Well, I wasn’t planning on doing another one of these, but I can’t help it. The Other Side has brought in a couple of Big Guns, so a response is called for. First, there’s Paula Kirby, last seen ignorantly slandering the Catholic Church:
I think it genuinely can be argued that these people are doing some good by staying in their posts, if only through the avoidance of harm. Even though, as Dan and Linda’s report points out, they are mostly avoiding seriously challenging the most extreme of their parishioners’ beliefs, at least they are not reinforcing them.
Given the contempt in which Kirby holds the entire idea of faith, I can see how she could conclude that someone hypocritically preaching as vague a message as possible while not “reinforcing” the superstitions of his flock would be “avoiding harm.” But she just can’t resist getting specific:
There is no danger of these pastors exhorting their congregations to live their lives in joyful expectation of the Rapture, or to hate atheists or gays;
The vast majority of faithful Christian preachers across the entire spectrum of denominations doesn’t do either of these things, of course, but Kirby apparently thinks that most Christians are dispensationalists, or takes take their cues regarding the treatment of gays and atheists from Fred Phelps. Pure, unalloyed, bigoted ignorance.
no danger of them abusing young children with monstrous tales of hell, no danger of them opposing the proper teaching of science in their local schools, or exhorting the sick to seek their cure in prayer and repentance rather than the more reliable methods offered by medical science.
The vast majority of Christian preachers don’t do these things, either. Given her track record, I wouldn’t expect her to know that.
If all churches simply reinforced people’s natural impulses to be good and caring, and offered them a sense of being part of a kindly and supportive community, there would be far less to object to in them.
“People’s natural impulses to be good and caring”: her contact with actual human beings seems to be fairly limited. And “if churches simply reinforced” people’s natural impulses, they’d be accomplices in great evil, or, at best, no different from the local kindergarten teacher or Lions Club. But most churches continue to insist on being, you know, churches.
Then there’s this:
But the nature of religious belief is such that we might feel justified in challenging the integrity of every pastor, no matter how truly committed to the role: for each and every one of them stands in front of their congregation week after week and preaches his personal beliefs as though they were indisputably true – even though none of those beliefs is founded on anything more reliable than the pastor’s subjective wishes, desires, hopes and fears.
Her bio says that Kirby is a “former Christian.” She would seem to have been one who received absolutely no biblical or theological education, which even considering her atheism is the only way I can conceive it possible to make such a foolish statement. Oh, she tries to justify it by giving a serious of polarities that are meant to illustrate how little agreement there is among Christians (“Some of them ‘know’ that every word of the Bible is literally true, others ‘know’ that it needs to be interpreted metaphorically; some ‘know’ that God is loving, compassionate and eager to forgive, others ‘know’ that he is angry, jealous and quick to punish wrong-doing”–you get the idea) which are also nothing more than caricatures of the worst in Christian thought. Of course, for her none of it matters, because it’s all based on “subjective wishes, desires, hopes and fears”:
[F]or some reason when it comes to religion, there is a general feeling that it doesn’t really matter what people believe, provided they believe something, and that this belief, no matter how ill-founded, must be cherished and protected at all costs. What clearer evidence could there be that religious faith is not particularly interested in truth? And, that being so, does it really matter what the man in the pulpit does or does not believe?
The “general feeling” that it doesn’t matter what people believe may be what Kirby experiences in her hometown in Scotland, or hears from some clergy in the Church of England, but it certainly is not the case in evangelicalism. For us, what one believes is indeed a serious matter, as it is for many, many people, which is part of the reason that evangelicalism continues to grow, while the latitudinarian mainline churches are in steep decline.
Finally–and you knew he just couldn’t let this go by without an exercising his famous Oxford donnish snideness–there’s Richard Dawkins. Given that he thinks the entire ecclesiastical enterprise is bunk, he’s got a lot of sympathy for those who livelihoods depend on deception:
These dissembling pastors might therefore be accused of betraying a trust when they continue, Sunday after Sunday, to get up in the pulpit and bemuse churchgoers who take seriously the words that the clergyman himself does not – and yet continues to speak. Are they not grievously culpable for deceiving their congregation and accepting a salary for doing so?
No, their personal predicament warrants more sympathy than that. They know no other way of making a living. They stand to lose friends, family, and their respected place in the community, as well as salary and pension.
You’ve got to wonder whether he’d have as much sympathy for an Oxford colleague who, having come to a point of conviction regarding the flaws of the Darwinian thesis, continued to teach in the biology department, couching his doubts or disbelief in terms of, “well, you know there are serious questions that need to be asked,” and “there are a lot of people who think there may be something to intelligent design.” Does anyone really doubt that such a one would be out on his ear as fast as Dawkins and his atheist colleagues could round up a hanging party? Oh, but that would never happen, says the don:
The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs….Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.
To which I have but one thing to say: Guillermo Gonzalez. The Iowa State University astronomer was denied tenure, not because he wasn’t eminently qualified, or because he didn’t have a stellar record of publications, but because of his involvement with a book entitled The Privileged Planet, which defends intelligent design. Gonzalez isn’t the only academic to feel the wrath of the oh-so-tolerant left/scientific orthodoxy on campus, but his case stands in sharp contrast to the picture presented by Dawkins. The difference, of course, is that churches are forthright about their devotion to orthodoxy, and their lack of patience with those who would repudiate the One who is at the center of our faith. Dawkins, not so much.