fifty years ago, still have a lot to do with properties and are much more difficult to change. To say, “I’m gay,” is not just to say “I’m not straight” but to challenge the idea of straight as normative and authoritative. That’s different from saying, “I’m Catholic,” if by that you mean you’re on your way to heaven and the guy you’re talking to is going the opposite way. Beware of anyone who says “That’s who/what I am” with a smile on his face.

Identities can be a great source of fun, as when Ambrose Bierce (the Devil’s Dictionary, 1925) defines a bride as “a woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her” and “Brute” as husband, or a “minister as “An agent of a higher power with a lower responsibility.” Too bad that in Bierce’s day the Vegan craze wasn’t what it is in the twenty first century, but he did have this to say about clairvoyants: “A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.”

The weakest identities of all are the ones that have to do with what we believe to be the meaning of life. I can remember in college three distinct phases of change: being a socialist at seventeen, a half-hearted anarchist at twenty, and an existentialist at twenty one. I recovered from these infatuations by not permitting myself to stop reading and never reading Camus after thirty. With confusion intact, I went to Divinity School and emerged as confused and doubtful as ever. Voltaire said it was only his skepticism that prevented him from being an atheist. That was me, too.

I can’t doubt that there are “meaning-of-life” identities that one holds passionately and therefore appear to qualify for the “That’s who I am” category of identification. I have known people whose non-belief is as fervent as the belief of a twice born Baptist or Mormon elder, people who say “I am an atheist” as proudly as an evangelical says “I’m born again.” It’s tempting to say, isn’t it, that the difference between these two statements is that the atheist is smart and the Born again needs his intelligence quotient checked. But we all know that identity statements are code for a whole range of ideas that need to be unpacked and call for explanation. An atheist who felt his non-belief in God entitled him to murder children because of the absence of divine commands to the contrary would be no better than a cult member who believed that disobedient sons can be stoned because it says they can in the Bible.

I feel my Atheist Reader squirming, because while you liked the Bright-Dim difference, you don’t like equivalences. When Katherine Hepburn turns out to be an atheist people say, “I just knew it. Such a strong woman.” When Pol-Pot says God is bunk, we think “Well that’s different, isn’t it—and so far away?”

Personally, I don’t like people who say “That’s who I am,” or “That’s what we are,” or “We need to be honest about who we are.” At a crude level I want to say WTF? It’s eerily metaphysical when atheists do it—not only because it’s the language God uses when he introduces himself to Moses on Sinai. You remember, right?: Moses hasn’t been properly introduced and God says, “That’s who I am,” and when pressed after Moses accuses God of being slippery says “I am what I am.”

I reckon what he really means is, “You know—God—the one who does firmament, landscaping, Leviathan, floods, human beings God.” In fairness, however, the Hebrew Bible insisted that God was not just a proposition but an actor on the human stage. I don’t believe that God did any of the things ascribed to him in the Bible, but to believe in a doer and deeds is a perfectly legitimate way to establish an identity—even if it’s a fictional identity. That’s why Jewish atheists begin by denying the deeds and then the doer. None of this silly ontological stuff: too Christian, too mental.

But I find it a lot harder to know who I am or what we are on the basis of not believing something.

“We need to be honest about who we are” coming from an atheist doesn’t translate easily into the propertied descriptions of being black, gay, female or physically challenged–things over which people have no choice and no control.

It’s tempting, I know, to think the things we believe or don’t believe have the same status as the things that constitute us as persons or collectives of persons. But you would laugh at a used car salesman saying at dinner, “Dammit, Mother, I’m tired of hiding from who I am. Tomorrow I’m going right into the boss’s office and say to him, ‘Mr Jones: I am Bill Smith and I’m an atheist.” You would not laugh at someone who said, “Mr Jones: I haven’t had a raise in two years. Is it because I’m black?”

Atheists often complain when religious groups claim special treatment on the pretext that any speech against religion is defamatory while claiming equivalent protection for their own beliefs. But atheists need to be very careful about traveling the road of victimization and minority rights or simply adopting the legal definitions supplied under non-discrimination laws. Especially when racial, sexual orientation and gender provisions do not apply to atheism and the protection accorded to religious beliefs, if embraced by atheists, creates a stew of issues–not the least of which is that there is no settled definition of atheism and if there were a true freethinker would reject it.

