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.
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: