06 September 2021

Religious rigidity and cultural evolution

There exists a fundamental problem with religion (and with similarly dogmatic, quasi-revelation-based ideologies such as certain forms of communism and libertarianism), which I suggested tangentially in this post a couple of weeks ago:

In a religion, truth takes the form of immutable pronouncements from on high, which never change.  If new evidence later surfaces which is incompatible with those pronouncements, so much the worse for the evidence.  For example, the fundies' dogma of Biblical inerrancy keeps them stuck at the level of ignorance attained by those who wrote the Bible thousands of years ago.  Life was created as-is in six days, despite new evidence establishing evolution.  Noah's flood really happened, despite being proven impossible by geology and genetics.  The Egyptian captivity, the exodus, and the empire of David and Solomon were real, despite archaeological evidence that they are mere myths.  Truth, once proclaimed, is forever fixed and unalterable.

The issue I described in that paragraph is one form of a more general problem.  In any dogmatic belief system based upon an immutable revelation, it's not just knowledge of the universe that is "frozen" at the point in history when the revelation was received -- it's everything, including morality.

For example, in the time and culture when the Bible was written, homosexuality was taboo (more advanced societies at the same time did not have this taboo, but the specific, rather backwater culture in which the Bible was composed did), whereas slavery was considered moral -- indeed, slavery was a normal part of all complex societies at that time.  Today, the moral consensus has flipped -- in the world's more advanced cultures, homosexuality is now considered morally acceptable, but slavery is not.  It has been fairly easy to adapt civil law to the change -- governments have simply enacted laws against slavery and repealed the ones banning homosexuality.

But the Bible cannot be substantively modified.  Fundamentalist Christian sects which hold the Bible to be inerrant (and hard-line Islamists, whose sacred text is mostly drawn from the same source material as the Bible and contains a similar set of taboos), still insist that homosexuality is immoral.  As long as they hold the Bible to be inerrant, they cannot do otherwise.  Some more liberal Christian sects have dropped the taboo, but then need to explain away the numerous affirmations of that taboo in the Bible -- by claiming these do not mean what they obviously do, or are no longer valid for some reason (so that they are judging some parts of the Bible as no longer inerrant, with which parts being determined by the cultural values of their own time and place).  This enables them to be more modern and tolerant, at the price of philosophical incoherence.  If the Bible's pronouncements are to be judged case-by-case on the basis of present-day values, one might as well just go by those present-day values and skip the Bible entirely.

Note too that the same issue would arise if a new religion (or similarly dogmatic quasi-religion) were established today, fully consistent with modern values.  It would seem completely up-to-date at first, but would steadily fall more and more out of step as culture continued to evolve.  Slavery went from fully accepted for most of human history to being a moral abomination during roughly 1770-1870.  Homosexuality was still almost universally condemned throughout the West as recently as 1950, but today same-sex marriage is accepted by majorities even in backward areas such as the US South.  Meat-eating is still accepted as normative by most people, but moral concerns about it are beginning to gain a wider audience.  We today cannot know what other moral norms will change in the next century or two, or longer.  A sacred text and belief system fully congruent with the moral standards accepted by most readers of this blog, if it were fixed and unalterable like the Bible, would within a millennium seem as barbaric and outdated as Leviticus does to us -- likely far sooner.

It's obvious that human understanding of physical reality needs to be based on evidence, and that it will therefore continue to evolve as new evidence comes to science's attention.  But the same is true of pretty much everything else.  Religion is comforting to those who want fixed, eternal standards and values to live by.  But in the long run there are no such standards, and cannot be.


Blogger SickoRicko said...

I like the way you describe things.

06 September, 2021 12:14  
Anonymous Blurber said...

Absolutely right. (Sorry to be an absolutist!). And well argued.

06 September, 2021 12:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The illogic of believers is astounding.

Yes they say that the bible is "immutable pronouncements from on high, which never change[s]".

However there are plenty of pronouncements in the bible which they ignore. Things all about animal sacrifies, how to organize the believer community, how many cubits to build a temple, and so on and so forth.

The point is that they conveniently ignore what they want, and then they say the rest is immutable.

And of course where did the woment come from that Adam and Eve's sons married? Not mentioned in the bible. So, there is plenty to ignore, plenty not mentioned, and the rest is supposed to be perfect and unchangeable?

Bah, humbug!

06 September, 2021 13:37  
Blogger Mary said...

Religion should have been on the way out by now, at least in the more modern countries. But alas, moderate religion is , but the fanatical fundamentalist types are actually growing a bit worldwide. And it’s all about power and control and how easily the gullible man is swayed by fear and hate.

06 September, 2021 13:43  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I was born into a very religious family. Mormons and baptists. I hated going to church and being preached at. Probably why I am not religious at all now.

06 September, 2021 13:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a joke on the subject you might enjoy.

[I think you've never heard of the Oven of Akhnai.]

