Partially inspired by some of the comments on this post, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which followers of a particular religion should be held responsible for the comments and actions of its leaders. I’ve come across people asking why anyone is still a Catholic when the Pope has largely turned a blind eye to priests molesting children. While I understand where this question comes from, I don’t know that I really agree with it. Catholicism entails certain beliefs, and I suppose respect for the Pope is one of those, but I don’t see why it necessarily means thinking the Pope’s poop doesn’t stink. I feel that someone can follow a religion without agreeing to all of its teachings, especially when those ideas are under constant debate and criticism anyway. Religion is, after all, a personal matter. There are limits, and when a person really doesn’t believe much of anything taught by a religion, then it’s kind of odd to self-identify as a follower of that belief system. Even then, though, people do. Sometimes they go through the motions to avoid upsetting family members or authorities, and other times they consider a religion to be part of their heritage even if they don’t believe it. This is especially the case for Jews, but I think it’s become true to a certain extent for Christians as well. Although I’m personally an atheist and hold the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to be rather disturbing, I’m still of Protestant heritage. Among Christians, however, it seems to be largely Catholics who retain the culture while casting off some of the beliefs.
I think part of the fault here might lie in the argument I’ve heard both positively from believers and negatively from unbelievers, which is that religion is unchanging. I have to say that I find this argument totally bogus. Of course religion changes! If you were to compare the behaviors and attitudes of followers of the same religions centuries ago to those today, you’d find a lot of differences. Christian denominations have come to accept new scientific discoveries, and revised their theology over the years. I will concede, however, that religion is SLOW to change, and that religious leaders want to preserve the illusion that religion is unchanging. After all, why would the Almighty give His followers inaccurate or incomplete guidelines? I would say that’s a large part of why some prominent churches today are still resistant to ideas like gay marriage. If they’ve taught for centuries that God is strongly opposed to homosexuality and birth control, the church changing its stance would be admitting to a flaw in supposedly sacred teachings. If their views do change over time, they’ll probably have to initiate those changes in a subtle way that suggests this was REALLY what they believed all along. While I would prefer that people not base their lives on the teachings of religious leaders, I also don’t think that belonging to a certain religion indicates tacit support of its leaders’ more unsavory positions.