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Religious institutions

Religion connects our individual existence to a deeper reality. It touches some of the deepest and most powerful values in the human spirit. Religious institutions have often done more harm than good. I can speak about the Roman Catholic Church that I was raised in. Today I consider it an immoral institution.

As a teenager I was taught that I could be damned to hell for all eternity for masturbating. That remains part of church teaching although the Second Vatican Council shifted the focus of the church toward God's love and away from hell and damnation. Teaching a pubescent teenager that unforgiven masturbation leads to damnation is psychological child abuse. It damages teenagers, like I was, that foolishly take it seriously. That the nuns and priests who were doing the abusing firmly believed they were doing God's will does not make it less abusive or less immoral. Morality is hard. It requires understanding the consequences of ones actions and that is something one can never be certain of. It demands that one studies and understands what science teaches us about human nature. When the evidence contradicts pridefully held ancient dogma the dogma must go.

The current scandal in the Church about priestly child abuse has its roots in ignorant dogma taking priority over objective understanding. The scandal is not that some priests abused children. That is horrible, but it is the sin a few and not the scandal of a church. The scandal is the way the church dealt with the problem. Those who understood how to deal with it did not share the Church's ignorance of human sexuality. Those that shared the Church's ignorance, and thus were acceptable advisers to the church, were of course incompetent.

What the church calls natural law is in violent conflict with human nature. As a result the church is schizophrenic. In the United States the laity largely ignores the Church's teaching on sexuality. The clergy is torn between the need to minister to their flock as they actually behave and a dogma that insists that some of what the flock does, with no sense of guilt or sin, is cause for hell and damnation. Many of the clergy are caught in a struggle between the reality of their own sexuality and the Church's sexual fantasies codified in church teaching.

Outside of the developed world the prideful ignorance of the church leads to immorality on a grand scale. The bible says "By their fruits you shall know them." By that standard the sins of the Catholic Church are responsible for untold human suffering and death. Preaching against condom use in an Africa being destroyed by AIDS is to commit mass murder, if you are an institution whose teachings are taken seriously. It is irrelevant that what the church advocates does not spread AIDS. It is irrelevant that the church has no intention to kill. The only thing that is relevant is the predictable consequence of what the church does. ``By their fruits you shall know them.'' Similarly preaching against birth control in a country that cannot support their existing population is an unconscionable cruel and evil act by those that have the trust and faith of the people.

The immorality of crashing a plane full of innocent people into a building full of innocent people is obvious. Claims that this is justified by God's will deserve utter contempt. The Catholic Church's immoral teachings on human sexuality have and are producing far more evil than the destruction of 3,000 innocent lives. The Church's invocation of God's will as justification deserves the same contempt we give to the religious claims of Bin Laden. This is not to imply that the two cases are similar. Murdering people with a religious rationale is different than preaching what one honestly believes even though it has disastrous consequences. The correct response to the former is police or military action. The correct response to the latter is to try to convince those doing the damage and their supporters of the evil results of their actions.

The church recognizes the immorality in its past when it was torturing in the cruelest possible manner and burning at the stake heretics, witches and anyone else that the church, in its psychotic paranoia, saw as a threat to its authority. When it was murdering people up close and personal there was a limit to the damage it could inflict. The cruelty it inflicts today is far worse.

We are living in a world that can no longer afford the prideful ignorance of such a powerful institution. It is immoral to support the corrupt Catholic Church financially or in any other way. Of course there are many truly good works the church does. Supporting these is not necessarily supporting the church as an institution. Making the distinction is not easy. Morality seldom is.

I single out the Catholic Church because of my personal involvement and because of their size and importance. Many other Christian churches have teachings as abhorrently immoral if not more so than those of the Catholic Church. Orthodox Jews, many Muslims and branches of practically every religious tradition cling to obviously false dogma about human nature.

Science has done vastly more to ease human suffering that all the religions of history combined. I say this recognizing the enormous importance of spirituality to so many lives including my own. Spirituality is as natural as sex and does not require religious institution to experience and develop. More often than not institutions get in the way of authentic spirituality. The liturgy and symbolism of the Catholic Church can aid spiritual experience, but the obstacles of arbitrary and false dogma seriously hinder such experience.

Religious freedom is essential to a democracy, but so is free speech. Those that cling to a religious tradition do not have a monopoly on the language of morality. When religion claims precedence over scientific understanding whether it is about the sun orbiting the earth or about human sexuality it is the moral obligation of those who know better to speak up. It is vitally important that they speak out when those beliefs lead to evil consequences.

`Evil' is the correct word, Science is not value free. It values the truth. To claim moral precedence for absurd beliefs violates the morality of science and scientists have a moral obligation to respond to such ignorance. When the consequences are human suffering than the language of morality is not just appropriate but essential.


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