Jon Stewart famously said, “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.”
The painful irony of Stewart’s words is obvious to us all. What may be less obvious is the underlying pattern: Offering solutions to problems that religion itself has created is one of the key means by which religion propagates. The Pope’s recent limited-time offer of confession and forgiveness for women who have aborted pregnancies perfectly illustrates this pattern.
The Reality of Women’s Lives
Few women end a pregnancy on a selfish whim. All around us—all around you—are women (or couples) who have chosen to end pregnancies for reasons that are prudent, compassionate, service-oriented, or self-aware. Sometimes the reason is simply, “I can’t do this right now,” or “I don’t want to, and children should be wanted.” Sometimes a woman commits to an education, or to take one step forward out of poverty, or to join the military, or simply to devote her finite energy to the children she already has or to her community or our world. Under most circumstances, these are kinds of decisions that we honor, even if they are difficult and require letting go of one possible future to embrace another.
But choosing to carry forward a new life—or not—is one of the most momentous decisions a person can make, and inevitably some people regret it, just as some people regret smaller decisions like the choice of a college or career or spouse. Each of us is far more likely to feel regretful or even eaten-up about a decision we have made if it violates our own values or if people around us say that it should. And when it comes to parenthood decisions, that creates an opening for religion to fabricate (or at least feed) a problem it can solve.
Turning Prudence into Sin
The Bible teaches that sin came into the world through woman, that a woman’s reproductive capacity belongs to man (her father “gives her” to a husband), and that women will be saved through childbearing. Biblical literalists who have internalized this view actively work to induce shame and guilt in women who end pregnancies, because a woman actively managing her fertility and her life fundamentally violates their worldview.
To make matters more complex, abortion is about ending a budding life that has the potential to grow into a person. Normal, morally intact people feel emotional resistance to ending a life—even that of a bird or mouse. We also feel an instinctive protectiveness toward things that remotely resemble human babies or children (for example, stuffed animals, puppies or big-eyed LOL cats). This makes it very easy for religion to induce distress about abortion, even to the point of inducing pathological shame, depression or trauma, or a sense of personal worthlessness and irredeemable guilt—from which it then offers redemption.
Some Christian churches offer abortion support groups that—rather than helping a woman embrace her own wisdom or helping her process normal mixed feelings—instead deepen her sense of guilt and shame. “You have committed murder,” she may be told, “But the blood of Jesus cleanses even the most depraved of sins.” She may also be told she will meet her “child” in heaven, and may be given the opportunity to practice asking forgiveness. She may be given a diagnostic label coined by abortion foes—“post-abortion trauma syndrome”—to validate her conviction that she is damaged but can be healed by the solution they offer. All of this deepens her dependence on the religious community and their version of God.
A Catholic Self-Correction
The Catholic Church has long erred on the side of driving away couples or women who engage in thoughtful family planning, especially if this includes an abortion decision. Officially, since 1869 abortion has been a sin worthy of excommunication, for which only a bishop could grant absolution. But this harsh stance wasn’t working. Research suggests that Catholic women in the U.S. seek abortions at about the average rate, approximately 1 in 3 ends a pregnancy at some point during her childbearing years. The Catholic stance simply led women to avoid the Church and sacraments. By granting a reprieve and allowing women to confess to priests, Pope Francis puts a kinder, gentler face on Catholicism and invites these women back into the fold.
What he fails to do—and what the Church fails to do more broadly—is to recognize and honor their courage, wisdom and moral autonomy, the deep commitment to love and compassion that guides so many abortion decisions, and the extraordinary lengths to which women go to help ensure that their families can flourish. It fails to recognize that for women who choose abortion (like me), an acorn is not an oak tree and a fetus is not a child; that we women can hold ourselves deeply responsible to the people around us—their hopes and dreams and needs—that we can love our children to the point of being willing to give our lives for them, while remaining convinced that a fetus is only a potential person like the potential people we decline to bring into the world each time we use birth control or abstain from sex.