06 September, 2021 15:05  
Blogger Mike said...

"We today cannot know what other moral norms will change in the next century or two, or longer."
There's a project for somebody (not me). Track the norms as far back as possible and figure out a rate of change. (Maybe somebody did this already.)

06 September, 2021 15:22  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Religion requires a very solid foundation of cognitive dissonance: nothing around the believer could or should challenge the validity of what is believed. Not science, not culture, nothing.
I once went to a service where people lifted their bibles and said out loud that they only believed what was written in the bible. There were some MENSA members in that congregation. I've never recovered.


07 September, 2021 05:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ricko, Blurber: Thanks!

Anon: Most of the Bible is so boring that very few people have actually read the whole thing. So they don't know all the stuff that's in it.

Notice that God supposedly gave Cain the "mark of Cain" so that anyone who met him would know he was under God's protection despite being a murderer. Who else was out there that he might have run into? Obviously this story was grafted onto the Genesis creation story but originated from some other tradition not involving a first family who would have been the only people on Earth.

If one accepts the Biblical narrative, Cain must have married his sister (and everyone alive today would be descended from them), but the fundies don't like to talk about that.

Mary: Actually, even the fundies are shrinking in numbers in the US. The problem is that they're getting more militant. The Middle East has the same problem with Islamic extremists.

Mary K: Natural enough. The more irrational and hectoring they are, the more rational people will leave as soon as they can.

Anon: Force of habit is powerful, all right.

Mike: I think it's accelerating. Look how fast acceptance of homosexuality became mainstream after centuries of condemnation.

Sixpence: Unfortunately true. Even intelligent people can have a strong emotional commitment to an idea, and then use their intelligence to bullshit away the logical impossibilities it involves.

08 September, 2021 02:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art here, was unable to use email address.

Years ago I was thinking along the same lines, surely not as deeply or as well, and the solution I came up with was that individual religions cannot be reformed. You are right, they are indeed frozen in time. That said, the adherents of a religion can, and do, change religion. Happens all the time.

We also know that religions can be manufactured. Scientology is an entirely synthetic religion with absolutely no historic underpinnings or any major mythological base concepts salvaged/stolen from other/previous religions.

Seems to me that we need to create a new religion which incorporates the technology, knowledge base and social developments of the last thousand years. So slavery - bad. Homosexuality - okay. Evolution - real. ... etc.

I'm not sure I would even try to make it evidence-based or, more difficult, flexible enough to stay up with science and society. It might be better to just let it ossify and become archaic. At which time we come up with another religion to incorporate the changes. Yes, the old folks will still hang on and refuse the 2.0 version but people die.

This is how, at some level it has always worked. I'm just proposing that we accept human psychology and norms, and our unfortunate tendency to be religious, and work with the systems we have to create religions that are attractive but also serve humanist ends. We have to preempt the usual course of madmen and self-serving zealots writing the religions. Instead we design religions to serve, guide, and mollify those portions of mankind not yet ready to live without reference to God/s.

They need religion. So an array of perfectly acceptable religions are provided. Each carefully designed to provide a profound sense of moral certainty, righteousness, community, and duty. All designed to promote empathy, justice, wholesomeness, and a suitable level of selflessness, dedication to common cause and self-sacrifice.

08 September, 2021 12:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Thanks. I see your point, but the problem is that those people who are not yet ready to do without a religion are precisely the ones who will cling most determinedly to the specific religion they currently have -- the least willing to switch to a religion recently invented to mollify them while allowing them to embrace modernity. The Taliban are vanishingly unlikely to convert to Christianity, and American militant fundies are vanishingly unlikely to convert to Islam or Hinduism. Yet those religions at least have the gravitas that comes from many generations of continuous existence. How much less likely would they be to adopt something recently contrived.

It's true that people keep inventing new religions, but they don't catch on. The most successful recently-invented religions are Mormonism and Baha'ism, but their numbers of adherents are negligible compared to ancient religions like Christianity and Islam.

More benign forms of old religions do at least reduce the suffering and stupidity, but realistically, the only solution is abandonment of religion altogether -- as slow and difficult as that process is, it is actually happening and producing results.

08 September, 2021 14:50  
Blogger yellowdoggranny said...

I like being a pagan...no book to tell us how to live and no church to make payments to their Gods..the Goddess approves of this message.

09 September, 2021 13:19  
Blogger CAS said...

I love your line: "If the Bible's pronouncements are to be judged case-by-case on the basis of present-day values, one might as well just go by those present-day values and skip the Bible entirely."

I've never met or heard of, for that matter, a religious person that doesn't make exceptions to scripture--even among those that are declared to be the most fervent of followers. It's impossible to adhere to any holy text because they all contain so many contradictions.

11 September, 2021 18:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Granny: That's true -- a religion with no written dogma has more freedom to evolve, although it's probably less coherent at any given time.

Carol: They more or less have to make exceptions. Anybody who lived according to what the Bible actually says would quickly end up in prison.

12 September, 2021 01:27  

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