So I know I’m late, but I’m going to try wading into something that’s caused some internal controversy amongst skeptics lately.
Even though Richard Dawkins is not planning to arrest the Pope, he and Christopher Hitchens have been discussing with human rights lawyers an “initiative… to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain“. Hitchens has written a number of articles for Slate recently, describing the extent of Ratzinger’s complicity in the cover-up of numerous cases of the sexual abuse of children. Among many other recent developments, a 1985 letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, instructing the church in how to respond to accusations of such abuse, clearly shows him putting the church’s reputation ahead of the well-being of children left in the care of rapists.
It seems basically clear and unambiguous that any regular corporation would likely be torn apart by such levels of scandal, and have its reputation left genuinely in tatters. The fact that the Pope himself has been among those to have acted reprehensibly does not seem to be in doubt, among anyone worth listening to. The disagreement is over the question of whether Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ legal approach against the Pope is appropriate or useful, or whether a response that does the most good wouldn’t look very different from what we’re seeing here.
My opinion is a somewhat uncertain mishmash of the views expressed by Rebecca Watson, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, and a useful focus point, for trying to unravel exactly what I think, is the recurring question:
Is this “a skeptical cause”?
And I don’t really think there’s a straight answer. There’s been discussion around whether Dawkins, for instance, has been “wearing his skeptical hat” in this campaign, or is acting solely as an individual. But the skeptical movement isn’t any formal organisation with its name in a fancy font on the letterhead, so I’m not sure I see the distinction.
The scandal has perhaps received even greater or more enthusiastic play among skeptics than society at large, because being critical of the Catholic Church constitutes a greater portion of our day-to-day leisure activities. But there’s nothing about children being sexually abused that ought to only interest skeptics. Everyone ought to be outraged and acting on this. If they’re not, then maybe it’ll fall to Dawkins and his fans to lead the charge, but not because it’s in any way a skeptical cause, or the responsibility of skeptics in particular. He’s not supporting this legal initiative as a representative of the skeptical movement so much as the “people appropriately outraged by child rape” movement. That’s a pretty inclusive movement.
Phil is keen to emphasise how “very delicate and very important” the role of skepticism is in this whole thing, and how carefully skeptics must tread if we don’t want to alienate potential allies. Many non-skeptics, believers, religious people, and even Catholics are surely plenty humanistic enough to be as appalled by child abuse as the rest of us, and would want any organisation to be investigated and censured appropriately if such serious accusations are made against it. The fear is that they’ll be put off this if it means having to join sides with that godless heathen Dawkins.
PZ is less concerned about tact, so long as we’re not devolving into irrationally screaming for blood, and continue to make appropriate criticism through valid channels. And Rebecca called bullshit on a number of more cynical interpretations of the situation, such as that most people would need to be gently coaxed into taking a stand against child rape, and are liable to get defensive and start justifying sexual assault on minors if they’re expected to agree with an atheist. (Also, the skeptical movement can go fuck itself.)
And, well, they’re all kinda right. Not compromising a message for an important cause that we have every right to be involved in sounds good to me. So does trying to get people on our side through methods that don’t involve being a dick.
As Rebecca points out, there aren’t really any prominent Catholic figureheads doing much to bring some accountability to their own organisation. If there were, I don’t doubt for a second that Dawkins would be happy to cheer them on. But right now, anyone not all that sympathetic to the skeptical movement who wants to take a stand against the Catholic church’s cover-ups of child abuse might just have to deal with finding themselves on the same side of an argument as Richard Dawkins. Sorry, but while he’s the only guy publicly saying this stuff, them’s the breaks. It behooves us exactly as much as ever not to be obnoxious and put people off wanting anything to do with us, but I don’t see any need to go out of our way to be conciliatory.
In particular, the people who are actually getting angry at Dawkins simply baffle me, and are probably the kind of people who there’s just no talking to. There’s a much more worthy target for righteous indignation, in the priests who molested children. Dawkins’ aim has been to try and achieve some sort of justice for those children. You might not think much of the way he’s going about it, or rate his chances of success – qualified lawyer Jack of Kent, for instance, thinks that any such legal process should take a very different route from that which Dawkins advocates – but this is a strategical point meriting some serious but amicable debate. How is it possibly worth, as I’ve seen a lot of people do, redirecting onto Dawkins any of the venom and fury that ought to be reserved for the organisation which fucking raped children and covered it up?
So, to sum up: I absolutely think skeptics should be getting involved in this, calling for justice as loudly as necessary. So should history teachers. And surgeons. And insurance analysts. And people who run cake shops. And everyone else. Right now, it seems to be predominantly skeptics who are doing it. And until anyone else brings a louder voice, that’s just going to have to be okay.