The Broader Pattern
The reason the Pope’s announcement so perfectly illustrates the Church’s broader pattern of inducing problems and then solving them is that (unlike the sectarian conflict cited by Jon Stewart) most of these problems are psychological in nature. They come from ways in which religious teachings create fear, guilt, helplessness, self-doubt, and even self-loathing that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
Guilt, Self-Loathing, and Absolution: If you listen carefully to the words of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” you will hear the phrase “a wretch like me.” In contrast to Hinduism, which teaches that each child contains one spark of the divine light, Christianity teaches that we are all born bad thanks to Eve’s “original sin” in the Garden of Eden. Calvinists use the term “utterly depraved” to describe a person who isn’t saved. Fortunately, the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross offers us redemption. We are “washed in the blood of the lamb.” As one hymn puts it, Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Helplessness, Dependency and Authority: According to Christian tradition, everything bad we do is either our fault or the fault of Satan working through us, but God or the Holy Spirit should get credit for the good we do. “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God,” says the Apostle Paul (Galatians 2:20NIV). Christians are taught not to trust their own moral core, their own strength, or even their own intellect. “Lean not unto your own understanding,” says the psalmist (Proverbs 3:5), and his words are echoed in modern vernacular: Let go and let God. This attitude undermines autonomy and agency to the point that one Episcopal theologian, John Shelby Spong, commented in frustration that “Christians don’t need to be born again, they need to grow up.”
Fear of Outsiders and a Safe Haven: Many religious groups teach that outsiders lack a moral core and are not to be trusted, and even interfaith groups may teach this about atheists. Outcry erupted in Britain recently about Orthodox Jewish school materials teaching children that non-Jews are “evil.” This type of belief is common among Muslims and Christians as well, and it serves to create in-group cohesion and interdependence. Some former Christians describe being frightened of outsiders and even of themselves when they first left their church. If the outside world is a scary place, that makes the religious in-group all the more important, and it serves as a deterrent to leaving. Walls that might otherwise feel restrictive instead offer a sense of security.
Protection from Eternal Torture: “Devote yourself to me or I’ll torture you.” Wife abusers, dictators, gang members, and Italian mobsters use demands of this sort to elicit demonstrations of loyalty and faithfulness. And yet we all recognize that when a mobster provides “protection,” he is offering a solution to a problem he himself has created—the threat of his own violence. In an abusive home, this trade-off may be hazier, as in Pat Benetar’s song, “Hell is for Children,” in which she says “love and pain become one and the same in the eyes of a wounded child.” For centuries, Church leaders terrorized the faithful and those who were wavering with horrendous images of hell—from Dante’s Inferno, graphically illustrated by Botticelli (and now the underlying structure of a best-selling Dan Brown novel), to the iconic sermon by Puritan Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to the hellfire and brimstone tent revivals of the 20th Century. Today many evangelists prefer to focus on the (dubious) delights of heaven, but few reject altogether the powerful threat of eternal torture.
Exemption from this torture is precisely what Pope Francis now offers women who have ended pregnancies, with the implication that it is otherwise deserved. For those who think it through, his proclamation rivals Jon Stewart for irony:
In his attempted kindness and mercy, Francis offers women the means to be forgiven for prudent, responsible, courageous, compassionate actions that the Church has twisted into sins. The offer extends only for those who accept the burden of theologically-induced guilt in order to be relieved of it, and only for a limited time. In exchange, women are granted protection from after-life horrors conceived in minds of Iron Age men and elaborated in the Dark Ages, when the Church’s inquisitors sought to foreshadow here on earth the tortures God had in wait for those who fail to repent.
But perhaps the greatest twist is this. Women are expected to be grateful and to see this as an act of conciliation—which, ironically, it is.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Hi Valerie Thanks for this great essay — I will probably post it this weekend. I am not 100% sure, I have to read it first to make sure it is mostly about abortion rights, and not as much about being anti-religion – in keeping with IEET policy, etc. Hank
Yes, we mustn’t be anti-religion… perish the thought. In fact, one cannot be anti-religion and ethical because, well, because of guidelines, which are ethical by definition, you see…
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According to catholic.com, murder is not a reason for excommunication from the Catholic church. This means that abortion, which they say IS a reason for excommunication, is actually worse than murder. Great logic!
Is there a “mansplaining” equivalent for atheist/Christian conversations? Because I’m feeling thoroughly mansplained here. I am a committed Catholic woman; I read your blog because I’m interested in your perspective. But I am really put off by this conflation of Calvinist and Catholic theology and by the earnest certainty that I’m in thrall to my oppressors. Confession has brought me a kind of freedom I’d never experienced before. You don’t have to believe it, but you also don’t have to be so presumptuous about other women’s experiences.
