Isn’t it just about time that we told religious moralists to shove it? Really, when you look at the world today, and consider the offences that religions commit against human dignity and justice, for religions to make claims to speak with authority on moral questions is not only laughable, it is plainly obscene. Religious thought is rightly thought to be “other worldly” — it certainly does not belong in this one. Roman Catholic ethicists, like the incredibly doctrinaire Robert P. George, who thinks that only Catholic morality can be justified by reason, and therefore should be made into law, cannot even imagine how it could be possible for anyone to disagree with them, and yet very few moral philosophers do agree with them. They carry on their moral projects in a private room, as though no one else was thinking about ethics at all. No wonder they are so dismayed when people turn them down.
Take Robert P. George’s arguments regarding the immorality of abortion, for example. He thinks that anyone who thinks that abortion, at any stage, is morally justifiable, is simply wrong, and he thinks that this is a position securely grounded in science itself. I will not go into detail, since I do not think the argument deserves this kind of close attention. Just consider this statement and its sequel:
What the zygote needs to function as a self-integrating human organism, a human being, it already possesses.
At no point in embryogenesis, therefore, does the distinct organism that came into being when it was conceived undergo what is technically called “substantial change” (or a change of natures). It is human and will remain human. 
Now, let’s stack this claim up against the claim of the woman in whom this zygote has taken up residence.
In the Independent this morning the main headline is:
Woman dies after being refused an abortion in Irish hospital
Here’s part of the story:
Savita Halappanavar, a dentist aged 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she died after suffering a miscarriage and septicaemia.
The woman’s husband Praveen Halappanavar, 34, claimed she had complained of being in agonising pain while in Galway University Hospital.
He has said that doctors refused to carry out a medical termination because the foetus’s heartbeat was present.
A “heartbeat was present”! The woman had suffered a miscarriage, for Christ’s sake! But a heartbeat was present, so, conformable to Robert P. George’s (and the Pope’s) dictum, a human being was present. So, instead of rescuing the woman, she was allowed to die, being told that an abortion was contraindicated because “Ireland is a Catholic country.” The idiocy of this is simply stunning, and yet this is what happened. A life of a woman was forfeited, regardless of her own choices, because there was a heartbeat! It’s enough to make one scream, and to call down execrations on the heads of those “in charge,” and it reminds one that “Mother Teresa” (now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta) declared in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize (of all things!), that abortion was “the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.” (We should all retire to Bedlam!) Neither the woman’s distress nor the husband’s request availed anything, and she was left to die because of the inviolable logic of Roman Catholic ethics. It makes me so angry that I want to wring some prelatical throats.
But nothing about Robert P. George’s reasoning stands up to examination. He claims that it is a scientific fact that the zygote is a human being, and by that he means a human person with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. But no mere fact of this kind can lead to a moral conclusion. A zygote is human tissue; about that there is no question. But a human being is a moral category, and you can’t simply transit from “zygote” to “human being” without making a mountain of moral assumptions. But for George the claim is enough to determine that the mere existence of a zygote subordinates the choices of the woman upon which it is dependent, “self-integrating” or not, to the choices of others who are thought to have the right to choose for her, even if that means she must die. She has no choice in the matter. This is a form of madness that in any reasonable society would be seen as a pathology, but passes in Princeton and Ireland and the Vatican for rational argument — which may explain why I find reading George’s book so very painful an experience.
Indeed, further, Robert P. George tries to get away with the claim that his moral position is based on science. “Technically,” he says, without acknowledging that the technicality does not belong to science but to theology, the continuity of the zygote with adult human being is “substantial,” or, in other words, there is no “substantial change” between zygote and adult human being. Of course, this is not the language of science; it is the language of Aquinian Aristotelianism, the language of substantial form or essence. For we can point to any number of significant changes that the zygote undergoes on its way to becoming an adult human being, whether they would satisfy Aquinas’ notion of “substantial change” or not, many of which are reasonably be thought to be morally important transitions.
