Friday, January 6, 2012

The Tree of Religion

One interesting paradox that occurred to me recently is that religions like Christianity are highly dogmatic, and yet they are constantly changing and adapting to their environment. People generally accept the faith they were born into without seriously questioning it, but in Christianity alone there are over 30,000 distinct sects.

How can both of these facts be true at the same time? I think there are a couple of things to consider here. The first is that in a hugely popular religion such as Christianity, it works perfectly well for most people to believe everything they were taught without any real critical evaluation. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, so if only 5% of them significantly alter their beliefs, and only 0.01% of that 5% gain enough of a following to form a new sect, that would still be 11,500 new versions of Christianity in the current living population alone. All it takes is a few people who are willing to change their religious views, and we get endless variations on the same basic framework.

So what is it that drives this huge and ever-increasing level of religious diversity? One major factor is that societies and cultures change over time. A few hundred years ago, almost all Christians believed that God created the universe in the manner described in Genesis, and that homosexuality was an undeniable evil. Today these views are being steadily eroded as people realize that there is abundant evidence for evolution and that there's no reason to condemn gay people. This is not a new phenomenon, either: a while back I summarized Bart Ehrman's description of how early Christianity evolved. Jesus went from preacher to Messiah to God incarnate, Jews went from comrades to Jesus-killers, and the concepts of heaven, hell, souls and the Trinity arose.

Not only do cultures change, but Christianity is introduced to entirely new cultures as well. Missionaries purposely frame their doctrines in terms that the natives can identify with, and the natives often combine Christian beliefs with their existing ones rather than just replacing them. There's even a name for this process: syncretism. Vodun in west Africa, Rastafarianism in Jamaica, and the Unification Church in South Korea are just three examples of this.

The other crucial factor to consider is the remarkable vagueness of holy scriptures. Texts such as the Bible appear to offer great insights into the nature of the universe, yet they are so open to interpretation that readers can come away with any lesson they want. Contradictions and internal conflicts in doctrine, far from being fatal to religion, are in fact engines of religious diversity. Is God a vengeful being who is pouring out his wrath upon humanity, or a kind and nurturing one who is constantly blessing his beloved creations? It depends on which biblical stories you emphasize. Homosexuality is condemned? Not if you interpret every single passage that mentions it in just the right way. The Genesis account of creation is demonstrably wrong? No big deal. Just call it a metaphor and the problem instantly vanishes. The Bible and other religious books can be made to support any virtually any view with enough creative interpretation.

The question of what religious sects manage to survive is a simple matter of natural selection. Those ideas that can appeal to the contemporary culture are the ones that survive, while outdated ones are left in the dust. The Puritans were a significant faction in the early 1600s, but nowadays their name has become synonymous with self-righteous moralizing. In modern times, televangelists like Joel Osteen have become popular by preaching prosperity theology, which essentially says that God wants you to be rich. Early Christians would have been horrified at their line of thinking, but it fits America's consumerist culture like a glove. It's not truth that determines what religions become popular: it's suitability to the current environment.

This dovetails with another, related observation: truth converges, but religion diverges. When arriving at truth in areas like science, people independently reach the same conclusion. But religion is the opposite: it continually branches off of itself like an ever-expanding tree. There's no chance that religions will ever converge upon a single specific conclusion, because they thrive on faith, personal revelation and creative interpretation of scripture rather than evidence and logical argument. Religion is a flat-out terrible method of determining what's true.

These characteristics of religion—subjective, shaped by natural selection, endlessly diverging in every direction—do not in themselves show that religion is false. However, they're precisely the opposite of what we would expect to find if one or more divine beings were guiding everyone toward enlightenment. If the gods really want to lead humanity to a single transcendent truth, they're doing a remarkably bad job.


  1. I've always wondered how exactly do religious people know they are in fact praising the (right) God and not following the temptations of the Devil instead.

  2. Tim,

    Although there is indeed many sects of Christianity, what really matters is the gospel. That really is the thesis, if you will, of Christianity. The sole message is that Jesus Christ came to die for the sins of the world, as you know.

    However, minor differences that do not alter the message of the gospel, does not mean that one sect is false and the other is true. It is as you mentioned perhaps a component of culture added. I do not believe that God is concerned with a particular sect as He is with the heart of a person. However, when people set their hearts on religious doctrine and works so much that it supersedes what Jesus did, God does have a problem with that. It is man trying to make himself righteous, rather than coming to God through Christ.

