Movie “Spotlight” opens, and a NYT columnist uses it to criticize religion’s privilege

November 5, 2015 • 9:00 am

I was quite heartened yesterday to see an established New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, go after Catholicism—and faith in general. After all, the good gray Times isn’t known for criticizing religion: it’s the home of Ross Douthat, of Tanya Luhrmann, and various others who osculate the rump of faith. The lesson the paper and its writers seem to have learned is that you make no enemies (even among atheists) by coddling faith, but criticizing it brings you ostracism and hatred. I can’t in fact remember ever seeing any NYT op-ed that goes after the unwarranted privileges, like tax breaks, that religion enjoys in the U.S.

But Bruni’s latest piece, “The Catholic Church’s sins are ours,” doesn’t pull any punches.

Although he concentrates on the sins of Catholicism, especially the Church’s coverup of child rape, I was heartened to see him criticize the privileging of faith in general. It may help understand Bruni’s animus against Catholicism that, according to Wikipedia, he’s openly gay; and the article says this:

While on the staff of the Free Press, Bruni was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for a portrait of a convicted pedophile.

His nominal excuse for the column is the release of the new movie “Spotlight“, about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning coverage of how the Boston diocese covered up pedophilia inbypriests (more about the movie below); but Bruni also says things like this:

It’s fashionable among some conservatives to rail that there’s insufficient respect for religion in America and that religious people are marginalized, even vilified.

That’s bunk. In more places and instances than not, they get special accommodation and the benefit of the doubt. Because they talk of God, they’re assumed to be good. There’s a reluctance to besmirch them, an unwillingness to cross them.

The new movie “Spotlight,” based on real events, illuminates this brilliantly.

and this:

When the cookies finally went away, many Catholic leaders insisted that the church was being persecuted, and the crimes of priests exaggerated, by spiteful secularists.

But if anything, the church had been coddled, benefiting from the American way of giving religion a free pass and excusing religious institutions not just from taxes but from rules that apply to other organizations.

That last sentence is quite “strident”—at least for the Times!

And this, the ending of his piece: (do have a look at Bruni’s link to this week’s Times article about mandated religious arbitration, an eye opener):

A story in The Times this week described how various religions are permitted to use internal arbitration procedures to settle disputes that belong in civil court. It cited a federal judge’s ruling that a former Scientologist had to take his claim that Scientology had defrauded him of tens of thousands of dollars before a panel of current Scientologists.

To cloak sexual abuse and shield abusive priests, Catholic leaders and their lawyers routinely leaned on the church’s privileged status, invoking freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, and the secrecy of the confessional. They thus delayed a reckoning.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” says a character in “Spotlight.” Indeed it does: a village too cowed, and a village too credulous.

Cowed and credulous: an apt description of the American village!

I’ve written about “Spotlight” before, quoting a film-festival screening seen by reader Tom C., who gave the film high marks:

I’m in Toronto at the Toronto International Film Festival sans socks because they have been blown off by a movie I felt I should give you a heads-up about as it doesn’t open in the states until Nov. 6.  “Spotlight” is the story of six Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the cover-up of child molestation by the Archdiocese of Boston.  To say the movie is powerful is to damn it with faint praise.  Beautifully understated with great acting, particularly by Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, I emerged furious at the mendacity of the church and heartbroken for the victims.  I look forward to seeing Bill Donohue’s (Catholic League head goon) head explode when this film opens nationally.  I’ve linked (I hope) a review from the Toronto Star. [JAC: I lost the link, but here’s one review from the Star.]

The movie opens tomorrow, and for readers of this site—or any movie-lover—it will be a must-see. My New Yorker that arrived yesterday has a very positive review (free online) of “Spotlight” by one of my favorite movie critics, the captious Anthony Lane. And Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 94% rating based on 50 reviews. Here’s the trailer:

h/t: Greg Mayer

53 thoughts on “Movie “Spotlight” opens, and a NYT columnist uses it to criticize religion’s privilege

    1. Gay people can remain Christian for the same reasons many other people can remain Christian: a remarkable capacity to absolve God — that is, their idea of God — from any taint incurred by an organization, a doctrine, a history, or a holy book. Whatever wrong things done in God’s name, that wasn’t what God wanted. The onus is always on the believer. Find some way to reinterpret so that the problem becomes a distinctly human one.

