Andrew Brown minimizes religion’s role in killing Irish babies, but says that we’re all religious

June 12, 2014 • 6:23 am

It’s been a long time since I’ve discussed any essays of Andrew Brown, the Guardian‘s resident faitheist and purveyor of laughable nonsense, but his latest piece, “Our horror at the mass baby grave in Ireland shows an instinctive religiosity,” is worth singling out for its pandering to religion. One wonders, given Brown’s self-declared atheism in the face of his constant osculation of the rump of faith, why the man simply doesn’t declare himself religious and hie himself to a church.

A guest post by Grania Spingies on Tuesday described the discovery of a mass grave of babies and young children at a workhouse in Tuam in County Galway, Ireland.  The estimate of dead children is around 800, and most of them surely died from malnutrition or disease due to the horrific conditions in Catholic-run homes for unwed mothers. And a lot of those deaths must be laid at the doorstep of the Church, for although there was infant mortality in the surrounding areas, it was far higher in homes for unwed mothers, where children were poorly fed and medical care deemed too expensive. It is only because of religious strictures on “illegitimate” babies and their mothers that the homes existed at all.

Everyone is naturally appalled, but Andrew Brown takes advantage of the situation to show two things. First, that although this is a horrific event, it’s not as bad as we think. Second, our horror at the dumping of these babies (said to have been in a septic tank) shows that, at bottom, we’re all religious.

Here’s his minimalization of religion’s role in the deaths,  so subtle that you can read right through it:

Twenty babies dropped in a cesspit as corpses is a horrifying figure. Even one would be dreadful. And of course the whole story fits wonderfully into the larger stories of Irish nuns as heartless and cruel, which many undoubtedly were. But what’s interesting to a student of religion is why the desecration of dead bodies should be so very much more shocking than the deaths of living babies.

“Wonderfully” is the key word here.  It’s as if people were waiting to pin this one on the nuns who ran the home, and on the Church who employed the nuns, and doubtless gave them their task.  Brown here simply dismisses people’s outrage at the C hurch. And why are those deaths less “interesting” to a student of religion than our shock at the bodies being tossed into a pit? Brown is an expert at simply ignoring the perfidies of faith, or, in this case, the role of the Catholic church. What is really interesting is that these homes were even operating in a civilized society. Catholicism is a big part of the answer.

Another minimalization:

Corless has established that about 20 children a year died in the home for the years of its operation, which could hold around 200 mothers at a time. That would make an infant mortality rate that is shocking by modern civilised standards though actually no worse than that of the whole of Ireland in 1910. But outside the Tuam home, it had dropped from 11% in 1910 to 3.7% by the end of the 50s. This progress does not seem to have reached into the home. That is rightly horrifying.

The Home operated between 1925 and 1961. What does 1910 have to do with it?

Instead, he bangs on about how strange it is that the desecration of the bodies is more distressing than how those babies died. Brown thinks he’s found some profound moral truth:

But it still doesn’t horrify us in the same way as the thought of dead babies tossed into a cesspit does. Two explanations occur as possible. They may not be mutually exclusive: that’s to say that they might be different ways of describing the same phenomenon.

The first is that we have an innate sense of the sacredness of dead bodies. That seems to be a factual and true claim. Certainly, the burial of the dead is one of the things that distinguishes humans from our ancestors, and one of the things that is held by archaeologists to distinguish skeletons of people like us from those of people who have not quite got to full humanity. That’s why we think Neanderthals were humans, for instance.

The second is that we feel an instinctive sympathy for the figure of a woman holding a dead baby in a way that we don’t when the baby is merely ill or suffering. That’s a cruel thing to say, but again, I think it is actually true. Either way, we have here a fact about human nature that is terribly difficult to justify rationally. It takes a very cold heart to say that a dead baby is not worth our grief because it has passed beyond suffering.

Has it crossed Brown’s mind that maybe people are more horrified at the deaths themselves than at the bodies being dumped in a mass grave—perhaps a septic pit? Or that the denigration of these children’s humanity that caused their deaths is of a piece with the dumping of those bodies? According to Brown, we’d be equally horrified if the children were well taken care of and died at the “normal” rate, but their bodies were simply dumped after death. I deny that. We’d still be horrified that they treated the bodies that way, but what really angers people is simply that these homes existed, that unwed mothers were forced into them against their will, forced to give up their children, and that the children living there were treated so poorly that their death rate was phenomenally high. Oh, and that the Church seems to ignore the problem.

