Do They Believe in God?

20 September 2018

A question has plagued me since the latest cluster of scandals emerged from the Catholic church.


The scandals are both about clergy who sexually abused young people and about the church hierarchy’s cover-ups. A grand jury, for instance, released a report this summer that explained how over 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses abused over 1,000 children. The report’s investigation goes back to 1947 and also details deliberate concealment by higher church officials. And Pennsylvania is hardly alone: a newly released study found that in Germany 1,670 church workers took part in abusing 3,677 children.


Concealment in many cases enables further abuse. As the 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight piece revealed, Cardinal Law knew of many of the crimes of priest John Geoghan (pictured above). But he handled the problem by moving him from parish to parish, which alleviated immediate pressure on the church but perpetuated the abuses. And Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has recently alleged that Pope Francis knew of many abuses of Cardinal McCarrick, whose victims were typically young adult seminarians (two of McCarrick’s victims were minors, though no one alleges that Francis knew of those cases).

My question here concerns the abusers themselves, who perpetrated such actions as the Pennsylvania grand jury would describe in blunt and shocking terms: “Priests were raping little boys and girls.”

The question is this: do the priests who commit such abuses believe in God?

This is perplexing. There are reasons both to answer no and to answer yes. In favor of answering no, it’s hard to fathom how someone who thought there was a perfectly moral, omniscient being (who can see everything) would do horrific things that would traumatize a pre-adolescent (often in the very house of that omniscient being). I can imagine how someone who thinks God knows everything might cut corners on a tax return; it’s harder to imagine how someone who thinks God knows everything could, believing this, rape a ten-year-old. So maybe the rapist priests don’t believe in God. But in favor of answering yes, it’s also hard to fathom how someone would go through with becoming a priest, given all the sacrifices, without having some belief in God’s existence.

Addressing this question admittedly involves heavy speculation, and even detailed reports like this one leave the question wide open for any given abuser. But even so, addressing this question is crucial for thinking about the role of religious “beliefs” in the moral lives of human beings, which is not so straightforward as is commonly thought.

I can think of three models of what’s going. It may be that different models apply to different cases, though I think the third is most usual.

The first model is the faker. This type is someone who simply doesn’t believe there is a God but becomes a priest due to other motivations or pressures. The motivations could be various—to escape poverty, attraction to the lifestyle, friends were doing it, etc. But whatever his motivations, they lead him to fake a belief in God without having one. And if a faker sexually desires minors, he won’t have fear of God to prevent him from acting on those attractions. The faker, in this context, is an atheist pedophile dressed as a priest (and ordained as one).


The faker, however, seems the wrong model of what’s going on—at least for most cases. It’s true that, as Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola have shown, clergies can harbor individuals who are closet atheists. But that’s the exception not the rule, and it’s hard to see how a large number of people intelligent enough to get through seminary (hence intelligent enough for more lucrative careers) would enter and stay in seminary without believing in God. And various evidence sits ill with this model. Geoghan, for example, entered the priesthood because his father died when he was young and he became fascinated with the idea of heaven, which isn’t a description of a typical atheist. That takes us to the second model.


The second is the akratic. Being akratic means being weak willed (generally or for a specific temptation). An akratic person does something, despite believing it’s the wrong thing to do. Most people, of course, are akratic about something, like junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, or television. But this type of abusive priest is akratic in the following way: he believes God exists and takes pedophilia to be something He would condemn (hence it’s wrong), but the temptation is so strong that he caves in to desire and molests the minors—all while believing God knows of and condemns these actions.


I suspect that the akratic model covers some cases, but not all. Akrasia is usual when people yield to temptations immediately before them (the wine is flowing, so…). And akrasia is often followed by guilt. But Geoghan, at least, put much forethought into his abuses, actively seeking out boys who had lost their fathers so he could step in as a “father figure.” He wasn’t just succumbing to immediate temptations—he was planning ahead. And according to the reports of the man who ultimately murdered him in prison (Joseph Lee Druce), Geoghan felt no remorse for the things he’d done. So he doesn’t seem like the akratic type, and I suspect many others also aren’t.


This brings us to the third model: the rationalizer. Rationalizing involves mentally rehearsing justifications for why an action is permissible or even right, even though one’s other beliefs should lead to the conclusion that the action is wrong. The rationalizing abusive priest is one who devoutly believes in God and believes that God is perfectly moral, but he doesn’t draw the seemingly obvious conclusion that God would condemn child molestation. The rationalizer, rather, performs mental gymnastics to avoid this conclusion. He might reconstrue his actions as “just play” or “just helping the boys grow up.” He might tell himself that it was “fun for both” and that “a little fun is not such a big sin.” Or worse, he might tell himself that he’s so important that anything he might inflict on others is venial.