      God loves gays. The REAL God, the one who speaks to their heart. Prove them wrong in a system which has set up ‘confirmation bias ‘ as a high virtue.

      1. There’s another dimension to it.

        For many, it is literally inconceivable that Christianity could be false. As in, a suggestion that Jesus din’t rise from the dead is as absurd to them as one that Caesar didn’t cross the Rubicon. Or, consider how “obvious” it was long ago that the Sun and the stars and everything revolved around the Earth at the center of the Universe…to somebody who lived not just before the days of NASA but before Copernicus, there simply wasn’t any way you could coherently suggest otherwise.

        When they come to understand that Jesus is no more real than any of the other Pagan demigods of the Mediterranean from a couple millennia ago, when they finally learn more about Darwin than ducks giving birth to crocodiles…then they can have the chance to leave their gods in the toy chest along with Santa and the Tooth Bunny. Until then, you’d have as much luck convincing a Capitalist that the Magic Hand of the Free Market is less than omnipotent.


        1. The free market is moved by a Magic Hand? That seems related to the Holy Spirit coming upon you. Maybe that explains the sticky mess that the middle and lower classes find themselves in as the Magic Hand Job Creation Program continues its course.

        2. “As in, a suggestion that Jesus din’t rise from the dead is as absurd to them as one that Caesar didn’t cross the Rubicon.”

          I’m starting to recognize that not only would the Jesus myth be an extraordinary claim without any evidence, the claim of such “Jesus” person existing is such seeing how the same would apply to the Santa Claus myth. (And all other mythical religion founders, where as two 100 % rules before Enlightenment we don’t see any historical evidence whatsoever, and after we have historical evidence they are all long term scammers that hits their retirement scam.)

          In other words, I can see their absurdity and double it. =D

      2. Most people need to find meaning in a meaningless world. They can’t accept the fact their lives have no inherent purpose. To accept the harsh realities of nature would psychologically destroy them. Religion serves to give them a sense of meaning even though such meaning is based on delusion. Thus, while we can be glad that religion is on the decline, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it will totally disappear any time soon. A realistic aim of secularists should be to keep religion out of the public square, which would include elimination of all the special breaks it gets, such as tax exemptions. Religious delusion would then be a totally private matter, which I can accept because its deleterious effects would not impact on me.

          1. Yes, good question. It doesn’t “destroy” atheists, and I have a hard time believing we are better (stronger, braver, smarter, more adaptable) than they are.

            Little People Argument, iow.

          2. To say that my assertion is a little people argument is absurd. The implication of your assertion is that all people are the same, which is equally absurd. People are different. They have their strengths and weaknesses – physically, intellectually, and psychologically. And for some people, when immersed for a long time in a certain environment, find it difficult to leave that environment. Thus, for many people who have spent many years accepting religious dogma, rejecting those beliefs are very difficult. But, those people may very well be braver than me or have higher IQs. To say that breaking away from religion is easy for those religious people thinking about it is wishful thinking.

          3. I think you misunderstand the Little People argument, which is that religious people can’t handle the truth, don’t care about the truth, and can’t or shouldn’t be reasoned with. By claiming that “they” (the religious) would be destroyed if they tried to cope with reality you seemed to be painting with a very broad brush and making this point, not refuting it. If I misunderstood you I apologize.

            Of course people are different, and those who have been raised or immersed in religion will naturally find it very difficult to break away and reject dogma for a multitude of reasons. Nothing comes easy. But many of the finer virtues promoted by fundamentalism — its purported love for truth, acceptance of struggle, and insistence on integrity — can be the very motivations out of the belief system.

            I’ll ask GBJames’ question again, then: how do we know that the harsh realities of nature would psychologically destroy them? Or maybe, how do you know it?

            If they can and do adjust, then they’re not destroyed. You used a very strong term, and seemed to draw a large conclusion from it (don’t bother with changing their minds on larger issues, focus on lesser ones.)