Once again we hear the word “sacredness” to characterize this reaction—the same deliberate co-option of religious terminology that Roger Scruton used to argue that atheists lacked humanity. No, I don’t think bodies are “sacred,” and, in fact, I don’t care much what happens to mine when I’m gone.  But bodies do have a non-religious value, for they give us something tangible to help us remember the dead and what their deaths mean.  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Virginia is a popular place to visit, not because those unidentified soldiers are “sacred,” but because their presence stands for the sacrifice of many soldiers, and for the families who never learned the fate of their soldier sons. My father’s grave is nearby—he was a veteran—and I visit it not because I see his body as “sacred,” but because it helps me remember my old man, and to try to fit his life into the fabric of my own. Yes, some people may regard bodies as “sacred” in the religious sense—that they won’t go to Heaven unless they have a proper burial—but I doubt that this is behind the Tuam issue.

But the worst part of Brown’s dreadful piece is the last two sentences, in which he simply claims that our horror at what happened at Tuam shows how religious we really are:

This story will undoubtedly be used to attack religion. But what it actually shows is how very deeply religious instincts operate within us.

Can a man get more stupid, or opportunistic, than that? Does Brown have no inkling that atheists and nonbelievers can also be shocked at such a travesty? And does he fail to see that it is “deeply religious instincts” that led to those deaths in the first place?


UPDATE: I forgot that Brown is afflicted with a chronic case of Maru’s Syndrome: when he sees a box, he cannot help but enter. Here’s his response to a reader who tw**ted the piece above:

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80 thoughts on “Andrew Brown minimizes religion’s role in killing Irish babies, but says that we’re all religious

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  1. Brown must have a very compromising dossier on one or more key people at the Guardian. How else can the interminable publication of his intellectual excrement be explained?

  2. He aims so high, and just ends up in a mire of pseudo-intellectual, faux-philosophical, opaque drivel.

      1. More like being shoved into the big anus.

        You Tube: The invisible Anus-Patton Oswalt.

        Maybe that is the only reason Brown has morals.

  3. I read and commented on this story yesterday and yes, it was the final two sentences that really irritated me. An appalling story and idiotic commentary from Brown but to the Guardian Brown is pure click bait so he’s unlikely to be going anywhere soon.

  4. The religiously motivated prejudice against unwed motherhood plays a crucial role in this tragedy. I doubt whether this would have happened if unwed motherhood was accepted in Ireland those days.

    1. Yes, I agree. I’m a big defender of the ‘culture more important than religion’ hypothesis, but IMO this one is clearly a case where religion is the main culprit. It was not a previously existing cultural tradition in Ireland, the British isles, or even mainlaind Europe to round up unwed mothers (and their kids) and put them in mass homes – to say nothing of then underfeeding them. This was a new practice that originates from the religious belief that unwed mothers need to be looked after and set straight by the church.

      1. The problem with ‘culture more important than religion’ framing is that it presumes that religion is something separate from culture. It isn’t. Religion is as cultural a thing as football is. Religion in a Venn diagram is simply a circle engulfed by a larger circle called “culture”.

        1. Agreed and it tends to let religion off the hook when you frame it outside of culture. A bad practice is a bad practice and often religion is tightly wound into a culture. Sometimes it acts as solely a way to unite a people within their culture (I wrote about this yesterday but don’t want to be all too share-y with my own writing here).

        2. I dispute that it’s engulfed. If it was, then you’d have to tell me that US muslims, US christian evangelical YECs, and US atheists all derive their different moral codes and behaviors from the same source (i.e. American culture). Obviously they don’t; there are differences. Those differences mean in the venn diagram you’re drawing, none of the religion circles are entirely within the culture circle.

          And I think this case is a good example of a point not within the overlap area, but only in (one of) the religion circles. As I said before, if this sort of behavior only happened in Irish society after the RCC rose to power, then it’s not really an irish-cultural relic that the RCC merely adopted or went along with, it’s coming from the RCC.

          1. Perhaps you are using an oddball definition of culture? Leaving aside the definition that applies to bacteria in a petri dish, culture is:

            noun \ˈkəl-chər\
            : the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

            What part of religion does not lie within that noun?

            1. I think eric’s point is that it’s possible, at least in some instances, to identify a single subset of CULTURE as a causal factor. So in this sense I see utility in isolating religion from culture in general.

              But contra eric, I don’t think the religion circle needs to protrude from the culture circle for this to be the case.