And this latter route appears to be the one Geoghan took. When Druce, his murderer, confronted Geoghan in prison about how he ruined the lives of 150 to 200 hundred children, Geoghan, Druce reports, responded, “I’m worth 300 of them.”


So I think rationalizing the actions, while still in some sense “believing” in God, is the likely picture of the minds of many or most abusive priests. I hasten to add that I don’t intend any of these models as a complete picture of the psychology behind the abuse; the models are aimed at the specific question, “Do they believe in God?” More complete models might also reference the urge to preserve and exhibit institutional power, since abuses are often exercises in power and not just sexual desire (this seems especially likely for the abuse in Ireland). But even so, rationalization will be present much of the time. And as I’ve argued before, religious “beliefs”—however devout—don’t typically work as ordinary factual beliefs would; in particular, they are compartmentalized and open to imaginative elaboration. That makes an ideal set-up for rationalization. And it also gives systematic grounds for doubting the power of religious “belief” to increase moral behavior in any lasting or pervasive way.

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, September 20, 2018 -- 11:57 AM

Dear Neil, and all others who

Dear Neil, and all others who are disturbed by the continuing travesty of sexual molestation by pious (?) church officials. And anyone who has read my comments on cruelty in other posts(I mentioned memes and Jaynes' notions about the origin(s) of consciousness). The problem I see with this problem is its continuing existence. Even in the faces of a disenchanted flock; even with the increasing awareness of defrocked clergy, who seem to exhibit little remorse regarding their transgressions; even in the face of a growing movement, righteously questioning the primacy of a church, which appears to stalwartly cling to that primacy regardless of how badly its emissaries behave? None of this makes much sense---all the more reason to question rampant debauchery. Until reading Susan Jacoby and Steven Pinker, I knew comparatively little of the more bloody history of the Church, nor did I understand its full relationship with government(s), the old church-and-state partnership. I have now heard that the once-wildly-popular Pope is losing some of his former luster. But, that much said, the story is very old news. Maybe the Church has simply fallen victim to, compartmentalization and imaginative elaboration? Or is at least some of this because of that primacy thing mentioned earlier? I am working on something about the primacy issue right now. Perhaps it will shake some bones. Or not. Warmest, wishes, Neuman.

vanhouse's picture


Thursday, September 20, 2018 -- 4:27 PM

After 14 years of Catholic

After 14 years of Catholic schools, I'm well aware of the intricacies of this response, but I'll give it anyway: some probably figured they could go to confession and be absolved. Of course, they ran the risk of dying without absolution; and would someday have to confess to what they had done to another priest. But I can well imagine some of the akratics -- and rationalizers -- thinking: "What I'm doing is wrong, but I can't help myself; I'll confess it and be absolved." Also, remember, if they DID confess along the way -- even again and again over the years -- their confessors would be prevented, under the seal of confession, from informing their superiors or the authorities. To be absolved, they are supposed to be truly sorry and firmly resolve not to do it again, so they should not have been absolved repeatedly. However.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 3, 2018 -- 12:18 PM

ON PRIMACY...(this is an

ON PRIMACY...(this is an excerpt from the piece I mentioned on Thursday, September 20, 2018):

...People. Organizations. Institutions. Corporations. Al of these have agendas, goals and objectives. In many cases, money is the prime motivator, or, if not, it is one means toward achieving the desired end(s). Corporations are fueled by profit, which, it follows, fuels growth. And, while growth is important unto itself, it implies something equally critical: sustainability. During a time of great superstition (and including the Enlightenment that followed) the Church felt threatened by, overshadowed by, Science. Her authority and primacy were being questioned; Her dogma and ideology, under siege. Such a threat was unacceptable and war on Science (and Scientists) was inevitable...

(This is but a fragment of the essay---but in context, it helps illustrate the notion of primacy I have mentioned. The finalized work will go considerably further.) Cordially, Neuman.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 8, 2018 -- 10:57 AM

Ending to the piece cited

Ending to the piece cited above on 10/03/2018:

After Shocks: Re-viewing; Deconstructing and Re-construing the Essay...

Ordinarily, we think of complacency in the negative sense, i.e., there are conditions and circumstances we are powerless to remedy so we do nothing about them. I submit that the primacy, sustainability and growth drivers, underpinning the Church are functions of a positive complacency; that is, Church dogma and doctrine have so supported the advancement of civilized society, we cannot strongly justify actions curtailing the egregious behaviors of Her representatives. We are stuck: 'between a rock and a hard place'; 'the devil and the deep blue sea'; or, to mix a metaphor: what a fine kettle of fish hooks this is. Altruism & light have never more closely resembled hypocrisy and darkness.

Potiphar S Flagrum's picture

Potiphar S Flagrum

Saturday, October 13, 2018 -- 9:04 PM

Obviously, the pope is going

Obviously, the pope is going to cover for them because that's just how these institutions operate. Since they desire to be like Christ I say we flog and crucify them...