Can you judge a religion by its followers?

Can we judge the truth or merit of a religion by the attitudes, actions, and beliefs of its adherents?

Using Christianity as an example:
Look at greedy, fame-hungry pastors, sexual and mental abuse within the church, gossiping and cliqueish groups, divorce rates as high or higher for religious vs. non-religious couples, war/sexism/homophobia/intolerance in the name of God or holy book, division between denominations, etc.

Can the merits of a “life-changing” God and savior be judged by the lives not changed? Should someone say “I’m going to leave Christianity because of (insert group of people)”?

I was a fan of saying “Judge the religion by its tenants, not its people,” but I still wonder if you can make a decision about a religion based on the followers.

Take Islam for example… You may see Muslims saying “Islam is a religion of peace” but meanwhile extremists are bombing innocents in marketplaces and schooling children on the use of automatic weapons. Can one say “Well, despite all the killing and the intolerance, Islam is a religion of peace.” Can one overlook the evidence to the contrary no matter what?



8 thoughts on “Can you judge a religion by its followers?

  1. I think we have to. One can study one’s way through the Bible, or the Quran, or any holy text, but in the end, religion is lived in community. Warts and all. For each power-hungry pastor, there’s a well-adjusted, intelligent believer who strives to live a holy life. Blessings.

  2. I don’t know enough about Islam (does it propose to produce change, or to simply proclaim a standard?) to have an opinion there; but as to Christianity, I have a few thoughts.
    If as you assert, Christianity proclaims itself as an agent of change, then it won’t do to simply compare believers and non-believers. One must look at the change in each individual. To reduce the statistical problem to the absolute minimum, let’s assign “virtue” (whatever that means) a number from 1 to 10. You may note that believers and non-believers have similar scores. Let’s imagine even that non-believers average a score of 6, and believers a score of only 5.5.
    This looks very bad for the believer’s camp.
    But that assumes that the two groups were identical in the “Before Christianity” condition. What if Christianity attracted mostly people who scored only a 4? If so, then the average “after” score of 5.5 would reflect a very real improvement, possibly due to their conversion.

    Of course, nothing in my little “thought experiment” bears on what the actual facts are, just the ever-needful caution that our analysis be careful.
    I suppose I should take at least a stab at the real question, “are these claims true?” I expect that among those who have embraced Christianity as an active choice, rather than as a cultural accretion, would self-report as a low “virtue” score. I know I would have. Jesus said that he came as a physician to those who knew they were sick.
    Anecdotally, I certainly know non-Christians who far surpass me doing good, in acting virtuously, and whom I wish to emulate. But the issue on the table is “change of behavior”, not “present quality of behavior.” In the case-by-case analysis needed, I find at least in my own case, a positive force.

  3. The one thing you can’t measure when looking at a religion is the component that means the most: their faith. A lot of bad things have been done in the name of religion, and I would wager that few of those sprouted out of a true faith in God.

  4. I do think you can seperate the followers from the faith. I don’t dislike Christianity but I do dislike the actions of some Christians. I could say the same for many other religions. it does get hard to seperate the faith and followers if you don’t have an understanding of the faith. I certainly do not know much about the Islamic faith so some of the things Muslims do in the name of Allah does make the faith appear to be quite awful. But until I learn about the faith I really cannot allow my own ignorances to cloud the faith.

  5. I think the only way to judge a religion is by how closely it adheres to what is actually true. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of work, but I can’t think of many shortcuts. IMHO, a lot of the tension between some Christians today can be traced to what we think they stand on rather than what they actually hold. As a Catholic, I often hear people say something like, “Well, I just can’t get past . . .” and then they mention something that is a significant misunderstanding of what the Catholic church actually believes. I want to offer the benefit of the doubt and assume that they have a real concern rather than a disguised prejudice, but offers to clarify the real belief are sometimes poorly received.

    Regarding the “judging by the followers” question, it wouldn’t have been a good idea to judge Jesus by his followers in his lifetime. They were waffling, obtuse, self-aggrandizing, traitorous sleepyheads. But look what God did with them, to their great surprise!

  6. I’d prefer people judge a “religion” by the god/God it follows. Too many followers want/make their “religion” to be what they want it to be rather than what its god/God wants it to be. The Bible is very clear on some things and not so clear on others. It clearly states not to argue amongst believers about the not so clear things, and to hold each other(believers) accountable to the clear things. Too many Christians like to argue and cause division about the small things. Too many “Christians” don’t like Gods stance on the clear things and want to put God in their little make belief box and call it Christianity. I’ll tell you one thing, a person can’t be a Christian and be politically correct. Society tells us that all lifestyles are good but different. If a person agrees with that then Christ died for nothing and all people of the world are saved because surely God respects all peoples decisions. Clearly some “Christians” either don’t read or like what God says in the Bible. That goes for “Christians” who perpetrate crimes in the name of God and for “Christians” who promote sin in the name of God. People need to make up their minds and either need to deny God and get it over with or submit to him and his will.

  7. If anything I say anytime clearly disputes what the Bible says, I’d like to be the first to know. That way I could pray about it and correct my ways.

  8. Well, if we’re going to judge a religion by its tenants that would be the same thing as judging it by its adherents, since a “tenant” is someone who dwells within (generally a building).

    But if you wanted to judge a religion by its tenets — that might work. It is appropriate, I believe, to ask whether a religion’s tenets are transforming the lives of its adherents. But we must also ask if the believers are understanding correctly, living it out correctly, etc. Today there is a wide disparity between what Christianity actually espouses and what those who claim to be Christians practice.

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