You've almost certainly heard about George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was murdered yesterday: most likely (although we don't know for sure yet) by a religiously- motivated anti- abortion vigilante.
You may or may not have heard about Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who, commenting on the latest scandal about severe and widespread institutional child abuse in Catholic schools in Ireland, has been vociferously defending the Catholic Church: downplaying the well- documented and horrific abuse, accusing victims of being "gold diggers looking to get money from the Catholic Church"... and screaming at rape victim Colm O'Gorman to "shut up."
I want to talk about the power that religion has to twist the human moral compass.
I'm going to start by being fair. Religion is far from the only belief system or ideology that can inspire people who think they're doing good to commit terrible, heinous acts. Political ideology, for instance, can do the same thing: as we've seen in the Stalinist Soviet Union, or the United States in the W. Bush administration. The process of rationalization is far from limited to the world of religion. And because rationalization is often self- perpetuating -- when we do something bad, we find a rationalization for why it wasn't bad, which makes us more likely to do that bad thing again -- it can lead otherwise sane and moral people, step by step, into committing atrocities we would otherwise recoil from in horror. This is not limited to religion: it is a fluke of how the human mind works.
But here's the problem with religion. Here's what makes religion special, uniquely suited for twisting the human moral compass.
With religion, there's no reality check. There's no expectation of a reality check. There's not even any sense that a reality check is a reasonable thing to expect. Heck, in many religions, expecting a reality check is actually considered a bad thing: a sign of weak faith at best, heresy at worst. (Doubting Thomas, and all that.)
In any other moral system, you're expected to come across. The ultimate criteria of your actions are, you know, your actions, and the affect they have on the world. We can see those actions, and those effects. And while people can argue that their apparently bad actions will have good effects in the long term or in the big picture, eventually they have to come across with those good effects -- or else see their moral system condemned, and have it fall by the wayside.
But religion is ultimately dependent on belief in beings that are invisible; voices that are inaudible; entities that are intangible; and events and judgments that happen after people die. In religion, the Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong is invisible, and doesn't judge until after you're dead and can't tell anyone. And in religion -- in most religion, anyway -- the Invisible Arbiter in the Sky takes precedence over the actual human reality staring you in the face. You don't ever have to come across. A belief that your actions will have good effects in this world will only take you so far; a belief that your actions will earn the approval of an invisible god has no limits in how far it can take you.
And therefore, religion has a unique power to twist people's innate sense of right and wrong. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will commit murder in the name of protecting life. Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will defend or trivialize or explain away the horrific abuse of children -- the literal, physical and sexual, institutional abuse of thousands of actual human children -- and still decry putting a nail through a cracker as a vile offense against all that is right and good. More than family loyalty, more than patriotism, more than political ideology, more than any other belief system, religion has the power to bend the moral compass until it breaks.
(Some of these ideas were developed in a comment thread on Pharyngula.)