Let’s say there was a school system or a chain of clinics on whose professional staff were a certain number of men who molested the children in their care and who, whenever this behavior came to the attention of their superiors, were shifted to another school or clinic, with parents and colleagues, not to mention the justice system, kept in the dark whenever possible. Imagine that this practice continued for thirty years through a combination of out-of-court settlements, sympathetic judges and politicians, stonewalling lawyers, suppression of information, fulminations against the media. Don’t you think that when the story finally broke, the men who had made and implemented the policy would be held legally responsible–for something? Certainly they would lose their jobs.
Bring God into the picture, though, and everything changes. The bishops who presided over the priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church’s ever-expanding scandal are not likely to follow Boston’s Father Geoghan, convicted and sentenced to nine to ten years and facing more charges, into the dock, much less the cellblock. After all, they are men of God. Thanks to God, the Catholic Church can run a healthcare system–10 percent of private hospitals in the United States–that refuses to practice modern medicine where women are concerned: not just no abortion but also no birth control, no emergency contraception for rape victims, no sterilization, no in vitro fertilization. The church can agitate against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, even in desperate Africa, a position as insane as South African President Thabo Mbeki’s stance against antiretroviral AIDS drugs, but that generates a lot less outrage in the West. It can lobby in Ireland against allowing suicidal women to have abortions and intimidate a 14-year-old rape victim in Mexico into carrying to term; it can practice total sex discrimination, barring women from the priesthood and therefore from sharing in the political life of the church, and still demand to be taken seriously when it speaks of human rights or ethics–rather like the Philadelphia parochial school recently reported as giving academic extra credit to students who march in antiabortion-rights demonstrations even as the church goes after public funding through vouchers. No secular institution could get away with any of this, any more than a secular psychotherapist or family counselor could get away with telling poor mad Andrea Yates what the Protestant evangelist Michael Peter Woroniecki did: that Eve was a witch whose sin required atonement in the form of perfect motherhood and that working mothers are “wicked.”
Another example: Let’s say a group of Americans decide that they would like to live where they believe their ancestors lived 2,000 years ago, even though other people have been living there for centuries and don’t like the idea one bit. If these people were Cajuns who wanted to park themselves in the Bois de Boulogne, everyone would think they were out of their minds. If they were American blacks taking over swatches of Ghana, people–including many black people–would laugh at their historical pretensions and militaristic grandiosity. It would certainly be a relevant point that these settlers are not displaced persons or refugees–they have perfectly good homes already. But once again, God changes everything: The former Brooklynites, Philadelphians and Baltimoreans now camping out in “Judea” and “Samaria” (the West Bank to you) wave the Bible and the Israeli government lavishes on them all sorts of privileges–cheaper mortgages, income tax breaks, business development and housing grants–with results that are disastrous for Israel and Palestinians alike and that now threaten the peace of the entire world. In a recent front-page story, the New York Times treated the longing of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to return to their homes in Israel proper as a psychological obstacle to their forging any kind of rational future, individual or collective, and maybe it is– maybe it would be better for them to forget the old homestead and demand reparations. But at least the old woman mourning a sewing machine left behind when she fled Beersheba fifty years ago really, personally owned that sewing machine; the family picnicking year after year in the ruins of its former property has living memories of farming that plot of land. It is not a notional “ancestral” possession supposedly guaranteed in perpetuity by God. In this case, the religious fanaticism is not coming from the Muslims.
Elsewhere, of course, it is. God has been particularly busy in the Islamic world, building madrassahs, issuing fatwas, bringing in Sharia with its bloody stumps and beheadings and floggings and stonings–seventeen people have been stoned to death so far under the “progressive” Khatami regime in Iran–and underwriting a wide variety of dictators and monarchs and warlords. When gods start multiplying, matters don’t improve: Polytheistic Hindu zealots have slaughtered 700 people, including many children, in revenge for the torching by Muslims of a train carrying Hindus from the site of the Ayodhya mosque, destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 because it supposedly occupied the site where the god-king Ram was supposedly born. As I write, Hindu fanatics are threatening to fight Muslims for a strand of beard hair preserved in a Muslim shrine in Srinagar, which they claim belongs not to Mohammed but to Hindu religious leader Nimnath Baba. How many children will be burned to death over the proper attribution of that holy facial hair?
Think of all the ongoing conflicts involving religion: India versus Pakistan, Russia versus Chechnya, Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslim guerrillas in the Philippines, bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia and Nigeria, civil war in Sudan and Uganda and Sri Lanka, in which last the Buddhist Sinhalese show a capacity for inflicting harm on the admittedly ferocious Hindu Tamils that doesn’t get written up in Tricycle. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the cold war–as if the thin film of twentieth-century political ideology has been stripped away like the ozone layer to reveal a world reverting to seventeenth-century-style religious warfare, fought with twenty-first-century weapons. God changes everything.