          4. If you think the expression “psychologically destroyed” is too strong, I will amend it to say that for most of the intensely religious to break away from their faith would cause such a degree of psychic pain that most would not even consider doing it even if they developed doubts about their faith. The Pew Poll indicates that very few of the intensely religion show any inclination to break away from the faith. Please see my reply to GBJames in this thread. Yes, a few of the very religious break away. But, I see little evidence that this is happening in any significant number. Can you show me empirical evidence (meaning not anecdotes) that I am wrong? I actually would like to be proven wrong, but I don’t think this will happen. The hope for swelling the ranks of atheism comes from exposing young people to the merits of science and rationality, not by converting the already intensely religious, particularly if they are beyond the age of youth.

          5. While I cannot cite a study, I think my assertion is quite plausible. This is based on the great psychological difficulty suffered by many people who were deeply religious at one time and then had the courage to break away. That is why there is a clergy project. The few people who have broken away from orthodox Jewish communities have experienced great difficulty in adjusting to a secular world. See this article:


            I would argue that the burden of proof is on those who would argue that those who break away do it largely without great psychological stress. Just as it is very hard to break a drug addiction, it is very hard for the deeply religious to break away, even when they have great doubts about the “truth” of their religious faiths. That’s why most don’t try.

          6. The problem I have with your case is that you blur “most people” with extremely isolated highly committed believers in orthodox/fundamentalist groups. Most people are not that committed.

            I don’t think I’m any more protected from the horrors of a purposless universe than most people having been raised in a non-extreme version of religion and escaped without psychological trauma of any kind.

          7. I think the nub of this discussion revolves around the definition of being highly committed to religion and how many people fall into this category, at least in the United States. It would take a fair amount of research to come up with these figures, but the data may exist in Pew or other polls. In the meantime, I would argue that evangelical Protestants, arch Catholics, orthodox Jews and most Muslims are deeply committed to their faiths. People in these groups, which are not insignificant in numbers, would have great psychological difficulty breaking away. Yes, people raised in nominally religious homes, but with religion playing relatively little roles in their lives, could break away with little or no psychological stress.

          8. I was confirmed as a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. I think there are a great many people who are raised as “evangelicals” who, like me, don’t fit the stereotype of extreme commitment that drives your argument.

            There certainly are folks like those you refer to. But I don’t think “most” people are so fragile as to be unable to escape faith, given a reasonable exposure to secular values.

          9. I took a look at the Pew report issued on November 3, 2015 and entitled “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious.” On page 5 is the following:

            “At the same time, the vast majority of Americans (77% of all adults) continue to identify with some religious faith. And this religiously affiliated population – comprising a wide variety of Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of other faith traditions – is, on the whole, just as religiously committed today as when the study was first conducted in 2007. Fully two-thirds of religiously affiliated adults say they pray every day and that religion is very important to them, and roughly six-in-ten say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month; those numbers have changed little, if at all, in recent years. And nearly all religiously affiliated people in the survey (97%) continue to believe in God, though a declining share express this belief with absolute certainty (74% in 2014, down from 79% in 2007).”

            These are the types of people (the ardently religiously committed) who would have a hard time breaking away from religion. They are not insignificant in numbers. Presenting the “facts” of why religion is nonsense would have little impact on them.

        1. Which is the best argument ever for the eradication – or at least the severe reduction – of religious influence, since you’ve just admitted it is an extremely powerful, socially induced psychological disorder. Anyone whose mental well-being relies on faithfully believing such patently absurd ideas has been mentally abused into the dependent state they’re in.

    2. He just thinks that belief is going to help him live forever. Of course, I’ld like to live forever too, but I know believing it ain’t gonna make it so.

  1. I am sorry that it takes a good movie to get some light on this subject but that’s the way it is. Frontline and some others have done some good documentaries in the past couple of years on the Catholic church but it seems me and maybe half a dozen others have seen or paid any attention.

    Remember, the last Pope before this one quit and most do not even ask why. But this scandal and the Vatican bank are the two most likely reasons for his demise.

