Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

On moderate believers in hardline churches

Posted by Kevin on May 4, 2009

[from atheistcartoons.com]

AlterNet recently had an interesting article by Tana Ganeva on new statistics about the attitudes of American Catholics: Most American Catholics Far More Liberal Than Church Leadership. From the article:

“The Catholic Church leadership continues to render itself more and more irrelevant with out-of-date and loudly proclaimed stances on abortion, reproductive rights, gay rights, AIDS policy, stem cell research… [but a new Gallup poll] shows that the views of practicing Catholics on a range of social issues are more or less in line with American non-Catholics.”

It’s of course heartening to see that so many Catholics reject church doctrine. But that to me raises the question as to why they still publicly identify with the church when they reject so many of its stances. I’m not surprised that they’re not embracing atheism, but I don’t get why they don’t at least switch to a more tolerant denomination, or even split off and form their own parallel church.

This brings be to the conclusion Ganeva draws from the data, with which I highly disagree:

“But it also points to the fact that often the most vocal spokespeople for a religion are not the most representative of that denomination’s adherents as a whole, but rather a crazy fringe given a platform by our sensationalist media. This is another pretty obvious point to bring up, but it is an important one, since often liberal reactions to the crazies is to trash all religious people — when many of them, as revealed by the Gallup poll, don’t give a damn about how other people choose to live their lives.”

It may be true that the Pope and the church hierarchy don’t represent the views of American Catholics. But it’s not “our sensationalist media” that keeps them in a position of power and influence; it’s the acquiescence of millions of liberal American Catholics who pay lip service to church leaders, keep going to Mass, and keep giving the church money, even as in private they completely blow off the church’s teachings. I’d be willing to cut liberal Catholics some slack if they were doing more to publicly oppose their leaders.

A little while back I stumbled on a great comment on this post at Pharyngula that perfectly illustrates my concerns here. The post was about this sickening story on a brutal Mormon prep school in Utah, and some of the commenters argued along the lines of, “Yeah, that’s horrible, but the majority of Mormons aren’t like that.” To which a user named asteranx responded:

“It simply doesn’t matter if a majority of Mormons are nice people – if the nasty ones are in charge, it’s because the nice ones are allowing an extremist minority to speak and act on their behalf. And just stepping up and saying ‘Most of us don’t agree’ is a rather impotent response while the ones you don’t agree with (after being elected by majority vote) are beating children in your name.”

I wouldn’t say I oppose religious moderates; I’d much rather people be that than fundamentalists. It’s more like I’m uneasy with the concept. There are many reasons for that uneasiness, but one of the main ones is the role moderates play in legitimizing religious fundamentalism/extremism. The primary way they do that is by refusing to oppose the extremists publicly and strongly; and by continuing the unthinking respect given to religion, the idea that it’s wrong and “intolerant” to criticize people’s religious beliefs, no matter how crazy or harmful. [for further reading on the latter point, check out this post from Greta Chrstina: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions]

Many moderate believers, when faced with criticism of their association with a hardline church, or more generally when people in mainline churches are confronted with crazy fundamentalism, think it’s enough to just politely say, “Well I don’t agree with that,” and then move on. I don’t think they should be let off the hook that easily.


3 Responses to “On moderate believers in hardline churches”

  1. Sidney Carton said

    Not every Catholic Priest is a pedophile, not every Mormon agrees with the philosophy taught at that camp and not every Atheist is Mao, Stalin or Pol-Pot.

    It is human nature to argue for a monolithic conformity in the “other” while simultaneously arguing about the diversity of opinion and enlightenment in their own community. I doubt you favor the forcible annihilation of organized religion, but there were Atheists who did, should we judge you by their actions, or accept that Atheist community is as nuanced as the theistic community, and that the doctrines and ideals of any group can be perverted by the charismatic and ambitious?

    • Kevin said

      Umm, that’s not really what I said. I specifically noted that there are a lot of Catholics that don’t agree with the church leadership (and likely Mormons as well); my problem was entirely with the fact that they don’t seem to me to be doing anything about it. I don’t expect people to storm out over every little disagreement, but it would be nice if pro-choice Catholics or pro-gay marriage Mormons would publicly challenge their leaders on those issues instead of pretending to listen to them and then privately blowing them off. It’s their acquiescence that gives the leaders power and influence.

      And as far as atheists are concerned, if there were prominent atheists today that the media was using as the public face of atheism arguing for “the forcible annihilation of organized religion,” other atheists should be expected to speak out against them and be criticized if they don’t. [In fact, I’ve written previously about how atheists need to be more vocal in challenging Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens on stuff like their support for Middle Eastern wars and their dehumanization of Muslims.]

      You’re right that Catholics/Mormons/atheists shouldn’t be judged by the actions of their leaders, but if there’s something they could be doing about it, they need to be asked why they’re remaining silent.

      • Sidney Carton said

        Churches, particularly Catholicism and Mormonism are not democracies wherein doctine is open to change based on majority vote and public opinion. When one believes that one’s leadership has divine authority or access to divine revelation, one may feel free to criticize, but one does not demand that doctrine be changed due to one’s disagreement.

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