Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Least Trusted: Religious Leader

"Ruh Roh!!!" as Scooby Doo or Astro would say. I think me, and people like me might be in trouble. The Scientific American with it's sister publication Nature offered an online poll which asked the question "Whom do you typically trust to provide accurate information about important issues in society?" The Scientific American then published an article based on this poll in late September. It listed a number of topics such as climate change, evolution, vitamins and supplements, cancer causes and cures, origin of the universe and food safety. Then it listed eight different categories of people such as family and friends, scientists, journalists, elected officials, religious leaders and companies. The scale was 1 (strongly distrust) to 5 (strongly trust).

The results were fascinating and disturbing. In this particular poll, scientists were the number 1 pick, family and friends were second. The bottom end of the spectrum was telling. Number 5 were journalists, number 6 were companies, number 7 were elected officials and number 8 were religious leaders.

Did you get that? Dead last: clergy and religious leaders were the LEAST trusted when it came to providing accurate information about important issues in society. Now I accept that this is not a random sampling. It is 21,000 people who took a poll on websites supported by Scientific American and Nature. By and large these are highly educated people and may or may not be terribly religious.

However, when religious leaders rank behind "politicians" and "journalists", it is disturbing, at least to me. Not because I am surprised, but because it brings home to me how "religious leaders" have squandered our ability to be taken seriously. Those religious leaders who are in the news are those who tend toward the extremes (can we point to Topeka, Kansas and the small church in Florida recently in the news?).

I know, I know, tolerant, thinking theologians are not nearly as interesting as extremists. Pastors/Religious Leaders have offered cliches, judgments and simple answers to complex problems. Pastors/religious leaders have offered biblical answers for complex scientific problems and thinking people have left the church and any kind of faith.

In the Christian tradition we have only ourselves to blame. Those Christian believers who prefer simple easy answers are often the ones who work the hardest to make sure their viewpoint is heard. Many mainline denominations have been so quiet in order to stay middle of the road, that both the extremes, have walked away.

I believe we need well educated, thoughtful theologians and religious leaders to weigh in on those "important issues" in society. While I acknowledge I am no scientist, I work hard to be well read and to keep up on the ethical, moral and societal issues that we face in this culture. I want to be able weigh in ethically, theologically and yes morally on those things that really matter. The only way that can happen is if I am willing to continue to be part of discussions outside the walls of my particular church that I serve, beyond my denomination and beyond even the realm of "believers".

I am committed to an ongoing discussion with people of faith and people of science and people who do not fall into either camp. I believe we must find ways to continue to address the deep needs not only of our culture, but of our world. I will continue to read, to study and to find ways to share ethically, theologically and morally to make the world a better place. In that I am committed to be

Graced to Serve,


  1. Very powerful piece by Chris Hedges in Truthout about the collapse of "liberal elites," which used to try to mitigate capitalism's worst excesses but now can't or won't; worth reading the whole thing, but this line stands out: "Artistic expression, along with most religious worship, is largely self-absorbed narcissism meant to entertain without offense." Anyone who has ever tried to say anything substantial from the pulpit knows he's not wrong.

  2. Sci. Amer. and Nature poll those who come to its online site inquiring who is most trusted on questions related to climate change, evolution, vitamins and supplements, cancer causes and cures, origin of the universe and food safety. Results indicate scientist (surprise?) are most trusted and ministers are (surprise?) least trusted. Conduct the same exact poll with a series of questions of interest to a similarly "balanced" population of participants. Let that poll be conducted by those with a vested interest in the result. In the both cases, a reasonable man would recognize that the poll was fundamentally flawed. The only difference would be that the second instance is only an illustration. The first instance is a actual poll, fundamentally flawed.

    There are legitimate criticisms to be lodged against those who are ministers. There is every reason for those involved in professional ministry to give attention to these criticisms. Where these criticisms are merited, positive change should be the response. Where that criticism reflects a collision of Christian faith with secular practice, then Believers need to simply consider the source, remember who is the Lord of their life and then act accordingly.

    There are many reasons for Believers to engage in cross discipline conversation and dialogue. It is not necessary to find a rational for that engagement in a poll that, conducted by any other organization, would upon thoughtful examination be seen as at best inadequate if not in fact completely erroneous.