Daniel Dennett, in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon relates how he interviewed groups of religious people while preparing to make a scientific study of religion. Often, when interviewing a group from the same church, he found individual religious beliefs varied strongly. This surprised him, and certainly suprised members of the groups who may have never discussed this subject amongst themselves before.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. If religion is more of a tradition than a belief (What is religion?) religious believers don’t necessarily adopt (or even concern themselves with) the professed beliefs of their religion (Do you believe your religion?). Their religious beliefs may evolve more from trying to accommodate the original dogma and the ceremonies of their religion with modern understanding of the world. The different beliefs probably arise because, for most, this is probably a personal exercise.
What about the church leaders?
There seems to be a similar situation when we look at the beliefs of religious leaders. What strikes me is that these personal beliefs often bear little resemblance to the professed dogma of the church they represent. For example, despite the concept of a personal god being common to the teachings of most Christian churches their leaders can have a range of understandings of a god. These vary all the way from the personal God of the Bible to concepts such as “God is love” (see Herald article ‘I’m no wishy-washy non-believer’ about Bishop Randerson’s agnostic beliefs), of even a Christianity without a god (Llyod Geering’s book Christianity without God, for example). Again, we can explain this as a matter of adjusting the church dogma to modern understandings of the world.
However, these leaders whose professed personal beliefs bear little resemblance to church dogma still, in their leadership of church ceremony and in their public pronouncements, seek to perpetuate that dogma. And in the process they encourage their “flock” to use “faith” rather than reason. The agnostic Bishop will still lead prayers to a personal God! OK, I can accept that this is the power of tradition taking over. But the problem is that the dogma, the personal God with all that implies, and the appeal to and justification of faith contains so much of what is bad about religion.
So we have church leaders with modern, progressive and liberal personal views in effect encouraging archaic, reactionary and dangerous ideas.