Religious People Can Be Imperfect: It's Okay

I was at the library this afternoon, picking up Robert Frost and Edgar Allen Poe for my folklore class--thanks to everyone who has sent me suggestions for my folklore class!

I came across a book about a man losing his faith. I flipped it open and immediately come across this argument (which I've encountered before):

I know so many religious people who don't practice what they preach; their religions (organized religions, usually) must therefore be pointless or useless or false.

I wanted to go on record as saying, I have never understood this argument.

I was raised Mormon, and I'm still active. I was raised Mormon by incredibly decent people, and I grew up around some of the nicest people in the world (sure, my family is opinionated, and I'm hardly suggesting we're perfect, but my siblings and parents are seriously nice), and I still don't understand this argument.

In other words, I have every reason in the world to think that religious people (or people raised in religions) do practice their beliefs, thereby justifying my upbringing and belief system . . .

And I still have never understood this argument.

The argument rests on one or more fallacies, and the fallacies are, well, fallacious:

Fallacy #1: People practice their beliefs.

Got people? The gap between practice and belief is a fundamental truth of human nature from parents who smoke but tell their kids not to all the way to environmentalists who inform you about the earth's dewindling resources with one of their 2 million pamphlets (recycle, schmycled; it's still paper). And these are, perhaps, obvious hypocrisies. There are still the gaps between private and public acts/beliefs and private and public faces. Yes, ideally (see 2), people should be the same everywhere they go although I'm not even sure about that. I'm politically libertarian and religiously conservative. That is, I support certain actions politically that I don't practice personally. However, I don't pretend about it to anyone, so maybe that's the point.

Fallacy #2: People should practice their beliefs, and if they don't, there is something wrong with their beliefs.

The problem with this argument--which is obviously problematic but lots of people buy into it--is its corollary: If people do practice their beliefs, those beliefs must be true. Most people will reject this latter statement as erroneous but accept the prior statement as true.

If I'm right, and people are flawed (and I am, by the way: flawed and right), then #2 is a non-starter. I can act like my town doesn't have traffic laws, but it won't stop the police from pulling me over. However, "truth" in this case is big UNIVERSAL TRUTH, not little-law-bending truth. Still, I don't see why my actions or feelings should automatically substantiate or negate a universal truth to anyone other than myself. "Only your parents and your friends have reason to believe you," I tell my students. I can teach them about European witchcraft trials and mention that over a span of 300 years, the chances of a woman being accused of witchcraft were astronomically less than her dying in childbirth or, speaking in terms of modern statistics, being murdered, but that doesn't mean my students will believe me or care. (My next job, as an academician, would be to give them proof.)

In other words, a thing can be true, or not true, without any emotional involvement or particular personal investment by the people facing that thing. To segue into House, House needs assistants who can afford to be wrong--because there is a right answer, but they might not always get it. They have to be prepared to be wrong about the right answer since the answer isn't relative, and how nice or good or wonderful or well-meaning they are won't necessarily get them that answer. Something can be true, even if nobody acts as if it is true.

Fallacy #3: People should practice their beliefs, but if they only practice part of them, that's as good as them not practicing any of them.

This isn't too different from that bumper sticker I hate: "No one is free if others are oppressed." And it is so fundamentally inaccurate, it's hard to know how reasonable/perceptive people can believe it. A man may be nice to his wife and kids but not so nice to his neighbors. It doesn't follow that his inability to be nice to everyone means that he is an entire failure at his religion.

That doesn't mean he shouldn't be nice to his neighbors; it just isn't an either/or proposition. Flaws do not indicate complete failure. I suppose there is a point where the equation tips, and the flaws outweigh the average person's ability to be perceived as good and kind. But from my perspective, that equation had better be pretty generous. I think many an academic argument has failed to understand an event or individual because the equation was not generous enough. I'm reading The Magician's Book by Laura Miller right now in which Ms Miller attempts to balance what she perceives as C.S. Lewis's flaws with his talents in order to reach a balanced appreciation of books (the Narnia Chronicles) she loved as a child. I don't completely agree with her analysis or her arguments (or even her form of criticism since I put more weight on performance than I do on reading-between-the-lines), but I can read her book because of her generous perspective.

Deciding that someone's failure to live up to an ideal is the sum total of that someone's personality is not an accurate, or charitable, assessment.

Fallacy #4: All groups are nasty to outsiders, thus all groups are bad; if someone is dissatisfied with a group (i.e. organized religion), it must mean that group has treated that person badly and behaved intolerantly (no other reason).

Actually, there's some truth to the first part of this argument. Here's an example:

Back when I lived in Washington State, I listen to a lot of talk radio. One day, I was listening to a discussion of "whether gays can be Republican." I don't really understand these types of arguments. I figure people can do whatever they want. But the guest speaker, a gay writer about economics (no, the three things have no automatic relationship, but that's how he was presented) was talking, and I started listening, and okay, I'll admit it, it wasn't really what he was saying because frankly, economics bore me, it was his voice: Bing Crosby meets James Earl Jones. Golden honey.

