Religion, religious authority, and anti-religious sentiment among social justice movements

Note: This post will be talking about Christianity and Catholicism in the U.S. in particular, but I intend for it to be generally applicable to religions whose authorities have vocally opposed social justice movements elsewhere. The social justice movements I give as examples are those for allowing same-sex marriage and for allowing abortion to remain legal, but I think my argument is applicable for any social justice movement that has had opposition from religious authorities.

There is no question that Pope Benedict XVI and other high Catholic authorities are not in favor of governments allowing same-sex marriages or of women becoming priests, but this does not necessarily mean that Catholicism is itself homophobic and anti-woman. The only way to reach that conclusion with evidence is if we define Catholicism itself as its current high authorities, namely, the Pope, church law, the Pope’s interpretation of scriptures, and other Vatican officials’ interpretations of scriptures. Only if we define Catholicism itself as its central authorities can we reach the conclusions that being feminist and being Catholic, or being a same-sex marriage advocate and a Catholic, are incongruent.

Such arguments are not new. In the past in the U.S., Christianity has been used in defense of such injustices as slavery and denying women the vote. Several passages in the Bible approve of slavery, and countless passages advocate the idea that women are not as rational as men. It is rational to expect that in those times, people argued that a person could not be both an abolitionist and a Christian, or a suffragist and a Christian. These passages are no longer used in the U.S. in defense of slavery or in defense of restricting suffrage to men, and no one today would be taken seriously for arguing that supporting women’s suffrage or being against slavery are incongruent with Christianity. The people of a religion are eventually able to change the authorities of that religion.

Religious authorities have changed with the people of those religions in the past, and it is rational to expect that they will continue to do so in response to social justice movements among the people of a religion and among people outside that religion. Social justice movements that do not originate in religious communities permeate religions when there is interaction between religious groups and non-religious groups, something that is made possible by living in cities, living in suburbs, attending public schools, attending colleges, or communicating with people over the internet—facilitating the exchange of ideas between different groups constitutes an important step in achieving social change.

If we argue as some do that religion in itself is misogynistic or homophobic, we take the positions that it is impossible not only to be feminist and Christian or to be in favor of same-sex marriage and be Christian, but also to be a woman and be Christian or to experience same-sex attraction and be Christian. Taking such positions alienates Christians who advocate for keeping abortion legal and Christians who advocate for same-sex marriage. The purpose of a social justice movement is to achieve social change by garnering as much support for the change as possible. If we alienate groups of people from a cause by arguing that it is impossible to be feminist and not-atheist or impossible to be in favor of same-sex marriage and not-atheist, what movement are we really supporting? We don’t gain support for keeping abortion legal and allowing same-sex marriage by alienating religious people from those movements. We are making the same argument as religious authorities against those social changes: “You are not a real Christian if you are not against same-sex marriage and abortion being legal.”

I am not in favor of being told what to believe, especially in terms of religion, from any authority. I resent being told, “You can’t be a member of this religious community unless you agree with [insert political view here].” There is no valid justification for why anyone should tell anyone else “You can’t be a participant in this movement unless you are anti-theist and anti-religious.” You are not really supporting keeping abortion legal or allowing same-sex marriage by continuing this exclusionary anti-religious sentiment: You are only trying to push your religious position on others.

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