If you are going to weigh in on a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of a certain institution, and you are an employee or executive of that same institution, then you should first declare your interest. That is, should must disclose, to the people you are trying to persuade, that you have a personal stake in the outcome of the conversation. Unless you provide such notice, you risk distorting the argument with your biases, of which the rest of us (and you yourself) may be unaware.

More specifically, if you are a professional cleric, and the discussion has to do with the pros and cons of religion, you should say something like, “Of course I might be biased, since my livelihood depends on a favorable public perception of religion.”

In November of 2009, a group called Intelligence Squared held a debate on the proposition, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” On the affirming team was John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria) for the Catholic Church. Mr. Onaiyekan never once mentioned that the institution whose essential goodness he had come to proclaim supplies his entire livelihood. He should have either recused himself from the debate, or alerted the public to his personal stake in its outcome. He did neither.

Peter Jensen, archbishop of Sydney for the Anglican Church, spoke at a more recent Intelligence Squared debate, on the proposition, “Atheists Are Wrong.” Like Mr. Onaiyekan, Mr. Jensen is a regional-level executive of a multi-national corporation. Each man is paid to represent his organization positively to the public and to attract more customers. Neither made any mention of his interests. Neither should be trusted until he comes clean.

It is astonishing how rarely conflict of interest is mentioned in books and articles on religion. You could read a thousand of them and never encounter it, even if five hundred were by atheists. Yet, the simple truth is that you cannot trust the officers of a corporation to tell the truth about the rationale behind their compensation or the mechanism of its delivery. In millions of conversations over thousands of years, religious spokesmen have demanded, “Why would I tell you these things, if they’re not true?” The obvious answer is, “Because that’s your job.”

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