This is only a one example of the idiocy of religious morality, but that doesn’t stop the whole United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from reducing themselves to idiotic penitents because “they” — get this, it was their fault; it doesn’t get much more presumptuous than this – they allowed President Obama to be elected to a second term of office. It was their fault, Cardinal Timothy Dolan admonished them, that Obama was elected. According to Religion News Service:
“The premier answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming … none of these, as significant as they are,” Dolan said, citing many of the issues that have become favorite targets of the hierarchy.
Instead, Dolan said, quoting English writer and Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, the answer is contained in two words: “I am.”
And, of course, by extension, Dolan was saying: “You are.” There is not one hint of humility in all of this. The assumption is that only they are right in their assessment of the morality which led them to oppose Obama. They are right, and everyone else is wrong. The American people are on the side of evil for electing Obama. As a religious idiot in Texas said, very much in tune with Cardinal Dolan, Obama is “paving the way” for the rise of the Anti-Christ. These people simply do not have the option of reconsidering their moral imperatives, which, notwithstanding their own confidence, are simply no longer compelling. So they contrive to believe that Christian morality, whether Baptist or Catholic, is no longer compelling because, as Cardinal Dolan so ridiculously puts the problem, they have not lived with sufficient self-loathing.
But, surely, surely, to suggest that people should elect someone like Romney, who, in obedience to the mandate of his church, is 100% opposed to abortion, and so must, in some sense, defend the foolish Republican apologists for rape, and try to explain God’s role in impregnating raped women, rightly seems sheer madness to reasonable people. But these are the exigencies to which one is forced, once you allow yourself no moral wiggle room at all, because your morality is one of absolutisms that would give government officials the right to ride roughshod over anyone’s right to believe and act according to a different moral understanding of the world. It is clear that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the fundamentalist evangelicals, have no idea what democracy is about. In the first place, it’s about defending the rights of individuals, not about making the world safe for fundamentalists to intrude into the lives of individuals and overturn those rights. Democracy is about limiting the coercive powers of the state, so that individuals can live their lives unencumbered by state interference in those areas of life where the state’s writ should not run. But religions want to remake society in their own image, and if you consider what this image looks like, in the person of a Timothy Dolan, a Mitt Romney, a Richard Jeffrees, it isn’t much wonder that the American electorate said no. And still they don’t get it. Hence Timothy Dolan’s nostri maxima culpa.
How is it possible for people to paint themselves into a corner like this? The answer seems to be that, in today’s political climate, where moral change is being forced on people who thought that the moral “order” of the 1950s (or Calvinist Geneva, or the Counter-Reformation, or wherever you place your moral society) would last forever, religions have been forced onto the back foot, and in order to keep themselves imprinted on people’s minds in the midst of the media circus, they need to take more and more unyielding positions. That, of course, will imprint itself strongly on people’s minds, but it will often be simply in revulsion against what these apes in strange costumes purport to believe. The odd thing is that Obama, who is by no means a moral adventurer, has been compared, by the Catholic hierarchy, to Hitler and Stalin, when it is really the Catholic hierarchy that is behaving with the kind of ideological mindlessness that characterised fascist dictatorships. For it is they, after all, who are determined to put people into moral straitjackets that will have the kind of consequences exhibited by the apparent moral blindness of the hospital officials in Ireland. If the zygote — which, recall, is the original cell formed by the union of male and female gamete cells — has the same moral standing as an adult human being, then the frightened girl who, for whatever reason, and no matter how young, finds herself pregnant, and in desperation aborts herself or causes a miscarriage, is guilty of first degree murder. No reasonable person thinks this, yet many religious people do, and the pope is committed to it. This strikes me as mindless idiocy.
