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.

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  1. Andrew G says:

    small evolutionary steps eventually evolve a new species sufficiently different so it can no longer interbreed.

    This really made me smile. I hadn’t thought of that analogy in such explicit and extended terms. I’ve been thinking lately about how liberal and progressive christianity groups tend to be more interested in making inter-faith relations with other liberal and progressive groups of other religions. Even more than re-tying the bonds within all the christianities itself! This helps explain that out a bit.

    Such are the laws of attraction, I guess… and evolution. 🙂

    This post also made me think of Nicholas Wade’s “The Faith Instinct”. A great book that looks at religions and faith from one of the most productive points of view, I think anyway. At least in terms of really discussing the role each has played in our ‘adaptations’ and ‘progressions’.

    • peddiebill says:

      I have recently come across the analogy of congregations acting as clans.
      Clans of course share common beliefs, initiate newcomers into those beliefs and act to give one another support with acts of reciprocity. They have various control mechanisms to assist smooth function and guard against uncontrolled change which some might call bureacracies (eg Church hierarchies, rules, synods, general assemblies etc). Similarities between groups only results in cross fertilisation when the controllers deem there is sufficient similarity not to endanger the ongoing life.
      Within congregations there are sometimes sub-clans (even klans?)with variations of belief.
      In the evolutionary model I guess the development of sub-clans is the equivalent of mutation. As long as the surrounding conditions are unchanged, there is usually no change in the status of such groups. Changing conditions in a standard evolutionary model would either destroy the congregation or if one or more sub-clan was able to adapt to the new condition then that part would grow to the detriment of other groups. Without sub-clans (mutated forms) adaption might well not be possible.In the animal and plant kingdom there is always competition for resources but it is only when there is a change in the balance of those resources that selection gets properly underway.
      I dont think my genetics lecturer all those years ago at University would like me talking like this. He was a rationalist!

  2. dave says:

    Although you claim they are half-formed ideas, they are in the correct direction. They only seem to be missing a number of the critical influences affecting contemporary society – and the religions in them. There are certainly significant challenges ahead for the world’s religions to adapt to (or evolve with, if you prefer).

    In the last 100-150 years there has been a pronounced migration to the cities. This has brought conflicting ideas into the mix. Populations have also grown dramatically in some parts of the world. Even such things as dating rituals (sometimes with religious conventions) are affected by this change.

    The colonial powers have attempted to maintain subservient regimes to maintain their economic control for their resource extraction. Though the influence of the European powers has waned the American military influence remains throughout the world. This suppression of democratic movements has resulted in widespread frustration in the Third World. The attacks of 9/11 were clearly in response to the regimes in the Middle East that follow the bidding of the Americans to the detriment of their citizens (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia; Israel is also included with its persecution of the Palestinians). The recent book Dying to Win connects suicide bombing to an attempt to expel foreign troops and is not really connected to religious extremism.

    The unchecked growth of multinational corporations has made labor an international commodity, enabling companies to threaten their employees with the loss of jobs by moving them out of the country if the employees are not more accommodating of their employers’ demands. The economic pressures on a household have forced both parents in many families to seek employment, affecting how children are raised, with day care or relatives having more influence on their development.

    The collapse of the international banking system, at least partially caused by the toxic derivatives from the American banking system, is leading to the attempt by a number of countries at extracting the bail-out funds from the already overwrought working class.

    In America, the democratic process is crumbling. One year ago, the Supreme Court essentially overturned the First Amendment by ruling Congress cannot infringe on the rights of companies to buy their backers in the elections. The elected representatives are now blatantly following the demands of their corporate backers, to the detriment of their citizens but the 2-party system prevents any alternatives. This frustration is leading to displaced aggression, blaming immigrants, union workers, or anyone/everyone else for the various problems caused by a corrupt, ineffective political system.

    All of this unrest is certainly stressing our society, and as a result the religions of the world are impacted as their constituents attempt to survive.

    There have been comments about the violence of Islamic extremists. It is ironic to note there is rarely a comparison with the violence of the Catholic IRA in Northern Ireland. As people are pushed to their emotional limits, sometimes irrational behaviors will result. We must recognize these behaviors do not occur in a void, but are triggered by events and influenced by the local culture and religion.

    India was able to get out from under the British colonial rule in a large part due to Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful, organized civil disobedience efforts. Similar peaceful demonstrations were attempted during the American civil rights campaign such as by Martin Luther King, an American clergyman.

    As people debate the use of peaceful or not peaceful means to address their civil complaints, their religion will certainly be involved in their community’s debate about such practices. It is possible such a debate was not part of local religious discussions in the past.

    These are interesting times as our cultures and religions evolve through the future, unpredictable events. I suspect for most of the world, the current society has changed quite a bit from when the respective religions arose many hundreds of years ago, when the most common occupation was farming or just nomadic subsistence.

  3. peddiebill says:

    Thanks for this Dave. You open up some interesting areas for discussion and debate. Hopefully some others will respond with evidence or counter evidence in response to these suggestions. I had not thought to consider migration as a factor but this must inevitably change the environment and therefore I can see that it is likely to change the setting for those who hold a particular religion. I am also interested in your comments on the motivation for various terrorist acts. For example I was surprised when I was collecting information for my book on terrorism that there didn’t seem to be an equivalent word for terrorism in Arabic. Their translation as best as I could ascertain was “to scare” or “to frighten” and it seemed to me that whenever a strong power faced up to a weak power, the weaker one would respond by increasing the frequency of terrorist activities to even the playing field. This suggests that invading a region with a record of terrorism is counterproductive and will result in increased incidence of the so called terrorist acts. That certainly seems to be what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. When religion is added into the mix, the situation seems to become increasingly more uncomfortable. Whether or not this helps shape the religion may be partly a matter of conjecture.

  4. I find the concept of evolution of faith groups interesting. Usually evolution has a connotation (and a denotation, actually) of moving from a lower form to a higher, more complicated form that is more adapted to its environment or able to survive change. But when you look at Christianity, I’m not sure evolution is a good model. Certainly adaptation to change or variation can occur, but I think it generates difference, not necessarily a higher form. And, what would be the metrics for judging a “higher form” in faith anyway? More potential for mystical union with God? More justice in the world? More highly organized, but less adaptive (which has been the overall direction for the last 500 years or so. Or….

    The interesting thing to me is that the Church (the bureaucracy) usually works to squelch the variation occuring at the grass roots level. And, while I understand the need to maintain theological boundaries, the squelching has far more to do with maintaining power structures than with maintaining appropriate boundaries. Yes, that variation could work in the Church’s favor, but they have to let it in.

    Another useful way of looking at the current situation is “The Great Emergence” by Phyllis Tickle. I may not agree with all she says, but her overall thesis is correct and she has a good model for what’s currently going on in the Church.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thankyou for this thoughtful and sensible contribution. I am not sure that words like higher must necessarily follow in the evolutionary process that the adaption of form to the environment means that many organisms eg rock snot appear totally simple yet are profoundly adapted to the environment. The cold virus for example is hardly advanced and like most viruses not even strictly alive by nevertheless constantly evolves to avoid modifications in the immune system.
      Social evolution is a concept which has a totally different set of mechanisms to biological evolution and I was hoping that the model might merely cause me to notice things that I might otherwise have missed. I havent read the Great Emergence. Thank you for the reference and thanks for stimulating my thinking.

  5. Pingback: Has the Protest(antism) Stalled? | Unsettled Christianity

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