    1. I doubt this will affect many of the truly faithful; just wait for the mental contortions to start, emphasizing the Truth the Church really teaches and how they’ve cleaned house. In fact, in the more conservative Catholic circles I’m familiar with, the claims are that the whole abuse scandal happened because of secular influences on the the Church.

      But, I think the good news is that this movie is highly unlikely to win anyone over for the Church who isn’t already blindly committed

      1. The truly faithful and blindly committed won’t watch the movie. The bubble can’t be poked or prodded lest it pop…must protect the bubble.

        Some Christians who dislike the Catholic faith might watch it for ammunition against the deniers of Jesus’ divinity, but I doubt many devout Catholics will watch it.

        1. There is always what we call the leakage factor. If enough negative information, in the form of articles, documentaries and movies get out, even the deaf and dumb will see some of it. That is what we hope for and it also helps to degrade this blind religious passion. I do not expect to see Mel Gibson tossing jesus aside.

  2. My Catholic friends seem to think this scandal simply emphasizes that the Church is human and likely to err. The bad apples weren’t obeying the rules; you don’t throw out perfectly good rules because things go wrong when you do.

    With an approach like that abuses only say bad things about human nature and thus even the Borgia popes can’t make a dent in the shiny holiness of the Catholic Church.

    1. But . . ., I thought the Pope was gods Vicar on earth? When he speaks ex cathedra isn’t he supposed to be the direct mouthpiece of god?

      What do they suppose it says about their god that it would choose a creature that was directly responsible for covering up the epidemic of child rape (Ratzinger) to be its direct representative on earth? I’d like to pin such exuse making Catholics down on that.

      1. It just goes to show that even though the Pope is the mouthpiece of the Lord, he is still a fallible human. We shouldn’t let human fallibility corrupt a beautiful thing. Of course the Pope is also infallible sometimes, but only when speaking about matters for which no evidence is ever possible.

        TL;DR: God is perfect, people arent. It’s God’s church and of course untouchable. Neener Neener Neener :p

    2. That first paragraph of Sastra’s is exactly what I hear too. Probably the line fed to the Faithful worldwide.

  3. The question demands to be asked: Where was Jesus when his priests were busy raping children?

    Even the anti-Catholic denominations don’t get off the hook. Does the Pope cloak his priests in a special anti-real-Jesus spell such that the real Jesus has to hope that civil authorities will discover Catholic crimes done in his name? Is Jesus completely oblivious to the entire concept of brand identity, even whilst his human agents devote so much effort to protecting theirs?

    If ever there were an unambiguous demonstration of just how entirely fraudulent even the simplest claims of religion are, this is it.


    1. Silly Ben Goren, Jesus is too busy being perfect and beautiful to sully himself over silly little human errors like that.

  4. We religions’ – mollycoddling women (please see the Pew’s latest report of earlier this week) truly MUST rise up and stomp down on all woo. Now.

    This — our faith – derangement — to me is so, so angering. It is so maddening that my gender is to – our – very – own – damning weak. And stupid.

    This thus from out of Mr Bruni’s NYTimes’ statement: “ ‘Spotlight’ lays out the many ways in which deference to religion protected abusers and their abettors. At one point in the movie, a man who was molested as a boy tells a Globe reporter about a visit his mother got from the bishop, who was asking her not to press charges.

    ‘What did your mother do?’ the reporter asks.

    ‘She put out freakin’ cookies,’ the man says.”

    I mean: Come on, Women. Stop — already — with this literal mother – muck. And protect your children. Your selves.


    1. Blue, I think a lot of women simply don’t have time to examine their beliefs. What women’s lib originally meant was they get to work if they want. In reality, the change came just as much because changing economic conditions and expectations meant they had to whether they wanted to or not, and men still had to as well.

      At the same time, women still do the bulk of the child-rearing duties and work around the house. Women don’t have time to think for themselves until they’re in their 40s or 50s, and even then, many are looking after grandchildren. By that time, religion is a way of life.

      That is the time though when many do escape it. There’s a switch that flips in our brains about the age of 40. Not sure I can describe it, but women will know what I mean. At that age you stop caring so much about people judging you, for example.

