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Religious Tolerance logo

Introduction to religious change (Cont'd)

visitors' reactions; why is it so touchy?

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What are racism, sexism and homophobia?

The most important changes in religious beliefs over the past two centuries have involved the abandonment of racism, sexism and homophobia -- specifically the abolition of human slavery, the attainment of equality by women, and seeking equal rights for homosexuals and bisexuals. On the horizon and closing in quickly are equal rights for transgender persons and transsexuals.

Unfortunately, the English language lacks precision in matters related to these words. Consider the term "racism." It has at least three main meanings:

bulletA belief that people of other races are inherently inferior to individuals of one's own race.
bulletHatred, fear, or rejection of persons of one or more races.
bulletPromoting or applying laws or customs that discriminate against persons of one or more races.

Often, one must study the context in which the term is used in order to determine which meaning is intended.

The three meanings are related. A racist will often start with a belief that people of a given race are inferior. This leads to hatred, fear, or rejection. The final stage is to actively discriminate against persons on the basis of race.

In this section of the web site, we will use the third definition for racism when describing how Christian denominations changed their teachings on the ultimate manifestation of racism: human slavery in North America. Similarly, we will describe changes in Christian teachings on discrimination against women, homosexuals and bisexuals, and transsexuals.

Visitors' reactions to this section:

This section generates many irate Emails from readers.

bulletMany believe that their interpretation of the Bible requires that women and men be restricted to certain specific roles in the family, church and the rest of society. They conclude that such restrictions cannot be considered to be sexism because they see it as part of as God's will for humanity. There is not much that we can do in response to such Emails, except to point out the definition that we use of the term "sexism." Sexism is an action; it is still sexism even if it is motivated by religious belief.
bulletOthers believe that same-sex behavior is profoundly sinful, irrespective of the nature of the relationship. Because their interpretation of the Bible's "clobber passages" on homosexuality, they conclude that discrimination against persons with minority sexual orientations is God's will and cannot be considered on a par with racism and sexism. Again, all we can do is point to the main definition of "homophobia."
bulletStill others are distressed because, to them, "homophobia" means fear of homosexuals. They do not fear gays and lesbians; they merely want to discriminate against them by withholding fundamental human rights including the right to marry, and perhaps imprisoning them for their behavior. Actually, the term has many meanings, and nobody has created a word that refers uniquely to discrimination against homosexuals. Until such a term surfaces and becomes generally accepted, we are forced to use "homophobia."

Why is religious change such a touchy topic?

Faith groups do change their beliefs and teachings over time in response to secular pressures, cultural pressures, and theological developments. However, this is a topic that many denominations do not handle well. After all, if a denomination openly discusses how it has committed errors in the past, or has changed its teaching or behavior, its members may wonder which of its current teachings are in error. They may ask which will need to be changed in the future; what current church beliefs and practices will be seen as sinful by future generations?

The Roman Catholic Church ran into this problem in the year 2000 when Pope John Paul II issued the "Memory and Reconciliation" document. It apologized to "women, Jews, Gypsies [Roma], other Christians, and Catholics" for mass murders and other forms of oppression committed by church leaders during the previous 16 centuries. Some observers were critical of the document:

bulletJoan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle asked: "But what about the mistakes of the present? Let's hope acknowledgment of today's exclusion and rejection of women won't have to wait for whoever is pope during the next Jubilee." 1
bulletFather Jean-Louis Brugues noted that Roman Catholics from outside the United States and Europe had expressed discomfort at atoning for the sins of past church leaders. He said: "There was also concern, especially in areas where Christians are in a minority, that seeking forgiveness might be seen as a sign of weakness.'' 2

And so, many denominations tend to ignore past changes and teach that they follow the faith unchanged from the time when it was once delivered unto the saints 3

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Joan Ryan, "A partial confession from the pope," San Francisco Chronicle, 2000-MAR-14, at: http://www.sfgate.com/
  2. Crispian Balmer, "Catholic Church establishes forgiveness framework," Reuters, 2000-MAR-1. See: http://dailynews.yahoo.com/ This article appears to be offline.
  3. From Jude 1:3: "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." (King James Version).

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Copyright © 2006 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAY-29
Latest update: 2009-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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