It is the same mind-set that animates opponents of assisted dying. Nothing, no amount of suffering, no amount of human distress, no matter how long it must be endured, can justify helping a person to die. And yet, in one British social survey, fully 80% of those who believed that assisted dying was morally wrong, but who experienced the miserable death of a loved one, changed their minds. Are we to say that they had no reason to change their minds, or that witnessing the misery of someone they care for was not a good reason to change their minds? Reasoning people will see that humanity is more reasonable than inhumanity. And yet Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła spoke about the “culture of death” of modern society, and Pope Ratzinger rails, without apology, against modern relativism and secularism, when it is they who preside over dying women, and the misery of the suffering, and look away without concern for the consequences of their beliefs. This is what I call the “death cult” of much contemporary religion. It is not only Muslim suicide bombers who are committed to a kind of apotheosis of death. The Catholic god demands death too, as well as the miseries of horrendous suffering on the way to it, no matter how long-delayed, and the bishops flagellate themselves because they failed to convince the American electorate to join them in this veneration of death and misery which they consider, by a strange inversion of reasoning, to be pro-life.
And then, remember, how much of a narrowing of focus is reflected in religious moral concerns. Bishops, Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox, lapse into paroxysms of fury at the thought that the sexual unions of gay and lesbian people might be dignified by the right to marry. Of course, in all this, they refuse to recognise that religion all along has been simply wrong about sexuality. They did not realise — apparently very few did before Kinsey — that homosexuality was not simply a kind of depravity into which otherwise heterosexual people permitted themselves to sink, but that it was a perfectly normal expression along the continuum of sexual response. They did not realise that despite the near certainty that all men have, at one point or another in their lives, masturbated, that 2% consistently lie about it. Nor did they recognise that sexual response is a perfectly natural aspect of being human, not a kind of spiritual degradation of otherwise purely spiritual beings. Poor St. Augustine! He simply couldn’t get his penis to obey his saintly commands. It would disobey him, despite his most strenuous efforts to keep it down! And to top it all off, the pleasure of sexual orgasm is so great that, as he puts it,
there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness; the intellectual sentries, as it were, are overwhelmed. [City of God, Bk. III, Chap. 16]
This has got to be the funniest chapter in all of theology! The poor man was a sexual being, and he spent his life as a Christian trying to deny it, and to ascribe all manner of evil to it. The Catholic Church is committed to Augustine’s programme of sexual repression. If it weren’t so sad it would be hilarious. But it is sad, and there is nothing hilarious about a bunch of sexually repressed men trying to lord it over everyone else. So great is their repression that they still cannot acknowledge that, under the surface, the priesthood is a seething mass of sexually frustrated men unable to keep themselves from “acting out” (and then trying to hide it) in ways that, if they were teenagers, would be explicable, but since they are adults just looks silly where it is not criminal.
The same thing is apparently familiar on the Arab street. Women are clothed in bags because it is believed that their sexual voraciousness would lead men simply to run amok, and yet, in truth, women are subject to the most defiling and degrading acts of sexual assault, being touched and fondled in public places against their will, and sometimes mobbed by gangs of men, as many women in the political protests of the so-called Arab Spring discovered. The degree of sexual repression to which Islam subjects its hordes of young men means that some are bound to “act out” in socially unacceptable ways. But the underlying reasons are religious. Women are, on the one hand, a threat to men’s spiritual wholeness, and yet, on the other hand, bear, between their legs, the focus of men’s honour. It’s a bizarre predicament that women find themselves in, and all, in the end, because of the mindless idiocy of religion, and of men’s inability to deal with sexuality.
Knowing things about ourselves that were not known in ages past, changes everything, but, since the religious are held captive by ancient texts, they can’t, without betrayal, accept that they were wrong, and so they go on being wrong at a time when their mistakes are obvious to everyone with a little bit of knowledge. What makes it so bizarre is that these “holy” men gather together in what are supposed to be adult consultations and scrap over things like women priests and homosexual relationships as though these matters are of supreme importance. In a society of reasonable people they would be a laughing-stock, and people would regard them as more than slightly dotty, and yet whole electorates are sent into convulsions because they cannot move away from such sanctified ignorance.