Sometimes we over-categorise things. It’s a way of making sense of a complicated world. We define boxes and we put things, people, ideas into those boxes.
Some people think about the God question in those terms.
They have one neat box over here, labelled religion. And into this box they put belief, heaven, creationism, prayer and big buildings with bells.
Then they have this other box called atheism. In this box they put Richard Dawkins, evolution, science, free will, probability, randomness.
And that’s all very neat and tidy. I suppose. My wife likes boxes. No, really she does. We have an incredible collection of those food boxes that click shut with a satisfying clunk when you pull the plastic tabs down.
I suppose I only need to worry when she buys a box big enough to put me in.
The problem with boxes is that it can all get a bit predictable. Boring. Staid. Stereotypical.
Sometimes I like to take things out of one box and put them in another. Just to see what happens. Admittedly this doesn’t work too well if you put chilli powder into the cornflakes.
But what happens if we start to mix up some of the ideas about God and no-god?
How about this? – religions evolve.
When you first hear that you might be tempted to splutter into your cornflakes. With or without the chilli powder. It sounds like a marriage made in hell – religion and evolution at the same time?
It’s at this point that people can get defensive. My religion doesn’t evolve. My religion doesn’t believe in evolution.
In that case, let’s change our hypothesis. All religions except yours evolve. All the dead religions with the superhero gods. All the religions in other countries that only foreigners believe in. I’m sure yours is the exception.
Here’s my evidence …
We know that many religions have existed in the world, but have since died out. This is a classic example of evolution. Nature has no compunction in booting out the things that don’t make the grade – whether this is dinosaurs, the dodos or fax machines.
A couple of millennia ago, the Greek and Roman gods roamed the earth like horny tyrannosaurs. Until we stopped believing in them, and replaced them with something more nimble and warm-blooded.
There is a wonderful story that I just can’t resist retelling. In 627 AD – somewhere after King Arthur but before Robin Hood, King Edwin of Northumberland converted from Paganism to Christianity.
His conversion came after St. Paulinas preached to the king and his advisers. The King asked his advisers for … well, advice … and one of them said this little speech:
“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
That’s beautiful. Shame we don’t know the name of the clever bloke who said it.
What he was saying was that our current religion doesn’t give us an afterlife. Let’s switch to one that does. It’s a bit like changing your car for one that has air-conditioning.
Most religions also change within themselves. They adapt to the needs and wishes of their followers. The wrathful and angry god of the Old Testament seemed to have got in touch with his feminine side for the New Testament. The Protestant Reformation decided head off in its own direction to get away from all the “bells and smells” of the Catholic Church. Not to mention all the profiteering inherent in selling first class tickets to the afterlife.
The Church of England was largely created so that Henry VIII could continue on his quest to find a wife who would bear him a son. The unkind amongst us would point out that he might be more successful in that department if he lost a bit of weight.
There can be no question. Most religions change over time. They merge, split, reclassify themselves and break up so all the band members can pursue solo careers.
We often can’t see this change happening, because all we see is the here and now. We don’t see how our ancestors viewed our religion. And we don’t know what is coming next.
But look across the sweep of history and it becomes very clear. Religions evolve. Each generation thinks that it has reached perfection, but in fact it is just the latest in a long line of changes.
And there are doubtless more changes to come. We should not be so arrogant as to think that we have got it absolutely right when countless generations before us haven’t.
This gets us to one of the great questions that faith has to answer. Should we stick or twist? Should a religion stay with its original beliefs or change with the times?
It is certainly a tricky question. A religion that does not change runs the risk of becoming extinct, especially if it no longer does what its followers want.
But as soon as a religion does evolve, it runs into the “word of God” argument. That’s when someone in the religion says “we can’t possibly change because it’s not what God wanted us to do.”
Because as soon as you allow a religion to change, you are casting doubt on what you believe. If you are following the word of God, then he can’t be wrong, therefore you can’t possibly change, because that would suggest that he was wrong.
Cue a massive argument. Some of the religion’s followers will argue that they must not change. Others will argue that they must. The atheists usually sit on the side-lines and smirk.
This is usually resolved by reference to metaphor and interpretation. Eventually, some bright spark will claim that everyone had been reading the Bible wrong. What it really means is … whatever we need it to mean in order to make the change.
And that’s why we are arguing about women bishops. And gay marriage. And contraception. And terrorism. And a host of other things.
We can’t decide whether our religions are allowed to change or have to stay the same. And that, in part, is why were are having such trouble at the moment dealing with the difference between fundamentalism and more liberal religions.
The atheists have been enjoying this section a little too much, so it is time to redress the balance. Let’s talk about the positive side of religious evolution.
Back in the second blog we pointed out that nearly every human civilization has had a religion. That strongly suggests that a religion is actually a very useful thing for a civilization to have. A religion helps to keep law and order. It stops people from eating foods that might be dangerous such as pork or shellfish. It encourages its followers to work hard. To support the community.
A religion might tell you to covet thy neighbour’s ass, whether or not thy neighbour has a nice ass.
A religion reassures its follows to have faith that winter will end and the crops will grow again in the Spring.
Don’t worry about death; there is something nice waiting for you.
In evolutionary terms, the only way that the concept of a religion could be transmitted from one civilization to another was if it worked.
A civilization with a religion is more likely to succeed that one without any gods.
Of course, Dawkins will argue that religion has caused more wars than anything else. He may well be right, although many wars that seem to have been caused by religion were actually more about territory and access to raw materials.
But what seems evident is that religion has also had a very useful part to play in forming and supporting our civilizations …
… even if the gods that they were worshipping at the time are no longer around.