Here are two very different responses from women who wrote about the Pope’s invitation. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a45884/i-dont-need-forgiveness-for-my-abortion/ and
http://mashable.com/2015/09/03/catholic-abortion-forgiveness/. It sounds like you might resonate more with the second one, who welcomed the change and talked about why it is important to her as a Catholic.
This is very much to the point and a most needed basic understanding of abortion and womens role in taking responsibility for probably the most difficult decision in their entire life. For this they deserve respect, not condemnation. And as always, religion shows its dual morality in the Pope’s new (and praised) absolution of women. Will the religious ever grow up?
Well, my sense is that Pope Francis is doing pretty darn amazing things in his position, and making very positive changes incrementally. Bit by bit–any faster and farther and the powers that be in the Catholic Church’d absolutely put a stop to him and to the pretty amazing progress he has made during his brief tenure as pope. I agree completely that this is only a small step, but don’t view it in such negative light. I think of what small victories had to be won again and again in history in order for other basic human rights could be gained, whether for women or people of color and gays and lesbians seeking marriage, etc. The fact that he is opening doors for discussion of all sorts of taboo topics for the church is, I think, cause for hope and celebration. I hope that this pope will continue to move the huge bastion of power and control he currently heads towards equal rights for women, towards contraception and abortion as choices every woman has the right to make for herself, and away from the centuries-old doctrines that have kept women in second-class position to men in church and society. It’s my sense that these changes are part of a larger desire to return the Church to its “true religion” (when not wedded to power) of lovingkindness, charity, championing the needs of the poor and the oppressed, and speaking truth to power.
I agree that he is doing amazing things. And I think even in this case he genuinely is seeking to move in the direction of more compassion and equality. I seen the fault not in this Pope but in the theology that binds him.
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I also think of the victories that had to be won, such as rights for women and people of colour…..all of which occurred despite tooth-and-nail opposition from the church. And on the key equality issue of our time – marriage rights for gays? The pope stands proudly with his brethren on that issue. I’m not anti-Pope Francis and I acknowledge the good he’s done, but if we’re talking human rights, we have to admit that the pope and the Catholic church are where they’ve always stood on human rights – the wrong side.
“John” Stewart? Do you mean “Jon Stewart”?
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Gosh, I haven’t been watching closely enough. Thus wasn’t aware of the Pope’s limited time offer of absolution for abortion. But Dang; I don’t know anyone in need of such absolution just now, whose attention I could call to it. :-( Creating guilt and then offering absolution via subscription is one of any/every Religion’s most reliable mechanisms. And one of the many reasons why Religion as we know it is not simply benign, and/or tolerable; but instead generally destructive of our very own Species’ marginal shot at long term survival. So, hey, go ahead and count me on the anti-Religion side of the ledger. It would be nice if we could be all be realistically optimistic that we’ll wake up to our collective responsibility here in the real world, in time. Likely? In lieu, we may need find our succor in our awe of life and our world and cosmos, while we carry on with the best we can contribute.
Hi Allan – I agree. It seems to be one of the most reliable mechanisms for getting “subscribers.”
“…religious teachings create fear, guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and even self-loathing…”
It was beyond the scope of this article, but I think it’s important to ask, “WHY do these things characterize religious teachings?”
No doubt there are many answers. I’m a devout follower of William of Ockham, who taught that in attempting to explain any phenomenon, it’s best to start with the simplest explanation.
It seems to me that one very simple explanation, among many, is that those who start religions, and those who use them–the Pat Robertsons, Billy Grahams, Huckabees, assorted non-clergy right-wing politicians, et al–do so in pursuit of power–usually, power over others, power to influence the behavior of others. Some people derive a lot of satisfaction from being able to tell others how to behave, and seeing those others follow orders.
Quote: “Some people derive a lot of satisfaction from being able to tell others how to behave, and seeing those others follow orders.” It’s even easier when those psychopath or ponerologists can use “faith” as a truncheon: don’t need to have any facts, and any myth can be doctored and tortured to fit any doctrine. First get people into a comfortable or emotional group think, then they’ll do whatever you want them to do.
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Loved reading thhis thank you