      1. Ms Hastie: I completely agree with all that you have here written.

        What to me is angering ? the not protecting of her own children — to whatever extent and at whenever a mama is required to be doing so — meaning: I do not care what dresses and what funny hats the men are wearing when they come to my home: I would never have, never will and I expect all mothers never to put out the cookies (literally or metaphorically) for such abettors of child abuse.

        ‘Cardinal’ rules xtwo for any women and men anywhere:
        i) Believe your kiddos.
        ii) If your children do not / cannot tell you what is happening or has happened, then — always and at all times — have open your own eyeballs and brains and be utterly vigilant for signs and symptoms thereof abuse.

        I, of anyone, know that protection of one’s own children is hard. An example: a woman alone attacked (attacked in any manner) is bad enough, but she may escape literally or mentally. One with one, two or more wee children is likely a woman (who is not going to leave behind her children) damaged or killed.

        In Amistad (the film; and I do not know if he, in real life, actually stated thus) dialogue, Cinqué replies back to John Quincy Adams when Cinqué is asked if he, imprisoned right then and with Adams temporarily leaving him there alone, will be okay, “Me? Okay? O yes, yes, I’ll be just fine. My ancestors are with me. The .only. reason … … they ever were … … .is. … … for me now.” That for me epitomizes a (breathing and alive) mama; she is … … an ancestor – in – training.


        1. I wasn’t criticizing what you were saying Blue – to a large extent I agree with it. I was just adding to the discussion.

          I went to a pretty rough school. It was the first all girls school (1970s) in NZ to get a male principal. (The idea was a man could sort it out. He was certainly better than the previous principal. Whether that had anything to do with his gender is questionable.) Drugs were common. I remember one 14 yo breaking the arm of another 14 yo over their rival gang member boyfriends. I know several girls who were gang-raped. One was a friend. Most dropped out of school before they were sixteen, often because they were pregnant. I used to think of those girls as enablers – I looked at all the gang members and they all had (very young) girlfriends worshipping them. Girlfriends who were usually abandoned once they had a child. I thought that if girls refused to have anything to do with men like them, there might not be so many gang members. I still think that’s true. The problem is, many of those girls didn’t know any different. It was what they expected out of life. Unless they’re give the confidence and ability to make their own decisions, the cycle continues.

          It’s the same with religion. What you say is true, but too many women simply don’t know any different. If you’ve grown up knowing that you’ll get married off to a stranger at the age of nine and spend your life living in a bag, that your husband should beat you for burning the dinner etc., how do you find out that you should be telling your daughters something different?

          Education is the key of course. It’s why my sisters and I don’t live like that, and why their daughters don’t yet know that’s possible in NZ.

  5. “This is not just Boston, it’s the whole country, it’s the whole world!”

    A disturbing realization indeed.

  6. Saw the real journalists and the cast of the movie on Charlie Rose last night. Cudos to all involved in this ultra important movie. It will make even the most hardened Catholic think twice, whether they admit it or not.

  7. Revealing!

    Also re religious privilege, this piece of fresh news is contextual:

    “Religious parents are more likely to describe their children as empathetic and concerned about justice than are non-religious parents. But, new evidence reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 5 suggests that the opposite is in fact true.

    In the study, children growing up in households that weren’t religious were significantly more likely to share than were children growing up in religious homes. The findings support the notion that the secularization of moral discourse may serve to increase rather than decrease human kindness, the researchers say.”

    “To examine the influence of religion on the expression of altruism, Decety and his colleagues asked more than 1,100 children between the ages of five and twelve …”

    “The children became more generous with age, consistent with earlier studies. But their religious rearing environment also fundamentally shaped their altruistic tendencies, with more-religious children showing less generosity. Importantly, the researchers report, children who were the most altruistic came from atheist or non-religious families.”

    The results might be explained in part by “moral licensing,” a phenomenon in which doing something “good”—in this case practicing a religion—can leave people less concerned about the consequences of immoral behavior, the researchers say. They also come as a timely reminder that religion and morality are not one and the same.

    “A common-sense notion is that religiosity has a positive association with self-control and moral behaviors,” Decety said. “This view is unfortunately so deeply embedded that individuals who are not religious can be considered morally suspect. In the United States, for instance, non-religious individuals have little chance to be elected to a high political office, …

    [ ]

    Let Elaine Ecklund process that!

