There’s no question religious leaders possess enormous influence over the faithful. For centuries, religious leaders like the Pope and the Dalai Lama have been seen as a beacon of hope and guidance for believers. They are seen as the chosen ones destined to be leaders of their religions.
But their influence can be harmful.
In a recent interview with BBC journalist Clive Myrie, the Dalai Lama was asked about the possibility of the fifteenth reincarnation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama being a woman. Initially, his response was quite flattering towards women; he stated that women were more compassionate and have the qualities of a leader that would be beneficial to the world. However, though it seemed his response was complete, the Dalai Lama added, “If a female Dalai comes, her face must be very, very attractive…or else it’s not much use.” This sounds odd coming from the Dalai Lama, and even Myrie was surprised, asking him, “You’re joking, I’m assuming?” The Dalai Lama insisted he was being truthful.
Was the Dalai Lama joking? Many would assume so—I even assumed so. But after doing a bit of research, I was surprised to find that this had not been the first time the Dalai Lama has made these claims. In a 2010 interview, he made a similar comment when asked, “Do you think the next Dalai Lama should be a woman?” Here’s what he said then:
Yes, we accept female gurus, female teachers. The purpose of a reincarnation lineage is to serve people through the Dharma, and if the circumstances are such that a female form is more useful, then why not?…If the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is female, she must be very attractive. The reason is so that she will have more influence on others. If she is an ugly female, she won’t be very effective, will she?
I felt very discouraged by these remarks. Surely a seemingly open-minded and respectful leader like the Dalai Lama can’t be so sexist. Then I thought, why not? Why has this religious leader been put on such a high pedestal that we see them as innocent? Perhaps my hope as a humanist was that if there must be a religious leader, let him or her be fair and all-inclusive.
It seems that these religious leaders who vow to preach their faiths honestly are rarely challenged for questionable behavior. For example, the more progressive Pope Francis, who has seemingly won the hearts of liberals and even some atheists, has often made contradictory and questionable statements. He claims that God will forgive gays and lesbians and no one else is to judge, yet turns around and says the institution of marriage is being threatened by them. Or, he has expressed that women hold high importance in the church, yet he refuses to allow women to be ordained.
But what is the harm if he’s willing to make such progressive claims, you may ask? Well, for one, it’s confusing; what does he really believe? Two, his positive views are so shocking that people forget he is still the highest leader of the Catholic Church, which preaches an outdated doctrine full of hate and bigotry. If anything, the Pope is making Catholicism look that much cooler and more attractive to younger generations.
It’s better to have a more progressive leader in the religious world than a conservative one. However, their positions as representatives of outdated ideas don’t exclude them from criticism when their words continue to undermine social progress.