Difference is deceptive, especially when it comes to self-definition. Is coming out atheist like coming out gay, an act of courage? On what basis–the fact that terms like “minority,” “unpopular” and “misunderstood” can be applied to both categories? But simply to embrace a minority position toward a “divine being” based on denying a premise is not an act of bravery. It doesn’t make you who you are or what you are. It’s neither race, profession nor party platform—not even a philosophical position or scientific theory. It’s not something to be ashamed of or proud of. It’s just about an idea—even if it’s a really Big idea.

Other Christs as Paedophiles

I was an altar boy. Most of the abuse cases now being brought against the Catholic church date from the time when I served Mass, polished candlesticks, smoothed the linen on the altar, filled cruets with wine and water, helped priests on (and off) with their vestments and rang bells at the consecration.

By age ten I could rattle off both the priest’s part and my own in Latin without understanding a word. By age fifteen, a little less fervent, and with other things on my mind, the Mass was drifting irrevocably into English. By age twenty, the Latin Mass was a museum piece and I was an un-outed atheist.

So were lots of priests, or if not atheists exactly they had privately lost their faith. –Plenty of precedent for that, especially among the best-educated priests–and the Church has always had a healthy share of intellectuals and apostates-in-training. I once edited a book by Alfred Loisy, the famous French Jesuit, who claimed that, having lost faith first in the gospel and then in the Church, he was only able to mutter the prayers at the altar and chime in with good conscience at the phrase “suffered, died and was buried,” at the creed. That was in 1928, after he was excommunicated (vitandus) in 1908–as one of an international ring of intellectuals that the Church had come to believe was a conspiracy, called (appropriately enough) “Modernists.”

How many priests, before and since, shared Loisy’s doubts but didn’t possess his honesty? Hundreds? Thousands? How many more thousands after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council turned the rock-hard surety of Catholic doctrine into putty in the hands of Vatican theologians far removed from the dullness and torpor of parish life?


Modernists were not atheists. But then, belief in God was frankly not what the Church demanded anyway. The Church of the nineteenth century insisted that you believe in the holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, its sacraments as the sole means to achieve grace, forgiveness, and salvation, and the hierarchical delivery system codified (once and for all) at the Council of Trent in 1563.

Nothing much had happened before Vatican II to challenge the ossified system and the doctrine of the priesthood that came out of Trent. When he was asked in the late 1950’s (on the edge of the Council that was called to reform the system) what he thought of the “role of the laity”–the men, women and children who put dimes and dollars in the collection basket, pay the meager salaries of priests and nuns and keep the church roof from leaking–the formidable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani answered, “The laity?–ah yes. Their role is to pray, pay and to obey.”

Cardinal Ottaviani

If grandma believed that, and your father a little less so, but still sort of believed it, what was a twelve year old to do at 6.30AM in the church sacristy when confronted by a randy priest who asked to see how much he’d “grown.” No, that little boy was not me. It was my best friend (who has never brought a charge against the Church, went to seminary and became a priest himself–a good one I think.) But I know it could have happened to me if I hadn’t been a little smarter, a little faster washing up and slamming the back door of the church.

I knew the priest. Several of my friends from our Catholic high school made a special trip to visit him in his abbey toward the end of his life, where the diocese finally sequestered him. He was a broken and depleted man–not because he’d been removed from the parish–I suspect that was huge relief–but because long before that he was condemned to live out a theological lie. The church had trained him, taken him into minor seminary (from about age thirteen), helped him to realize his vocation, and thereby made him unfit for any other profession. Unlike Loisy, he was neither educated enough, clever enough nor versatile enough to do anything else. He was taught he was a personification of Christ, but he no longer believed it and he must have hated the fact that there were still those who did. Those who did believe it may have been more dangerous. They were the ones who thought they had proprietary rights over the children of the parish and could do as they pleased.

Given the definition of the priesthood that was normal in those days, that the priest is alter Christus, another Christ, why should anyone be surprised at the moral implosion of Catholicism? Religion “experts” like me make a living by describing cults as the products of aberrant doctrine and extremes of “normative” belief. But who decides “normative”? What could possibly be more abnormal than teaching grown men and women (and children) that a man of flesh and blood “in his own person represents Jesus Christ at the altar.”

What Jesus supposedly did–turn bread and wine into “his own body, blood, soul, flesh and divinity”–this man is ordained to do at the Eucharist. That’s what the Church taught and in so many words still teaches. Do we have any evidence that members of the Lundgren Mormons or the Cult Davidian or the Ark Church believe more absurd things? If the biblical ethics of the marginal groups result in perverse outcomes, the Catholic world recoils in horror. But Catholics until very recently have not been able to draw a line between their beliefs and similar effects. Now they have to.