              1. Sometime it is useful to use the word “shirt” instead of “clothing”. Still it makes no sense to say “He’s not wearing clothing, he’s wearing a shirt!”

      2. The distinction between religion and culture is quite recently, and is the result of the emerging of “world” religions, i.e. religions who does not exclude people on basis of ethnicity, such as buddhism, christianity and islam. Before that religion was simply an aspect of local culture.

        1. It is still simply an aspect of culture. This has not changed. I think people are confusing the words “culture” and “society”. They are not the same.

  5. I too am disturbed by the detail that the bodies were dumped in a cesspit, but not because of any silly quasi-religious sense that dead bodies are sacred. Rather, I’m disturbed because that’s where you’d hide bodies if you didn’t want anybody to find them, which in turn suggests the staff at the workhouse – and possibly the Church too (and not for the first time) – were engaged in a cover-up. And if a cover-up on that scale was worthwhile, you can only imagine what terrible crimes were actually perpetrated.

  6. The whole story is shocking.

    But what I find worse is how the RCC treated these children (and parents) while they were living.

    I guess the Irish Catholics during that era were highly religious – believing all the stuff about Heaven, Damnation, Hell and so on.

    So what did the church do? Firstly they separated the child from its mother (bad enough), but then refused to Baptise it (thus sentencing it to eternal damnation) and, if it died, refusing to bury it in consecrated ground (a Septic tank being suitable non-consecrated, presumably), a further punishment and eternity long sentence.

    So, not only did they destroy them when they were living, but they did their utmost to destroy them for ever more in the Hereafter.

  7. I think the simple answer to why we abhor the mistreatment of dead bodies is the obvious and entirely natural difficulty that we have in disassociating the dead body from the living person. If your spouse collapses and dies of a heart attack, you don’t immediately (if ever) go from thinking of the figure on the floor as human being to thinking of him/her as an unremarkable lump of meat.

  8. I’m horrified by this story on so many levels – and Brown’s attempt to deflect some of that horror is simply insulting.

    I’m horrified that many people in Irish society must have known about the injustices going in these homes but said and did nothing for fear of becoming the focus of the church’s ability to ostracise. The church is primarily responsible for this climate of fear in society.

    I’m horrified that members of the church – from nuns up to bishops – could distort their supposed love for other humans and treat these mothers so poorly simply because they had “sinned”. Where was their oft-proclaimed virtue of forgiveness?

    I’m horrified that the children were also treated so poorly, even when every moral fibre on our being should tell us that they are the “innocents” in this falsely created crime.

    And actually I *am* horrified about the dumping of bodies, not because there’s something sacred about the dead bodies themselves, but because Catholics do venerate corpses more than most Christian sects, and so this utterly callous act underscores the church’s deep and utter contempt for those children and for their mourning mothers.

    I’m horrified, and I’m angry.

    Brown: you have a knack of missing the point, but in this article you have surpassed yourself.

    1. Yes I agree with you about the dumping of bodies being extra horrific coming from the Catholics, and I am sure a lot of these nuns (and other Catholic clergy) (my wife has known some from the same cloth growing up) believe that these babies are gone to hell, they are damned. And they surely believed they *deserved* it.

  9. You could just as easily say that Catholic nuns starving children to death and the Irish population of the time allowing religiously motivated bigotry to trump common human decency “actually shows is how very deeply religious instincts operate within us”.

    And you would have lots and lots of evidence for that statement.

  10. Having watched the movie Philomena just recently (based on a true story of one of these unwed Irish mother), I read some of the criticism out there of it from Irish religious authorities, basically that it wasn’t as bad as shown in the movie. Well, this story, shows the reality was actually a lot *worse* than what was portrayed in that movie.

  11. Brown either has no self awareness or he ignores his feelings completely. You’d think he would recognize that dumping the babies’ bodies in a septic tank is only representative of the disdain these adults who ran the home for unwed mothers felt toward the children and their mothers. They treated them poorly in death because they treated them poorly in life and they treated them poorly in life because they considered them less than human because the Church taught they were sinful and in so doing washed away what humanity was left in all concerned.

    1. “Brown either has no self awareness or he ignores his feelings completely.”

      Agreed. It’s rationalizing/compartmentalizing bordering on psychological dissociation which is a desperate way to transcend the deep horror Brown can’t/won’t face as in religious believers could do what was done, religion is this significantly tainted, and the world Brown wants does not exist. Since he is past the age of throwing his rattle out of his crib, he resorts to verbal diarrhea bubbling over with trite wisdom.