    1. Wonderful article, thanks for posting it!

      A couple of factors that enter into this phenomenon (which I’ve often observed anecdotally) are 1), that parents who send their kids to church & all its related activities feel absolved of having to address moral/humane issues with their kids, leaving it up to the church, and 2), the churches are the ones teaching intolerance! I couldn’t believe how disparaging of atheists parochial school children were when my daughter attended a Catholic High School. And of course, there’s no Gay/Straight alliance at thoseschools.

    2. Suggestive, certainly. And I speculate… following on from my reply to Ben Goren earlier, perhaps there’s some element of spiritual snobbery involved.

      The less you regard yourself as equal to others and the more you focus on differences – say, of status, wealth, appearance, talents, education, expertise, and especially moral outlook and behaviour – the more you become susceptible to comparisons in at least one social hierarchy. That leads quite naturally to an “us and them” style of thinking, which goes some degree towards removing “others” from the moral circle.

      You might call this one a hierarchy of divinity. Past a certain point (when egalitarian thinking becomes strained, I’d guess), believers start thinking they’re less obligated to help others and just too good, too close to perfection, too close to the grace of God, etc., to have much to do with those “lower down” or “further away”. Even more sympathetic believers are probably approaching “others” – for instance, outsiders, unbelievers, and the less devout – with a watered-down version of this condescending relationship in mind.

      Perhaps this would explain why the more religiously devout are less morally inclined. Helping an “other” looks less like being kind to people and more like being sentimental towards vaguely intelligent animals.

  8. There is an old song called “He Goes to Church on Sunday” (sung by Billy Murray it can be heard on YouTube). I often find the chorus going through my head:

    I know a very wicked man,
    I knew him as a lad.
    I never met his equal telling lies.
    And though he takes delight in doing everything that’s bad,
    He thinks he’ll go to heaven when he dies.
    When but a child, he robbed his dear old grandma in her sleep,
    He stole two golden teeth right from her jaws.
    He’s been a kleptomaniac since he began to creep,
    But the neighbors think he’s alright because:

    He goes to church on Sunday,
    He passes around the contribution box.
    But meet him in the office on a Monday
    He’s as crooked and as cunning as a fox.
    On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
    Friday Saturday,
    He’s robbing everybody that he can.
    But he goes to church on Sunday
    So they say that he’s an honest man

    1. We had a rhyme at primary school about a principal called Mr Roly:

      Mr Roly is very holy
      He goes to church on Sunday
      He prays to God t give him strength
      To whack the kids on Monday

  9. Just a comment on some of the things we even know about during all the scandal period – The current Archbishop of NY, Timothy Dolan, was in position in Milwaukee before this promotion to the big time. It was known that he authorized $20,000 dollar payments to priest that were in trouble to help get them out the door and thus limit damage to the church. Milwaukee was going to go through bankruptcy to limit damage and it was rumored that Dolan asked and received permission to move $57 million to a protected cemetery fund to reduce damage and payout to victims. What the good father will do for promotion.

  10. Fyi fellow Kiwis:

    In New Zealand the film isn’t opening until Thursday 21st January 2016. Don’t know why the delay.

  11. I’m not an American, but I live here now. My home is Europe. I never understand how Americans can be happy with the children in school saying the pledge of allegiance and being force to say “one nation under god”. I really like America but I don’t think it has separation of church and state in the way it is supposed to have. Religion is still part of America and I was sad to see this when I moved here.

    1. I hope you’ve met a lot of Americans, like most of us here, who feel exactly the same way!

      There’s a bit of a disagreement within atheist/humanist ranks about taking on such traditional habits (even if they’ve only been “traditional” for less than 2/3 of a century!); some think they’re minor and distract from real issues of discrimination, etc., and some think they’re the gateway to religion being able to get away with more egregious invasions of secular life.

      And as the religious will tell you, it’s not required that kids say “under God” (or even that they say the pledge at all). This means you’re totally free to have your kid be the one to sit the whole thing out and become the local pariah.

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