The “crisis” in the Catholic church is not fundamentally a legal problem. Of course the media has to paint it that way because the media is a cyclops. It encourages rubbernecking, tsk-tsking and scintillation while posing as an objective resource for moral discrimination. It is so obsessed with the that of abuse by priests that it can’t get its camera around the why.

But many Catholics and ex-Catholics like myself know that what is happening is really much more profound. It is the end of priesthood. At least it is the end of the symbolism of priesthood and the tokens of office that came with the job. Once upon a time it was, under canon law, a grave sin to accost a priest or to strike him–a crime tantamount to striking Christ himself. The Church knew that the wall between laity and clergy was belief in the sanctity and authority of the priest.

Jesus the High Priest


There was no parallel rule against a priest inviting a boy to take down his trousers. Part of the outrage among the most fervent Catholics is that they have watched this scandal unfold without realizing its subtler effects as a demolition of the symbolism and (thus) the system of priesthood itself. They have watched the wall come tumbling down.

They are angry and humiliated, but not just because crimes went unreported and bishops behaved like caliphs, distributing justice on whim. Priesthood was nothing without the archaic trappings of celibacy, purity, snow white vestments, and clean hands holding the host aloft at Mass–a kind of physical orison of Christ’s earthly incarnation–for the faithful to adore. The thought of the same hands, in secret, doing black and unspeakable things to the least of Christ’s brethren broke the bond of trust forever.

For the ones whose job is only to pray and obey, the priests and their bishop-protectors (who, don’t forget, are merely super-priests) are not only guilty of sin (a Catholic idea) and crime (sin translated into the penal codes of secular states). They have exposed a deeper spiritual hypocrisy that will not be covered up by incense and icons.

Surely people have a right to worship the God they believe in in their own way and to choose mechanisms for expressing their belief. The Catholic church has always been happy to provide one of the more sumptuous options for that expression–symbols of ancient pomp and power, smells and bells.

But with so much riding on a tradition that depends on authority, it’s doubtful that Catholicism can survive the smashing of its altars and thrones. The image of a God who reigns above and a vice-regent who rules below over armies of souls struggling for salvation may seem an odd metaphor in the twenty first century–not one that Joe Catholic thinks much about when he goes to communion at the 6PM Mass on Saturday evening to keep Sunday free for golf. Still, that’s the image: the “Church Militant” (on earth) joined through the saints to God and through the souls in purgatory to generations of dead Catholics that have believed throughout time what you believe now. The belief in the “communion of saints” gave Catholics a well-ordered spiritual cosmos that extended as a link between the parish–and the parish priest–right up to the top. The higher up on the spiritual ladder you were the greater the support system of like-minded men, the easier it was to believe in the historical legitimacy of the tradition that made you a bishop a cardinal, a pope. Rank has a way of assuaging even grievous fits of reason and theological doubt.

The easier it became to forget that the foot-soldiers, the priests, the men in black, leading increasingly isolated lives–intellectually and personally–were the weakest link. Not only could they not hold the line against sin and temptation while their superiors drank the good wine, they had ceased to believe it mattered. Liturgically confused, threatened by ecumenism, their catechism relegated to the attic with their birettas, uncomfortable at pancake breakfasts, rarely acknowledged by higher-ups and confronted with a growing inventory of financial woes, closing schools and consolidated parishes–last but not least, even the “good” ones–the object of suspicion, mistrust, and Mrs Murphy’s hearsay. I am not saying the actions of priests are excusable. I am saying that they were inevitable.

Like a lot of ex-Catholics, I feel in a nagging kind of way that I owe the church something, at least my education. I don’t mean to sound conceited when I say that no one who says he got a “Catholic education” since about 1975 has the foggiest idea what the phrase really means. Catholic schools, especially in America, were the first to suffer from the loss of vigor and direction which in other areas led to the emptying of seminaries, rectories and convents and to the widespread loss of faith reflected in the banality of liturgical and doctrinal reform. What I owe the church as a memento of that education is this essay.

We’re now told that this pope is pulling the Church back to basics. But it will never work. The moral center is missing and may have been a myth all along. Dostoevsky thought so. Loisy thought so. The damage cannot be calculated in the percentage of “guilty” men who are brought to justice, or measures being taken to protect children from sexual opportunists. Will the Church now make sure that a thirteen year old going to confession is accompanied by a responsible adult at all times?

The cure is unavailable to a Church that does not understand that its core doctrine, its whole symbolic garment has been unbuttoned by fake Christs who are no more the real thing than the communion wafer is his body.