    2. Spot on. The way in which these bodies of these poor children were disposed of should be shocking precisely because it is a merely a reflection of how little regard was placed on their lives by a church that was supposedly charged with their care.

    3. Or he’s a psychopath with little understanding of people’s feelings, so he figures it’s all down to religion, which he doesn’t have.

      More likely he’s just an idiot.

    1. Beat me to it. Even worse than yesterday’s article. Still, Brown is, as my old man is fond of saying, “laughing all the way to the bank”.

    2. Yes that article is particularly good. I like the way he cant even manage to read a tw**t without a strawman attack.

  12. But what’s interesting to a student of religion is why the desecration of dead bodies should be so very much more shocking than the deaths of living babies.

    I’m sorry, but Brown has it wrong in my case. It is not the desecration of the dead that so upsets me, but rather the desecration of the living that was done by these nuns. The total lack of empathy shown is appalling. That these deeply religious women could so mistreat innocent children, show so little care in their welfare, because of their religion is an indictment of religion.

  13. It is amazing how Brown misses the obvious point about how the dead babies were (allegedly) disposed of. As others have described above it has nothing to do with innate religious feelings about dead bodies being sacred, and everything to do with how it reflects on the character of the RCC minions running the place.

    About how the typical human feels about dead human bodies, calling that religious is so typical of believer’s post hoc rationalizations to justify their beliefs, it is beyond cliche.

    1. It’s the black-and-white thinking you so often see in theists. They often like to talk about subtlety and nuance, but they don’t often deal with it very well.

      “He likes pizza. I like pizza. I’m religious. Holy shit! Deep down, he’s religious!”

        1. It is odd how easy it is for me to use a word or some variation of it too frequently in the odd first draft. And sometimes no matter how many times I review my remarks before hitting “post comment,” odds are I simply never notice. But then, oddly enough, the instant my post appears in view for all and sundry, that odd abused word, over-worked like a rented donkey, just jumps off the page and kicks me.

          1. It’s especially easy to do on a phone where seeing the context without scrolling is harder. It also leads to invented auto complete words such as “Anglicanism” in place of anglicism, like I posted the other day. (My phone still wants to put the former in rather than the latter as it is now a remembered word.) Maybe I should just start using it all the time and see if it catches on.

            1. It is a word, but a different one (to do with the English church rather than the language)

              1. Ah, I didn’t realize it was used as a noun that way. I knew the definition of it referring to the religion in general. My phone failed to recognize either “anglicism” or “Anglicanism.” You learn something new every day.

  14. “Or that the denigration of these children’s humanity that caused their deaths is of a piece with the dumping of those bodies? ”

    Jerry, as per usual, is dead on it and, WOW, was Andrew Brown wrong. Of course people are offended by the disposal of infant’s bodies in a septic tank, but, according to nearly every post on this page, no one’s horror stems from the sacredness of a deceased body. It didn’t dawn on me until I read Hardy Hulley’s comment but I think it is probable that the dumping of the bodies in such a manner was an overt attempt to distort their number.

  15. I don’t think the title is a fair interpretation of Brown’s article. I don’t see that he minimized the Church’s role in the deaths, he just didn’t address it. And his characterization of our reverence for dead bodies as “religious”….well, maybe. It’s certainly irrational.

    The only thing I think he really got wrong is that we care more about the disposition of the bodies than we do about the deaths. I doubt it. The dumping of the bodies just makes the whole thing more tragic because it does suggest a disdain for the little lives lost.

  16. We don’t know how many ended up in the septic tank, we do however know that there were 798 deaths of children over 36 years, a mortality rate of around 36% compared to the national average of between 3.5 and 10%. The nuns were paid by the state to take care of these children because societies mores were such that their own families disowned them.

    Tuam isn’t the worst, others had rates of nearly 68%. My Aunt who now lives in America, rang to see if this story was true and couldn’t believe that these nuns would do such and thing. Couldn’t get her head around starving children in Ireland when she would have been collecting for charities for Africa at the time this place was still open. Also she said this must be the biggest scandal to hit Ireland (I was polite enough not to point out the Magdelene laundries, industrial schools, paedophile priests and other such scandals which have emerged in recent years).My father thinks she must have selective memory loss because she was raised in cork and that’s where another infamous home in Bessborough was located and it was closed amidst scandal.

