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By Robert A. Vella

The definition of loyalty as unwavering devotion to a person or idea is something of a misnomer.  Whether voluntary or not, people are loyal only as long as the conditions upon which it is based remain in effect.  Marital loyalty is lost when one or both spouses break the vows they had made to each other or the mutual trust they had shared.  Dictators lose the loyalty of their subjects when it can no longer be sustained through coercive or manipulative means.  Ideas lose the loyalty of supporters when exposed as being fundamentally flawed or fraudulent.

Loyalty is a trait highly regarded in human cultures precisely because it is so transient.  Disloyalty is as conversely reviled because it is perceived as being ubiquitous.  Loyalty requires continual conscious effort.  Disloyalty requires only impulsive behavior.  To maintain the loyalty of others, people commonly employ guilt and even fear as psychological tools.  Both are powerful emotions, and their skillful application can be particularly effective.

John was a terribly abusive man towards his family and pets.  Soon, his cat had enough of it and ran away one evening.  His dog stayed longer, then it too escaped when the abuse became too much.  John’s wife and kids remained with him.  For her, it was a question of love and devotion.

The issue of loyalty is not just confined to interpersonal relations.  Our social institutions are greatly depended upon it.  Commercial advertising is a huge industry designed to instill consumer loyalty in brand-name products and services.  Political parties (e.g. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.) do a similar thing promoting ideology and using other methods to target specific demographic groups.  But, no social institution utilizes guilt and fear to garner loyalty as systematically as does religion.  Unlike business and politics, whose tangible activities can be held accountable by the public, religion speaks to the metaphysical realm of spirituality which – at this point in human evolution – still exists beyond the boundaries of objectivity.  This lack of objective frames of reference, which are consequentially limiting for other social institutions, grant religion a special kind of immunity from defection (i.e. apostasy).  This is a major reason why the adherence to various religions are so persistent in human history compared to the longevity of business and political organizations.

Although religious affiliation has been slowly declining in recent years primarily among western democracies, this trend results more from a general growing distrust of social institutions in those nations than it does from a general increase in atheism.  Rationalist arguments intended to discount the notion of god(s) through the application of logic only – as advanced by New Atheism – are not nearly as effective towards reducing the influence of religion as is the propagation of objective, empirical reasoning (i.e. science) afforded by secular education and by people committed to the pursuit of verifiable knowledge (see:  Rationalism vs. Empiricism).

One such person, whose commitment to the pursuit of  knowledge courageously challenged her own former evangelical Christian beliefs, is fellow WordPress blogger Nan Yielding.  In her remarkable book of religious reassessment , titled Things I Never Learned in Sunday School, she brilliantly and succinctly captured the essential quality of objectivity:

“To learn the truth about anything requires investigating the facts for yourself. It means opening your mind and allowing fresh information to enter. There is no doubt that examining new and/or different ideas and concepts about your faith can be scary. You may very well discover things that are in direct contrast with what you have always accepted as fact.”

[The Secular Jurist highly recommends her book.  It contains a very informative, well-reasoned, and well-sourced historical review of religion in human history – specifically Judaism and Christianity – which this blog considers as must-read for everyone regardless of their spirituality or religious affiliation.  For the record, Nan today self-identifies as a “non-believer” who leans “towards Scientific Pantheism and Humanism.”]

Or, as I have wrote on many occasions:

Knowing something to be true requires empirical reasoning and evidentiary proof.  Believing in something only requires faith.”

And:

I see a nation [and a people] deeply troubled by its own delusions, where sublime fantasy is accepted as fact and where inconvenient truths are buried in a cesspool of denial.

Faith, and the denial of objective truths, are imperative for loyalty to religion.  To the Christian fundamentalist, for example, disbelievers are committing the most egregious of sins punishable by eternal damnation to Hell.  The psychological tools of guilt and fear are at play here.  The faithless are bad people who should be ashamed of themselves, and who better become faithful or suffer the most dire of consequences.  In other words, give us your loyalty or else!  These psychological tactics are no different than those used by megalomaniac dictators trying to control a population.  Likewise, religion denies new discoveries if such knowledge contradicts its precepts (e.g. Christian reaction to Darwinian evolution, and 20th century measurements of Earth’s age).  Religious teachings cannot be seen as erroneous else the loyalty to it be shaken.  Only after general consensus is achieved on new discoveries does religion dare acknowledge it albeit through purposeful rationalization.

