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Brian D. McLaren

Brian D. McLaren

Posted: April 5, 2010 11:16 AM

It's not hard to fall out of the good graces of the most conservative elements of any religious community. And those authority figures often become even more testy under stress. One doesn't have to go far to see some of the sources of that stress, whether we're looking among Evangelical Christians (as Carol Howard Merritt recently described) or among Roman Catholic Christians (as Ian Masters recently summarized).

The impact of conservative or fundamentalist displeasure extends far beyond fundamentalism's borders into moderate religious territory. As some of the New Atheists have pointed out, highly conservative authority figures multiply their power by keeping moderate elements afraid of becoming the objects of conservative ire.

Having succeeded in becoming such an object through my writings (especially my latest book, A New Kind of Christianity), I'm often asked during interviews why many Evangelicals dislike me so much. The question has prompted me to reflect on religious authority and its workings.

The classic Milgram experiment performed at Yale in the early 1960s showed that a strong majority of normal people will surrender their conscience to a person perceived as a legitimate authority figure. When people were instructed by an authoritative researcher to administer electric shocks of increasing intensity after each wrong answer given by a stranger (who was actually an actor cooperating with the test), they complied in alarming numbers. And they kept complying, continuing to press the punishment button after the person had screamed in pain and then apparently gone unconscious. Milgram explained:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

In my opinion, multitudes of Christians find themselves in a real-life Milgram experiment these days. Their consciences are in conflict with their beloved religious authority figures on several key issues -- ten of which I raise in my book -- but they continue to press the punishment button when instructed to do so. For example:

Many find it increasingly unconscionable to believe that they are among the elect and their non-Christian neighbors (and in many cases, their doctrinally-different Christian neighbors as well) are damned, awaiting eternal conscious torment in hell for their failure to convert to the Christian faith. They realize that this belief has a wide range of negative psychological, social, and political impacts, and they have questions and doubts about the whole system, but they remain silent.

Many have lost confidence in a violent God who punishes people for the sins of their ancestors, who uses tsunamis and earthquakes to visit wrath on the disgraced, who blesses wars of choice, and so on. But they publicly defend this view of God in spite of their private misgivings.

Many continue to oppose full human rights for Palestinians because they believe end-time Bible prophecies mandate their underdog status, and because they believe God has granted special privileges and ethical exemptions to the Israeli government. When they hear about the injustices being suffered by Palestinians, they still keep silent. The day-to-day political power of the Christian Zionist lobby in the United States (which has enormous control in the world of religious broadcasting) thus becomes a kind of daily repeat of the Milgram experiment.

Many are afraid to admit that they voted for Barack Obama, or believe in evolution, or are concerned about global climate change, or are OK with their friends being gay or priests being married, or use birth control, or wish women could be treated as equals in their church, or don't take every word of the Bible as having equal authority and historical accuracy. If they speak up, they will be shunned by their religious authorities -- and zapped by their fellow Christians who have been told to press the punishment button when anyone dares to differ by giving the "wrong" answer. So they comply.

When some of us raise questions about these and other issues, and especially when we question some of the underlying theological assumptions that have created these harmful patterns repeatedly through history, we are subjected to the pain buzzer as well. Our motives are judged, our words are twisted, our proposals are misinterpreted, and our books are even banned or burned. But we aren't complaining; we're just sayin': if we, their fellow Christians, are treated like this, how is it going to be for Muslims, gays, Palestinians, and the poor, not to mention the polar bears and rain forests?

So the best way to stay out of religious trouble is to keep your opinions private whenever they differ from the most strident inquisitors in your religious community. If you feel a twinge of guilt when you condemn a person for being gay, don't think about it. Just press the button. When you use dehumanizing language for people of other faith traditions -- or of other opinions within your own faith tradition -- don't feel bad. Just press the button again. Side with your religious authority figures, not with those being criticized, scapegoated, condemned, excluded, and zapped. If you believe what you're told and verbally zap those who differ, you won't get in trouble.

But then again, if these religious authorities are such good people, why do you have to be so afraid of them?

What Stanley Milgram said about "ordinary people simply doing their jobs" could also be said about ordinary Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or atheists) simply following their leaders.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

I'm a Christian. I love God, Jesus, the Bible, prayer, worship, serving others -- the whole package. But when my conscience tells me that I'm hurting people by complying with religious conventions, I don't keep pressing the button. I start asking questions. That's why I wrote my book, and that's why I'm willing to get into trouble for it.

Brian McLaren, a former pastor, is the author of a dozen books, most recently A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperOne). He blogs at brianmclaren.net.