    Of course they were just following the teaching that pre martial sex was evil and these evil girls led those poor innocent boys and men to sin just like eve. Considering we were still churching women after childbirth gives an idea at how archaic the beliefs of general public were.

    An investigation may not give any comfort to those who were affected by this and other schemes in Ireland but it might help shape new laws on adoption, child welfare and our current systems for care of vulnerable groups. That’s about the best we can hope for.

  17. People would not have been nearly so appalled about the ~ 6-10M murdered in the Holocaust if it weren’t for all those whole corpses and cremated remains buried in unmarked mass graves.

  18. Is anyone really outraged, first and foremost at the desecration of the corpses?

    The outrageous thing is that so many children lived in squalor and agony before dying tragically early deaths.

    Brown is a point-missing fuckwit.

  19. Brown would have been on semantically better ground had he said we have a sense of “reverence” (rather than the somewhat more religion-specific “sacred”) and of solidarity with humanity.

    These are general emotions shared by religious and secular. Religions feed off our sense of reverence, but others of us have that sense without letting religion hijack it.

  20. “One can tell the morals of a culture by the way they treat their dead.” Attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

    It should go without saying that goes for how the defenseless & dependent living are treated, too.

  21. Oh,goody! More Andrew Brown bashing. He isn’t worth the time,of course,but I do like to see that a lot of other people get as narked as I do. 😉

  22. Tragic events. And heartless actions of all of those involved.

    Brown projects onto us his feelings and thoughts and they are, simply, not true.

    There will probably be no jutsice for those against who crimes were committed.

    I read that the church was planning a memorial.

    Small solace for those affected.

    But that’s church hypocrisy at work.

  23. Brown is a troll.

    What I haven’t heard discussed is the question of what the poor mothers were told. Their babies died from neglect and just vanished, with no funeral or any other ceremony presumably, beyond the simple knowledge that they wouldn’t see them again. Were they told they’d been adopted? What further crimes were perpetrated on these destitute young women?

    The Catholic church’s position as the world’s largest criminal organisation is cemented even further.

  24. One could almost say that the incredible abuse perpetrated in Ireland under the auspices of the Catholic church betrays this, “But what it actually shows is how very deeply religious instincts operate within us.”

    Religion’s manifest ability to get decent people to do absolutely terrible things shows, “…how very deeply religious instincts operate within us.”

    Although, I don’t think that’s what the author meant even if I find it the more reasonable position.

  25. Brown is being downright fucking obtuse and that’s the nicest way of putting it. Naturally, the bodies being found in a mass grave, discarded as garbage is horrifying, but it is because of what this disposal represents. It shows how worthless the babies were to the institution when they were alive and the disposal serves as a symbolic reminder of this horrendous treatment.

    I think there’s another point touched upon in Jerry’s critique that was not fully expanded upon. It is true that for nonbelievers, there is no sacredness to a dead body tied to any type of mythological belief in an afterlife, but let’s not forget that there is such a belief for Christians . It wasn’t until the last half century that the Catholic Church changed its stance on cremation. For 98% of its history, the view was held that bodies should be physically buried in preparation for the literal physical resurrection at some point in the future. Despite the softened stance on cremation, the Church still holds that a body should be buried with a proper Catholic funeral. For example, keeping ashes in an urn is unacceptable.

    We now have a picture of gross neglect of mothers and their children while the children were alive, coupled with the perceived insult to those with faith of improper disposal of the bodies, guaranteeing they don’t receive eternal paradise. It is a calculated attempt to add further insult to injury. Whether one is a believer or not, it is deliberately malevolent.

    1. As witness this Bishop pontificating about corpse-melting, as recently introduced to Malta, a very crowded rocky island.

      The corpse-dissolving technology being proposed as an option to burial does not follow the Church’s teachings as it fails to respect bodily remains, according to Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna.

      “I don’t think that this is in line with the Church’s views on respecting the body,” he said….
      Known as alkaline hydrolysis, the funeral alternative would see the introduction of large metal baths which, using a mixture of warm water and potassium hydroxide, turn body tissue into“thick coffee syrup”.

      Once melted down, the large baths normally flush the body tissue into the municipal sewage system or recycle it as a high-protein fertiliser.

      “Once a person is baptised, his body must be given the reverence it deserves in death. I don’t think that flushing it away with the rest of our waste meets this expectation,” the bishop said, reiterating that the Church was still to form an official opinion on the matter.

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