What can make tens of millions of people – who are in their daily lives peaceful and compassionate and caring – suddenly want to physically dismember a man for drawing a cartoon, or make excuses for an international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists? Not reason. Not evidence. No. But it can happen when people choose their polar opposite – religion. In the past week we have seen two examples of how people can begin to behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith. It has led some to regard people accused of the attempted murders of the Mohamed cartoonists as victims, and to demand "respect" for the Pope, when he should be in a police station being quizzed about his role in covering up and thereby enabling the rape of children.
In 2005, 12 men in a small secular European democracy decided to draw a quasi-mythical figure who has been dead for 1400 years. They were trying to make a point. They knew that in many Muslim cultures, it is considered offensive to draw Mohamed. But they have a culture too – a European culture that believes it is important to be allowed to mock and tease and ridicule religion. It is because Europeans have been doing this for centuries now that we can no longer be tyrannised into feeling bad about perfectly natural impulses, like masturbation, or pre-marital sex, or homosexuality. When priests offer those old arguments, we now laugh in their faces – a great liberating moment. It will be a shining day for Muslims when they can do the same.
Some of the cartoons were witty. Some were stupid. One seemed to suggest Muslims are inherently violent – an obnoxious and false idea. If you disagree with the drawings, you should write a letter, or draw a better cartoon, this time mocking the cartoonists. But some people did not react this way. Instead, Islamist plots to hunt the artists down and slaughter them began. Earlier this year, a man with an axe smashed into one of their houses, and very nearly killed the cartoonist in front of his small grand-daughter.
This week, another plot to murder them seems to have been exposed, this time allegedly spanning Ireland and the United States, and many people who consider themselves humanitarians or liberals have rushed forward to offer condemnation – of the cartoonists. One otherwise liberal newspaper ran an article saying that since the cartoonists had engaged in an "aggressive act" and shown "prejudice... against religion per se", so it stated menacingly that no doubt "someone else is out there waiting for an opportunity to strike again".
Let's state some principles that – if religion wasn't involved – would be so obvious it would seem ludicrous to have to say them out loud. Drawing a cartoon is not an act of aggression. Trying to kill somebody with an axe is. There is no moral equivalence between peacefully expressing your disagreement with an idea – any idea – and trying to kill somebody for it. Yet we have to say this because we have allowed religious people to claim their ideas belong to a different, exalted category, and it is abusive or violent merely to verbally question them. Nobody says I should "respect" conservatism or communism and keep my opposition to them to myself – but that's exactly what is routinely said about Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. What's the difference?
This enforced "respect" is a creeping vine. It soon extends beyond religious ideas to religious institutions – even when they commit the worst crimes imaginable. It is now an indisputable fact that the Catholic Church systematically covered up the rape of children across the globe, and knowingly, consciously put paedophiles in charge of more kids. Joseph Ratzinger – who claims to be "infallible" – was at the heart of this policy for decades.
Here's what we are sure of. By 1962, it was becoming clear to the Vatican that a significant number of its priests were raping children. Rather than root it out, they issued a secret order called "Crimen Sollicitationis"' ordering bishops to swear the victims to secrecy and move the offending priest on to another parish. This of course meant they raped more children there, and on and on, in parish after parish. Yes, these were different times, but the Vatican knew then that what it was doing was terribly wrong: that's why it was done in the utmost secrecy.
It has emerged this week that when Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich in the 1980s, one of his paedophile priests was "reassigned" in this way. He claims he didn't know. Yet a few years later he was put in charge of the Vatican's response to this kind of abuse and demanded every case had to be referred directly to him for 20 years. What happened on his watch, with every case going to his desk? Precisely this pattern, again and again. The BBC's Panorama studied one of many such cases. Father Tarcisio Spricigo was first accused of child abuse in 1991, in Brazil. He was moved by the Vatican four times, wrecking the lives of children at every stop. He was only caught in 2005 by the police, before he could be moved on once more. He had written in his diary about the kind of victims he sought: "Age: 7, 8, 9, 10. Social condition: Poor. Family condition: preferably a son without a father. How to attract them: guitar lessons, choir, altar boy." It happened all over the world, wherever the Catholic Church had outposts.
Far from changing this paedophile-protecting model, Ratzinger reinforced it. In 2001 he issued a strict secret order demanding that charges of child-rape should be investigated by the Church "in the most secretive way... restrained by a perpetual silence... and everyone... is to observe the strictest secret." Since it was leaked, Ratzinger claims – bizarrely – that these requirements didn't prevent bishops from approaching the police. Even many people employed by the Vatican at the time say this is wrong. Father Tom Doyle, who was a Vatican lawyer working on these cases, says it "is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse and to punish those who would call attention to these crimes... Nowhere in any of these documents does it say anything about helping the victims. The only thing it does say is they can impose fear on the victims, and punish [them], for disclosing what happened." Doyle was soon fired.
Imagine if this happened at The Independent. Imagine I discovered there was a paedophile ring running our crèche, and the Editor issued a stern order that it should be investigated internally with "the strictest secrecy". Imagine he merely shuffled the paedophiles to work in another crèche at another newspaper, and I agreed, and made the kids sign a pledge of secrecy. We would both – rightly – go to prison. Yet because the word "religion" is whispered, the rules change. Suddenly, otherwise good people who wouldn't dream of covering up a paedophile ring in their workplace think it would be an insult to them to follow one wherever it leads in their Church. They would find this behaviour unthinkable without the irrational barrier of faith standing between them and reality.
Yes, I understand some people feel sad when they see a figure they were taught as a child to revere – whether Prophet or Pope – being subjected to rational examination, or mockery, or criminal investigation. But everyone has ideas they hold precious. Only you, the religious, demand to be protected from debate or scrutiny that might discomfort you. The fact you believe an invisible supernatural being approves of – or even commands – your behaviour doesn't mean it deserves more respect, or sensitive handling. It means it deserves less. If you base your behaviour on such a preposterous fantasy, you should expect to be checked by criticism and mockery. You need it.
If you can't bear to hear your religious figures criticised – if you think Ratzinger is somehow above the law, or Mohamed should be defended with an axe – a sane society should have only one sentence for you. Tell it to the judge.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies