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Last updated: Sep 12th, 2018

Personal Religious Beliefs vs Official Organizational Stances

This is an article version of the message in my YouTube video by the same name. You can watch the video here (apologies for the poor sound quality, this was only my second vlog ever):

People often fail to make a distinction between the official organizational stance of a religion, such as official teachings or doctrine, and what members of that religion actually believe. This distinction can be important both for religions as a whole, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., for broad groupings such as Protestantism, and also for more specific sects or denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, or even individual churches or other small communities.

Individual beliefs may or may not correspond to "official" beliefs

In the case of some religions, such as Catholicism, the official stance of the organization as a whole is that everyone is "supposed to" believe or agree fully with the "official" beliefs of the religion. In practice, however, if you look at people who identify as Catholic (and are typically included as "Catholic" in demographic surveys, counts of numbers of adherents of that faith, etc.), including those who actively practice the religion such as by attending Church and integrating its teachings into their daily lives, many of these people don't actually believe all of the official teachings. I know this to be true from talking to a large number of Catholics: while some of them do agree fully with the church's belief system, many do not.

For many other organizations and religious sects, the insistence on agreement with official beliefs is less strict. Some denominations or churches have a small, pared down set of core beliefs that they expect all members or adherents to believe fully, but then they have a variety of other beliefs and stances which people are not expected to agree with fully. Other religions may not even place much emphasis on belief at all, instead considering people to belong to the religion based on lineage, or having a set of official beliefs but not expecting people to agree with any particular ones. Many groups also have beliefs that they see more as a cultural mythology or set of stories with metaphorical or symbolic meaning and moral lessons, but not meant to be taken as literal beliefs.

I've also had many interesting conversations with people of a wide range of religious affiliations, and I've consistently been surprised by the unexpected and sometimes fascinating ways in whichc people's beliefs deviate from the "official" teachings of their denominations.

Christian beliefs on transubstantiation as example

One example of this incongruence between official and actual beliefs became apparent to me when talking to Protestants and Catholics about transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine taken during communion actually become the body and blood of Christ, rather than just being symbolic. "On paper", Catholics "believe" this and Protestants "don't believe" this, and this difference in belief is given as one of the main justifications for why Protestants are not allowed to take communion during Catholic services.

When I actually talk to individual Catholics and Protestants about this topic, I was surprised to find both Catholics who don't believe in it, and perhaps more surprisingly, Protestants who do believe in it.

What can we do with this knowledge?

I think the most valuable takeaway from the observation that individual people's beliefs can differ from official organizational stances, is to simply acknowledge that it happens. When we hear about a religion or religious organization's beliefs or stances, it is important for us not to assume that all members or adherents of that religion or organization actually believe all those beliefs, even if the organization itself claims that they do.

We can also acknowledge this truth in how we talk about what members of religions or religious organizations believe. For example, I recommend avoiding making statements like:

I don't like these sorts of statements; I find them untruthful given the things I discussed above. Some exmaples of more truthful ways of describing people's religious beliefs include:

I think these statements are much more truthful because they avoid making claims (explicit or implied) about adherents of the religion or members of the organization actually believing those things.

Making these distinctions in our speech can help us to better understand people and religion, and the relationship between people and their religion(s). I also think it leads to more truthful and accurate discussion of religion.

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