Friday, August 10, 2012

The Secular-Religious Convergence

Ross Douthat has provided a thought provoking article in the New York Times on the evolution of religion: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? He describes a long decline in membership in the most liberal of the churches, and an increasing tendency for church members to settle in the more socially and theologically conservative denominations. 

Douthat provides this background:
"IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled "Why Christianity Must Change or Die." Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States."

"It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes."

What has this philosophical trend meant for the health of the Episcopal Church as an organization?
"Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase."

Douthat argues that the social good that has arisen from the historical activism of the liberal denominations has had its basis in firm theological beliefs. As those religious tenets lose their relevance in the modern churches, these denominations will not only become less effective as forces of social progress, they will also cease to exist.
"Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. "

"Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die."

The emphasis is mine. Douthat seems to see the evolution of the liberal Christian Churches as a form of decay. One could also view it as an inevitable result of intellectual and social development.

Religion of some form has probably always existed. The ancient hunter-gatherers who suffered because it had not rained in three months needed to find an explanation. In this way humans were primed to believe there was an agent—a god—who controlled the sun and/or the clouds.

Deep in our subconscious, our brains are wired to arrive at an explanation for all events even if it has to deny reality in order to do so. This is probably the compulsion that drove the development of religions as a way of providing explanations and removing uncertainty.

As society evolved and humans’ social and psychological needs changed, different forms of religion were developed. One can choose to view the development of the Abrahamic monotheisms as the culmination of that process.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all religions based on the belief in divine intervention in their formation and development. The difficulty encountered by these religions is that historical and archeological studies undermine what had been assumed to be factual bases for beliefs. Thus one who studies history, and particularly religious history, likely ends up agreeing with Bishop Spong:
"....during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition..."

If religion is, in fact, an expression of a person’s social and psychological needs, then it is not surprising, but rather, it is inevitable that liberal religious and secular views converge if a knowledge base and beliefs about how to better society and the lot of their fellow humans are shared.

All liberals should view this convergence as a sign of progress for humanity.

Again, taking the view that religion evolves to support social and psychological needs, it is tempting—almost compelling—to compare the increase in influence of conservative religious denominations with the increase in influence of conservative political beliefs. In both the secular and religious arenas, a libertarian thread is evident. In society, this results in a belief in personal liberties versus communal/social actions. This is mirrored in the more conservative believers who favor a personal religion where salvation depends on an individual’s interaction with his/her God, rather than any need to perform "good works," or to come to the aid of their fellow man, or any of the other traditional Christian communal beliefs.

All liberals should view this conservative convergence as a sign of regression for humanity.

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