So he gets done talking, and people start calling in, and a lot of the callers say things like, "Hi, I'm a fundamentalist conservative, and I think what you have to say is great!"

Any guesses on the angriest callers? Yep, those who thought the man had "betrayed" the Democratic Party by being a fiscal conservative.

I think my disillusionment about so-called liberal/left "tolerance" started about then. Well, I was never really "disillusioned" because I've never really believed liberals were automatically more tolerant than anyone else, but my belief that similar types of human reactions can be found within any group received serious support on that day.

And that reaction--"Traitor!"--isn't atypical. Humans are social animals and tend to act accordingly. We shouldn't (says the libertarian in me), but we do, and it isn't all bad; it just isn't all good (I'm not an anarchist, just a libertarian).

What bothers me about the claim, "All groups are nasty to outsiders, thus all groups are bad, so (to paraphrase) all dissatisfaction by the individual must rest with the group" is how seldom that claim allows for nuance and complication: that is, a group behaves a certain way, and everyone assumes that the group is behaving according to the cliché without examining the underlying, individual causes or variations.

Example #1: Burning witches is nasty; however, the cliché states that sweet, angelic, herb-planting midwives were scampering about their beautiful gardens worshipping earth-goddesses when the mean patriarchy (organized group) came along and burned them. For no reason at all!

Writers, such as Diane Purkiss, have pointed out that the witches weren't always angelic or midwives (in fact, often midwives testified against witches) or even automatically pagan. Writers, such as Dan Burton and David Grandy, have pointed out that most witch accusations were made in small communities that contained long-standing grudges (not exactly systematic) and that in the few cases where accusations were systematic, men and boys were often executed as well.

The cliché tells a generalized truth: generally, women were accused and executed more than men, and generally, they tended to be marginalized members of their communities. Plus burning witches isn't nice. But it misses all the real-life realities: all the interesting stuff about actual trials and cases and individuals.

Example #2: When I first moved to Maine, I worked as a secretary in a law school. It was one of the most ideologically diverse places I've ever worked. We were all white but religiously and politically speaking, we had a representative for just about every position: mainstream, fundamentalist, atheist, agnostic, Democratic, liberal, Republican, conservative, Marxist . . .

Everyone got along okay, but ideologically-speaking, I was just about the only person there who didn't think someone was out to get me: big business, liberals, crazy religious people, diehard right-wingers, etc. etc. etc.

I figured they couldn't all be right--at least, not all right in the same place at the same time: Southern Maine wasn't going to become, in the next ten years, a left-leaning, fascist nightmare filled with godless, God-fearing fundamentalist Donald Trumps. I mean, sure, Maine taxes people to death, but I'm not sure one could blame that on a left-leaning-fascist-godless-God-fearing-fundamentalist-Donald-Trump. One could try, I suppose. But it would be kind of hard. I don't think even I could do it, and I believe that people are complicated and don't come all-of-a-piece.

This is the problem with saying (to condense the fallacy), "Oh, the group is to blame; the group is making me unhappy." It could be true. The people where I worked believed it was true, but that didn't automatically make it true or even probable. In fact, they'd each created an image of an anti-group and then become frightened by the image. (Who are all these conspiring people? Where are they?) I was more impressed by the fact that everyone got along okay, no matter how paranoid.

In other words, groups can behave badly, but they also usually behave complexly, so blaming the group (rather than the individual) may be correct, but it also may not, especially since the group--or the image of the group--may not even exist. In any case, "the group as bad guy" is not a given.

My conclusion: Give me the particulars first. I want to know the people before I judge the situation. Whatever the situation.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know, I don't always do this as thoroughly as I should--see #3 above.


  1. I think to an extent you are responding to a straw man argument by setting one up yourself.

    Anti-regligionists (for lack of a better phrase) tend to miss the point that many religions, especially Christianity, are aspirational--that is, it teaches an ideal and challenges the believer to achieve it. Christianity actually has as its core theology that everyone will fall short, but there is a mechanism (repentance) to try again. (Oddly, even Christians often miss that point--one thing I got very wary of when a believer was all the notion that there is a limit to repentance, either in frequency or extent. Stating, for example, that anyone guilty of this, can never be allowed to do that.)

    On the other hand, pro-religionists miss the point that if almost everyone ignores a certain tenant of a religion then there is something seriously wrong with that tenant. Add too many of these things together and it does raise serious questions about that religion and reinforces the view that it exists only as a way for one person or group to control another, and isn't representative of God at all.