Which brings us back to my previous point that religion enjoys a special kind of immunity from disloyalty.  Since empirical science poses the greatest existential threat to institutionalized religion, and that science has yet to discover the origin of the cosmos (i.e. what caused the Big Bang from which our observable universe evolved), religious claims of an omnipotent creator-god remain hypothetically possible despite the presence of much more plausible scientific hypotheses.  Furthermore, the idea of a benevolent heavenly father watching over us is emotionally reassuring to people struggling to make sense out of this unforgiving world of ours.

But, are there limits to religious loyalty?  Aside from enlightened deconverts like Nan, can and do religious followers reject their faith?  The answer is yes, and it has nothing to do with questioning one’s belief in god.  As explained earlier, organized religion are social institutions which can fall out of favor in the public’s eye.  Protestantism, for instance, was born from a violent rebellion within the Catholic Church.  Individually, it’s not unusual for people to switch to different denominations or to different religions.  Dissatisfaction with disagreeable policies and/or disgust with internal corruption within one’s church has led many a follower to the allure of greener pastures.

And, there’s no potentially greater cause of religious dissent than the mixing of church and state.  As any professional bartender would know, politics is as divisive an issue as religion.  Mixing the two is bound to set off fireworks.  Anecdotally, there have been rumblings within Christian communities over the behavior and activities of Donald Trump, the new President of the United States.  My neighborhood is one such community.  Finding atheists or even agnostics in this town is like trying to locate a tiny fruit fly in a dark room while wearing sunglasses.  Before the 2016 presidential election campaign began, Christians occasionally exchanged differing opinions about President Barack Obama;  however, those squabbles paled in comparison to the heated arguments currently being waged over Trump.  You see, many Christians are struggling financially (see:  For whites across America, deaths of despair are rising) and depend upon government programs for assistance.  Trump is determined to scale-back or eliminate such benefit programs.  These people are rightly afraid.

Also, some low-income Christians are resentful that their local church leaders pressured the congregation into voting for Mr. Trump.  “I am not a Republican, and not all Christians are Republicans!” retorted one single mom.  Another woman angrily proclaimed that “Trump is the Antichrist!”  A young Christian man who is strongly libertarian stated that “I wanted to vote for Trump but couldn’t because he’s a crazy man.”

I’ll leave you with this final thought:

Upon the laurels of virtue shall the mighty monuments of humankind stand or fall.

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8 thoughts on “Church and State: Are there Limits to Loyalty?

  1. Re “And, there’s no potentially greater cause of religious dissent than the mixing of church and state. As any professional bartender would know, politics is as divisive an issue as religion. Mixing the two is bound to set off fireworks.” I have never read a more cogent or succinct argument for the separation of church and state as you have penned above. Brilliant!

  2. Great post, and a wonderful tribute to the sharp and talented Nan!

    The concept of loyalty has always been troublesome to me. I have seen some breakdown differences between conservatives and liberals, and loyalty is a very high priority to them over other values. But I question how much of a value it really is.

    Loyalty has always seemed somewhat of a slavish concept. We can associate other words that often are very closely related, like duty, obligation, stubbornness. These words often conjure up a less than favorable view of loyalty. There is a sort of permanency to loyalty that bothers me. You talk about reasons loyalties change which are very reasonable reasons. But despite how good the reason might be, the word loyalty has embedded into it the concept of betrayal. If you are no longer loyal to idea A, or person B, then you have betrayed them. Loyalty almost seems to be an unspoken contract. Breaking that contract puts the spotlight on that person as though they have done something wrong. This is where fear of consequences, shame, criticism, dehumanization, all sorts of things might be used to try to maintain that loyalty. To re-sign that unspoken contract.

    What’s less talked about is what a person who no longer becomes loyal to one person or idea, is moving towards? It is likely that they have found something more beneficial to become loyal too. A loftier value, even if it is just personal liberty.

    I think is why Loyalty has always seemed troubling to me. It’s seems very belief based and doesn’t value the freedom of self-determination and change.

    • Very well put, and I couldn’t agree more. Loyalty is an artificial human concept designed to enforce the “unspoken contract” you accurately described. That is why I included the allegory to abusive John whose pets abandoned him but whose wife stayed with him.

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