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James A. Haught: Theologian admits religion does more harm than good

James A. Haught

By James A. Haught

Surprisingly, an important theologian and Catholic scholar has admitted that all religions do more harm than good.

Writing in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin a couple of years ago, Northwestern University Professor Robert Orsi delivered a blistering indictment titled: “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” He startingly stated, “On balance, in the long perspective of human history, religions have done more harm than good.”

Orsi described how he grew up in a devout Italian-American Catholic family, went to Mass several times weekly, and how he has devoted his life to faith as chairman of Catholic Studies in the Religion Department at Northwestern. He has written several religious books.

Orsi focused most of his disgust on the never-ending Catholic pedophile scandal and on bishops who have tried to hide the sordid abuse of innumerable children. He quoted psychologist Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who estimates that half of Catholic clergy violate their vow of celibacy. 

Orsi emphasized: “Please make no mistake about this: It is impossible to separate ‘religion’ here from the rape of children, young people, women, seminarians and novices. . . . Disgust teaches me that the history of religion is always also a history of perversions. . . . Disgust reminds me of the sexual abuse of indigenous people at the hands of Catholic missionaries . . . and of the sexual abuse of orphans, of children with disabilities, of drug-addicted teenagers.

Orsi also lashed Protestants, however. “I say on this day that I am disgusted with Catholicism and, by extension, with all religion,” he wrote. Addressing fellow religion scholars, he declaimed: “Perhaps some of you are disgusted, for instance, by how cravenly evangelicals have embraced political corruption in the United States today in order to advance the allegedly Christian agenda of ostracizing and harassing young LGBTQ people, curtailing women’s reproductive rights and basic health care, and reviving a toxic white Christian nationalism.

“Disgust is the final step in the explication of the idea of lived religion. On the other side of disgust is a clearer vision of how religion is actually lived in everyday life, with its intimate cruelties, its petty as well as profound humiliations, its sadism and its masochism, its abuses of power and its impulses to destroy and dominate.”

America has many university religion departments, scholarly religious foundations and other religion research centers. I wonder how many of the experts at these places quietly share Professor Orsi’s view.

FFRF Member James A. Haught was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. This column is adapted from a piece originally published on Nov. 25, 2019, at Daylight Atheism.

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