    The Bible rightfully predicted that there would be many people who would alter the gospel. When the branching of of sects sways from the gospel, that is where the line of truth and false is. I believe God has let different sects thrive as times have changed so that people can relate, just as long as the true gospel is the heart of it.

    I disagree on your point regarding that religion relying fully on faith, personal revelation, interpretation of scripture and not on evidence and logical argument.

    God never calls us to believe on blind faith. There are many credible scientists who support the Genesis account of creation and support their claims. Many work to debunk the theory of evolution and have revealed solid proof that evolution is a myth. If you read in the Bible, the apostle Paul, was one of the greatest debaters of all time, debating on Mars Hill against the Greeks using logic and reasoning.

    I will say that you do bring up some good points about the flaws of religion. The Christian church is weak because many people have in fact stopped seeking and rely too much on a pastor or church to shape their ideas. People have become lazy.

    You seem to put in a lot of work to try and disprove God, have you honestly put in the work to reason for why there might be a God?

    I just stumbled across your blog and I hope to respectfully discuss your claims, if you don't mind.


    1. NKjr,

      While many differences between sects are minor, many others are extremely important. Some believe that baptism or good works or any number of other criteria are required for salvation, while others don't. And I doubt you or other believers would consider Vodun, Rastafarianism and the Unification Church to be "true Christians."

      You said you disagree that religion "relies fully" on faith, revelation and scriptural interpretation, but that is not what I said. I said it "thrives on" those things. Evidence and argument are occasionally attempted, but they are not at all the focus for most believers.

      As for there being "many credible scientists" who accept creationism, you're relying on an appeal to authority, and a very poor one at that. According to a 2009 Pew poll, 97% of scientists support evolution—and that percentage is even higher among those who actually have the relevant expertise in biology. And if you really think the tiny group that disagrees has "solid proof" that evolution is a myth, I'm afraid you've been gravely misinformed.

      Finally, you ask whether I have "honestly put in the work to reason for why there might be a God". As a matter of fact, I have. I spent a year in an apologetics class at my Christian school, I took philosophy classes in which arguments for and against God were debated, and I've read books advocating the theistic viewpoint. I always try to keep myself openminded toward other perpsectives, and my unbelief is informed by an understanding of both sides of the argument.

  3. Tim,

    I do agree that various sects of Christianity, some differences are very important. But I also did mention that as long as the heart of the gospel isn't compromised, it's not as big a deal as some make it out to be. Denominations that sway from the gospel promote a false gospel based on man's self-righteousness or greed.

    Christians do thrive on faith, but so does everyone. For example, without faith, how could we trust our senses? To interpret evidence, we must have faith that our senses are reliable. Before evidence can be trusted, everyone must have faith that their senses are correct. So, everyone thrives on faith. However, some people, atheists and Christians build their beliefs on blind faith, which is dangerous. Just because Christians have a different world view than you do, doesn't mean that they do not rely on evidence and argument. You yourself mentioned the Biblical apologetics class. If Christians didn't care for argument or evidence, then why have apologetics classes? You may disagree with them, but to accuse them of lack thereof is either ignorant or arrogant.

    As for the 97% of scientists that believe in evolution compared to the 3% that don't, I'm not at all surprised by that. It's not a surprise when mainstream science will not explore the possibility of a God or allow students to have that chance. When evolution is all that students are being taught, is it really unbiased? I won't get into the origins debate here, but evolution does have many unanswered questions because of the lack of proof. It is a theory that has constantly had to rescue itself.
    In addition, you should know that just because a population is in the minority, it doesn't mean that they're wrong. Look at Galileo, who incidentally, was condemned by the Catholic church for his views on the round earth. If you wanted to talk about percentages, atheists are still in the minority and an even bigger minority if you wanted to go global on the statistics. My point about creation scientists is that Christians do abstain from science.

    I know of many people who have put in the work to reason for why there might be a God. While God does command us to study, (2 Tim. 2:15). However, I don't think evolution nor God could be empirically proved. The evidence is historical and that debate will go on forever. The Bible has said that "God has chosen the foolish of this world to confound the wise (I.Cor. 1:27)". I believe that God reveals to those who humble themselves or search for Him with their heart first, head second. To put it this way, someone could know a lot of facts about my wife, but if they don't know her thoughts, feelings, desires or passions, they really don't truly know her.

    Sorry I got quite lengthy. I know I can't really change your mind and if you were ever to change your mind, it would be divine intervention! I do wish more so called "Christians" took their beliefs more seriously as you have done.


  4. *typo: last line, 3rd paragraph: *Christians do NOT abstain from science.

    (laughs) I know the atheists are getting a kick out of that one :)