    Another problem with pro-religionists is that if the founders and/or leaders of a religion or sect weren't/aren't practicing what they preach[ed], that is a real problem. The apologist can't just wave it away and think that's sufficient. (If a religion is founded on the premise that everything man-made must be literally colored black or white and it later comes out that the founder only owned one black and white suit and everything else man-made in his life was blue, I think we could safely assume the religion was bunk.)

    The second point is that hypocrisy is real, though with my twisted philosophy it's more nuanced (cringe) than that. Preaching an ideal that you try to follow, but fail at isn't hypocritical IF your attempts are genuine. One way to detect hypocrisy is how lame the excuses are for failure (porn made me do it being among the lamest, followed by "it was the alcohol" and anything with the word "addict".)

  2. I completely agree that pro-religionists (religionites?) should be tougher. I get tired of wimpy religion. For instance, I think there are legitimate, legal, even social reasons why gay marriage is a problematic proposition, but my reaction to religious arguments against gay marriage is: If marriage is that important, then work on having a good one! (And if gay marriage is that big a threat--in the free-est country on earth--how would you ever maintain your faith in a tougher time under tougher circumstances?)

    I also agree that leadership hypocrisy is often a bigger deal to how a religion is judged than laypeople hypocrisy
    although, often, leaders can be flawed without being total losers (and will be products of their age and backgrounds: yes, yes, I know, they will sometimes claim not, but I figure such complacency or self-righteousness, is one of their flaws. But this is a personal judgment call, not a percentile one).

    However, the argument "flawed people=bad religion" is so common (the book I picked up was going on about the "flaws" of laypeople specifically, not outright evil or anything), and so weak (in strawman's terms), I think people should occasionally point it out!

  3. "My conclusion: Give me the particulars first. I want to know the people before I judge the situation. Whatever the situation."

    I totally agree. I find it very odd how many historians seem to focus on solitary events or singular individuals as if that could ever paint a true picture of what/who happened. I've been reading Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland. Studies have found that people rarely learn from hindsight because they rarely rememeber what actually happened. We tend to repaint our opinion of our past according to our present.

    It makes sense. Studying history I find it fascinating/disturbing how every generation rewrites history from their own perspective. Sometimes this can be helpful in highlighting something that hadn't been noticed before, but there are so many layers of complete rubbish/untruths between the past and the present its amazing we bother to believe anything.

    What really boils my blood, stepping on my soap box, is how complete historical-rubbish is touted as fact by organisations/journals/historians who have been educated to question the story written by people who weren't there, but they don't. So few people bother to question the source of their information and accept as true what already fits with their preconceived opinion of what happened. It's like people are handed several pieces of a puzzle, told it's a picture of a field of poppies (which they haven't seen) and then tell their friends that these five pieces of the sky belong to an image of a field of poppies, but they're passing on their "knowledge" based on someone's word without any proof that it wasn't really a field of wheat...or a dirt field filled with dead bodies.

    I think the most valuable thing one can teach a child is to question everything...of course there is truth in the world, but the dimonds of truth are often burried under worthless dirt. So few people are taught to dig; like the idiots who put forth the opinion that if someone who professes belief in a religion and then doesn't live it exactly means the religion is untrue. Talk about illogical. Since when is a truth dependent on some random person acting on it? With logic like that I'm amazed the human race has managed to survive this long.

  4. Amen! [To keep with the religious motif :)]

    Actually, speaking academically, when I first started teaching English Composition, I never even thought about critical thinking--getting kids to question what they read/encounter. In the past few years, critical thinking has become a bigger and bigger and bigger part of my syllabus.

    One reason I was so wary at first is that I didn't want the students to be cynical; of course, cynicism (or, at least, the brand that I ran into in my master's program) was really just a lack of critical thinking: the bandwagon of "everything is stupid" is not much better than the bandwagon of "everything is lovely and perfect."

    Unfortunately, now I'm wishing my students were at least cynical, and the cynical kids, who don't have great critical thinking skills, actually come off as kind of thoughtful--cause they are, at least, thinking about something!

    But it still isn't a great solution. For example, in my master's program, there was this woman who was dead-set against "patriarchal" textbooks, not to mention written primary sources from the "patriarchal" past: "Students think it is true because it is written down!"

    She's right. They do. And it's really annoying. But the reason academics get so giddy about written sources is that you can actually check them. Kind of hard to do with oral sources, unless those sources are written down. But this woman had decided that written was bad/masculine, and oral was good/feminine, end of problem.

    She wasn't completely wrong, but she wasn't completely right either. In other words, she hadn't really thought the problem through (a lot of powerful oral communication is male, even patriarchal, and the history of men writing things down has, in many ways, opened up doors for women writing things down); she wasn't, as you say, Cari, questioning everything. She'd just put labels on stuff and decided what was good and what was bad. For me, though, thinking through all the scattered data is what critical thinking is all about; however, saying so makes me feel like a lone voice in the wilderness!

    Well, not so lone!