Some time ago it was reported by Lois Lee and Stephen Bullivent’s article in New Scientist 6 March 2010 p26 that there was insufficient evidence to support the so called “enlightenment assumption” whereby advances in education reduce the willingness to believe in religion. However it now seems that there is indeed a connection between the sort of religion adopted and the setting for the type of belief.
For example recent work by Oxford University’s Jonathan Lanman (New Scientist 26 March 2011) suggests threat in the setting leads to more polarised attitudes to religion. For example in the US where fears are often highlighted in the media, where unemployment is significant and where there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor there is a corresponding interest in evangelical Christianity and what Lanman calls “strong atheism” ie atheism of the sort that actively seeks to combat religion. By contrast, the more benign communities such as those in Scandinavia where the wealth differences are lessened by a more socialist welfare scheme, polls record far more who self classify as non-theists and fewer as strong atheists or Christians.
The threat and religious reaction to threat model is explicable for reasons which might have little to do with plausibility and logic. For example the need for a form of social insurance, whereby a clearly identified group offers community support, becomes more important in times of stress. This support is increasingly helpful, particularly, when as Lanman puts it, the particular faith is “the only game in town.” Since declaring a more exact set of beliefs helps to clarify who is in and who is out, fundamentalism or strong atheism meets the social insurance requirement. As tension increases – and within a number of settings like Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Libya, although it may be strenuously denied by those who see theirs as the one true faith, some observers have noted that superstitious beliefs and a less comfortable faith come to predominate and attention on the threat leads to an intolerance of alternative faith groupings. Perhaps this is why Iraq became an increasingly hostile setting for Kurds, Christians, Jews and even competing Islamic sects such as the Sunn’i and the Shi’a as unrest spread.
Conversely in a situation where there is good emotional stability and a high measure of well-being, there is a much reduced need for polarised attitudes to faith and religion which assume far less significance.
I would suggest that for those in either form of situation, it becomes difficult to comprehend the faith expression of those in other settings. Thus those in a comfortable Western backwaters are totally unable to comprehend the wild eyed devotion and angry single mindedness of the zealots in the war-torn regions, whereas those who see themselves as pure devotees of the only true faith are totally unable to understand the wishy-washy heresy peddled by crusaders, disrespectful political cartoonists, disbelieving hedonists and harlots in the distant bad-lands.
The next section is part speculation and I would appreciate feedback on the half-formed ideas. There is another factor that might be even more unacceptable to many who have already identified with a particular faith position. Even a casual glance at the history of faith encounters changes. Evolutionary theory has it that although mutation might set up the variations of a form, it is changes of environment that naturally selects out varying traits for survival – and this is called evolution. I wish to contend that the same may be happening by analogy with faith.
First of all we need to look at a branch of faith and see if it has indeed evolved. For example the Roman Catholic faith once had married priests and has changed to having (hopefully) celibate priests. This step in evolution according to some commentators was a response to the changed needs of the Church to hold property which might otherwise pass from Church control to priests’ families ie a change of environment. Similarly the need to identify members within each sect within Christianity led to standard creedal beliefs which have similarly evolved. For example the statements about the Trinity had not appeared in the first Century. When the statement on the Trinity was in place it became part of a standard formulation which enabled a coalition of disparate Churches to unite. Similarly the customs in Church now so deeply engrained for many, like the protestant custom of sitting with bowed head (the Protestant hunch) for prayer, pews, hymnbooks, organs, taking communion with communion glasses, robes and sometimes special collars for the clergy – all of these and many more were not part of the early Church. They have evolved in small steps. However a series of small steps can lead to considerable change in the outcome which is seen in the way in which variants of faith now differ. The notion that a British monarch might be the head of a Church and Anglican Archbishop might be the highest ranking Church official would be totally unacceptable to the Roman Catholic Church for purposes of Church Union. Similarly women clergy are unacceptable to many branches of the Christian faith today but in other branches of the Church are totally acceptable. Again to return to the biological model, different conditions accelerate change. For example John Wesley, forbidden to preach in Anglican Churches had to shift his services outside. Because he was not a bishop he eventually had to set up his own ordination system which did not include the all important Bishop system. As a consequence the evolved Methodist Church did not have the same hierarchical system as the Anglican Church from which it came.
In the plant and animal kingdom sum of many small evolutionary steps eventually evolve a new species sufficiently different so it can no longer interbreed. The analogy that the sum of small differences can bring about a form that can no longer work with the parent organism seems a perfect description of what often occurs when Church union is attempted.
Although it would probably horrify many followers of various faiths today it might also be remembered that most faiths have their origins in pre-existing belief groups. Thus the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share some common scripture and early faith stories. I would suggest they have spawned viable progeny – and continued to mutate while the constraints of their environment modifies the myriad of successful outcomes in a selection process which is occasionally every bit as violent as “nature red in tooth and claw”. Whether or not enough of the original “organism” remains for other members of the originating group to recognise in their evolved form is an open question.