One of the things that really riles me about religious institutions is how they try to play both good cop and bad cop roles.
Take the case of Barbara Johnson. Her mother died and as her lesbian partner of 20 years assisted her family and friends in getting the Catholic church ready for the funeral service, the priest asked Johnson who that person was and she said it was her partner. Then when Johnson lined up with others for communion, the priest covered the chalice and said, “I can’t give you Communion because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin.” The priest also left the altar when Johnson was delivering her eulogy and did not attend the burial.
This caused a minor uproar in the community. In response a senior administrator of the archdiocese issued a letter saying that the priest should not have done what he did and should have talked to her in private, and that he showed a lack of ‘kindness’ and ‘pastoral sensitivity’.
Sorry, the church should not be allowed to get itself off the hook by blaming the priest. When the church officially takes a strong stand against homosexuality, this is precisely what they should expect from their own people in the front lines. When you have loudly and publicly said that god thinks that homosexuality is a grievous sin, and campaigned vigorously against providing equal rights for gays and lesbians, you can hardly blame the average believer and priest for thinking that it is open season on homosexuals. To take a strong stand against something and then be surprised that the people who join your ranks are those who enthusiastically support carrying out your wishes is to be disingenuous to the point of dishonesty. The ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ slogan of the church is a weasely device to try and have it both ways, to condemn people for something and then wash your hands of any adverse consequences that your words have incited, to be bigoted while trying not to appear hateful.
Incredibly, Johnson still wants to remain a Catholic, to be part of an institution that clearly does not approve of her. Anne Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has written an open letter to liberal and nominal Catholics telling them that it is time for them to quit an institution that is so clearly in opposition to so many of the things that they claim are important to them.
Why are you propping up the pillars of a tyrannical and autocratic, woman-hating, sex-perverting, antediluvian Old Boys Club? Why are you aiding and abetting a church that has repeatedly and publicly announced a crusade to ban contraception, abortion and sterilization, and to deny the right of all women everywhere, Catholic or not, to decide whether and when to become mothers? When it comes to reproductive freedom, the Roman Catholic Church is Public Enemy Number One. Think of the acute misery, poverty, needless suffering, unwanted pregnancies, social evils and deaths that can be laid directly at the door of the Church’s antiquated doctrine that birth control is a sin and must be outlawed.
No self-respecting feminist, civil libertarian or progressive should cling to the Catholic faith. As a Cafeteria Catholic, you chuck out the stale doctrine and moldy decrees of your religion, but keep patronizing the establishment that menaces public health by serving rotten offerings. Your continuing Catholic membership, as a “liberal,” casts a veneer of respectability upon an irrational sect determined to blow out the Enlightenment and threaten liberty for women worldwide. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop. If you imagine you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you are deluding yourself. If you remain a “good Catholic,” you are doing “bad” to women’s rights. You’re kidding yourself if you think the Church is ever going to add a Doctrine of Immaculate ContraCeption.
Her argument applies equally well to those members of other religions who also hold liberal views. But we know that many will not take her advice, at least not in the near term. Religions have a powerful hold on the minds of people, largely because of the early indoctrination. Once people can be made to say as children that they believe the preposterous beliefs that their religions tell them is necessary for acceptance, then they begin, with the help of adults in the lives, the path of rationalization where every contradictory fact that goes against their beliefs is somehow explained away. By the time they reach adulthood, the process is more or less complete and they have developed a highly sophisticated rationalization mechanism that they then use to scaffold the irrational beliefs of the next generation.
As Carl Sagan said in Broca’s Brain (1974, p. 284):
The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration were needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.
But I am optimistic that this will change over time, and not too slowly either, because while major social changes start very slowly, they accelerate towards the end. Look at how rapidly attitudes towards gays have changed just with the last decade.
The problem for religious institutions is that they are being squeezed from both sides. On the one hand, the number of nonbelievers continues to grow and are becoming more open and articulate about the reasons for their nonbelief. Their rational voices are like the Sirens luring the faithful onto the rocks of disbelief. On the other hand, there is increasing social acceptance of equality for women and gays and more relaxed attitudes towards sexuality. These are irreversible trends and all deeply problematic for religions which tend to have an irrational, misogynistic, and homophobic core. Rick Santorum was exactly right when he said somewhat sadly in a recent interview that “I guess now when you have beliefs that are consistent with the church, you are somehow out of touch with the mainstream.”
As time goes by, the degree of intellectual contortions that will be required to sustain belief in any of the major religious doctrines will become ever more difficult to sustain. This is the stark problem religions face. And they know it.