A recent article by Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, makes some interesting observations about recent religious polling. I think though that the observations are something that many of us have begun to see in our own experience and in conversations with others. Miller points out that “recent poll data show that we are conceptually, at least, becoming more like Hindus…” And, in reference to the ever-proof-texted John 14:6, Miller claims that the data show that “Americans are no longer buying it.” But will this tide continue to rise; are we really becoming more theologically Hindu? Must Christianity really change or die?
For starters, I would like to point out that what Miller calls Hindu she could just as easily call Jewish, and probably Taoist as well. Particularly as it relates to this evolution in Christian thought, I think that it’s certainly more closely related to Judaism than eastern faiths (although there have been Jewish sages who had ideas about reincarnation). Actually, on my own spiritual journey I’ve found that in many cases complaints I’ve raised about “common” Christian theology[i] have been responded to with something like, “but I (or my church) don’t believe that.” And in many cases “not believing that” means many of the few things which are unique to Christianity in favor of those things it has taken from Judaism. Rejecting religious exclusivism in favor of the idea that God accepts in all ways the righteous of all peoples, regardless of religious or national affiliation is one example of this. A rejection of the more “traditional”[ii] views of Original Sin is another. Yet another example is the idea of subtitutionary atonement. And a heavy, dualistic focus on the afterlife is another.
In any case, I do think there’s a lot that American’s are no longer buying – and certainly not just in Christianity. And it’s interesting to notice how the more ancient faiths that survive today seem to have a concept of The Sacred that is much more compatible with modernity and intellectual and social advancement. I suppose it should not be surprising at all that “younger” faiths seem to be more likely to be exclusivist. It’s also interesting to see that even within one tradition, it’s own evolution seems to follow this pattern. The new versions seem to be the most convicted that their way is the only true way. Christianity is a great example. According to Pew research, when asked if their religion was the only true faith, only an average of about 16% of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Mainline Protestant Christians agreed, where as 36% of Evangelicals agreed, and 57% of Mormons agreed. Moving beyond just Christianity, we see that the more ancient faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism only responded affirmatively 5% of the time when asked the same question, where as for Christians the rate was 28.2% (on average, 21% w/o Mormons), for Muslims it was 33%, and for Jehovah’s Witnesses it was 80%. I find these numbers particularly telling as I’ve always seen claims to exclusive truth as a near certain sign that something is amiss (e.g. a simple misapprehension of God, or possibly even something sinister).
Before I go further, all this Pew research can be found here: http://religions.pewforum.org/
There are lots of cool things to play around with. It’s interesting to see the relationships between things like income, education, and geographic location and people’s beliefs. Have fun.
I’m somewhat interested in Evangelicals (I think because they seem to be the loudest), so in checking out their stats, I noticed an interesting contradiction. 57% believe the Bible to be the “Word of God, literally true word for word.” But, only 41% believe “there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of [their] religion.” Huh? For that to be true these people must be reading different Bibles in the same churches. How can it be possible that their scripture is literally true word for word, yet there is more than one way to interpret it? The idea that it’s literally true word for word is an interpretation – an exclusive one! Is maybe what they really mean that there is more than one way to be self-servingly selective about that which they want to believe is literally true word for word? Or are we seeing here the effects of the stats that show a rate of adherents who did not graduate high school that is higher than the national average and a rate of adherents who do not have college or post-graduate degrees that is lower than the national average? I wonder if there’s a connection between the 56% of Evangelicals who did not attend college and the 57% who believe the Bible to be literally true word for word.
I don’t mean to belittle Evangelicals, and it is important to say that formal education is not everything. I think the shift in which parts of religion Americans are still “buying” has more to do with the education gained through experiences than through institutions. It does seem that claims of exclusivity are declining among the various religious adherents. I think we could say the same for the numbers of those who think their Bibles to be the word for word literally true Word of God. I highly doubt we will be going back to the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial in which, while defending the Bible, William Jennings Bryan – a Presidential nominee who would’ve agreed that the Bible was the literally word for word true Word of God – said that he only “sometimes” thinks about the things that he thinks about. I expect that this transition has happened more rapidly in the faith groups who tend to have more formal education only because formal education is often accompanied by a variety of new experiences that also shape who we are and become. So, as globalization marches forward, as our scientists discover more and more, as the various information media become more and more a part of our lives, etc., I expect that we will all gain the education of experience that will begin to move us away from things like a belief that the Bible is the literally true word of God and claims to exclusive truth. As the Pew research shows, only a majority of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses – and among Mormons it’s hardly overwhelming – make an exclusive claim to truth. And as we move away from such exclusivism, we may be moving back toward the more ancient faiths.
I look forward to the day when religious exclusivism dies. It will be at that point when so many smart people will be able to shift their focus from apologetics to philosophy and theology, enriching people’s lives of faith rather than trying to remove the doubt that is necessary to keep faith from becoming simply ideological. When religious exclusivism dies we will be able to focus not on getting everyone to share the same symbols and images for the unknowable God, but rather on rejoicing in everyone’s shared love of God. And I do think the death of exclusivism will come. Indeed, exclusivism is nothing more than a symbol of faith. It has had its time, but like any symbol of faith, it will die when it no longer grasps people and ceases to point to the Truth to which it once pointed. The death of the symbol of exclusivism will be education, this wave of which will not stop. And as we become more and more educated through our experiences, we will “buy” exclusivist claims less and less, to the point at which they cease to be made and that tired symbol of faith will be dead. If any religion that currently claims exclusivity as its symbol that points toward Truth wishes to survive and thrive as the tide of education and experience rises, it may be true that that religion – which we must not forget is also nothing more than a symbol that points toward Truth – must, in the words of Bishop Spong, change or die.”
Source of This Discursion: I saw the Newsweek article and the Pew website and wanted to post the links, so I figured I better come up with something to say about them too.
[i] As if there is such a thing as common Christian theology.
[ii] I couldn’t be certain what the true “traditional” view of OS is, so it might be more accurate to call it the “popular” view. It comes in harder and softer forms, but it seems to center around the idea that we’re incapable of goodness, or we’re inherently sinful, or we’re damned by virtue of our humanity, or something.