Interesting figures…

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:

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.


Filed under Grant

7 responses to “Interesting figures…

  1. Christopher

    I wouldn’t be so sure about never returning to the days of monkey trials, Grant. Deconstructive Religious extremism is rampant, not merely in this country, but also on the global scale. 35 years ago in Kabul – Jews hosted Muslim friends for dinner parties, women held prominent civic positions, museums and schools thrived, architecture flourished, and Afghan city was known as the “Paris of the far east.” This society was deconstructed by the Taliban.

    Fundamentalism comes in many forms, but as Donald Schell pointed out it is recognizable by a corporate belief that espouses exclusivity: “the world is evil – our insular circle will protect us. We know the TRUTH.” Eventually this insular group gains adherents, money, ergo power. This exclusive mindset is the basis of any group which seeks to close itself off from the rest of society. For a poor, uneducated and awkward man in the hills of Southern Utah, it must sound pretty good to be a member of an exclusive club that espouses the ‘secret TRUTH’ (and gives you lots of women to reign over). The human need for acceptance, our natural desire for salvation from perceived din around us, these are the driving forces of fundamentalism.

    I think the substantiating evidence of your discursion points not to a change in the doctrine of Christianity (i.e.: rejecting John 14:6); but rather, a more complete, holistic, and enlightened understanding of Scripture. It is not Christianity that is changing, rather the hearts/minds of people are. I can read, interpret and accept 100% what Christ says in John 14:6 without condemning my Hindi friends to eternal damnation:

    Christ is inestimable Love. Therefore, no one may reach God unless through the ways of profound Love and understanding. Whether they know the name Jesus Christ or not is superfluous to the point that other faiths also teach this kind of Love. Love is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes before the Father unless through Love. Makes sense to me. But fundamentalists will point to this as an apostate’s misunderstanding that will lead to demise (probably at the hands of an angry God) because it nullifies the exclusivity with which their power is based.

    It literally takes the sum of my formal education, my training to understand poetic prose, allusion, and intellectual reason to come to an understanding which is in the vein of Christ’s intended message of peace and Love. What of the majority of the world who have never gone to a day of school past 8th grade, or who have never left their town? These locations are the nebula of literalist thinking and extremist beliefs. Fundamentalism is a violent and dangerous cancer in our world that must be combated with our God-given intellectualism and reason.

    If this smacks of Intellectual Imperialism….IT IS. May the sun never set on the thinking empire.

  2. GCC

    Thanks for commenting, Christopher.

    When it comes to whether or not it’s a particular religion that changes or merely its adherents, I think the distinction is probably semantic. I largely view religions (and doctrine in particular) as a community’s reflection of their experience with the divine, and that experience is shaped by their hearts/minds. I don’t see the two as distinguishable from one another. So, as hearts and minds change, religion will change – though, I doubt cognitive dissonance will allow for an outright rejection of what was before.

    I suppose exclusivism is the hallmark of fundamentalism, though it comes in harder and softer forms. I think that the primary reason I look forward to the day exclusivism dies is that it – particularly when combined with a focus on the afterlife – is inherently de-humanizing. And of course, dehumanization breeds violence. Hence, Luther’s advocacy of the razing of Jewish homes based on de-humanizing passages of the New Testament which he quotes as justification; horrible events like the murder of Matthew Shepard by men who, due to his homosexuality and their unelightened understanding of human nature, viewed him as entirely other and less worthy; domestic violence which is precipitated by a doctrine of inequality among the sexes put forth by those who would support things such as the True Woman movement, and argue that being beaten by one’s husband is not grounds for divorce, etc. The commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is so central to this issue. De-humanization is simply the rendering of unequal or unworthy any other person or group of people. And as soon as we see others as unequal, it no longer makes logical sense to consider the effects of what we do to them as if it was done to ourselves. When we render people unequal, we disquality them from the status of “neighbor” and can thus behave cruelly toward them without experiencing cognitive dissonace with our own moral code.

    Whether it’s religion that changes, or our hearts and minds, it will be a good day when the de-humanzing effects of religious exclusivism cease to exist. When it comes to stories such as that of Kabul, I can’t think of anything better to do than mourn, and NOT turn the other cheek, NOT carry twice the burden of such damaging fundamentalism as its perpetrators would have us carry.

  3. How one wields “exclusivity” does nothing to negate or confirm the legitimacy or validity of “exclusivity” itself, if it indeed exists, which I believe it does (although far more differently than what many would likely project). I think Americans and Christians have been moving away from “exclusive” religious thought and life for some time – it goes by the name of “relativism.” Just because “relativism” may have a higher propensity to bring peace, or the appearance thereof, it does not automatically, or necessarily, translate into meaningful peace or the true equality it seeks.

    It is somewhere in a sordid, tangled, humanly-undecipherable mess where exclusivity and relativism only appear to coexist to the outsider where I believe Truth exists. It is Truth, which I call and understand as God, an angry and jealous yet benevolent and just God, that judges our hearts and minds righteously. And, it is our hearts and minds that reflect righteous or unrighteous worldviews and way of life, by which I mean beliefs and practice, by which I mean how we exercise religion, theology, philosophy, politics, relationships and the like. It is by all such things that we will be held accountable to by God. We alone are each responsible for our personal worldview and way of life. And, it is God that comprehensively knows our worldview and way of life, and our intention behind both of them, to which He will dispense grace as deemed appropriate and fitting, according to His standards.

    I say all this to essentially say: perhaps the belief in exclusive Truth will die, but I’ll at least have to be a dead man first. I am not saying I believe that there is a precise “religious” formula to know, experience, or be redeemed back to God, but I am saying I believe that there is only one True God. It is a God who holds all Truth, and all grace needed to be redeemed back unto Him, which has been afforded to all by atonement of Jesus Christ. The exclusivity of Truth resides with one, but it is not exclusive in practice. On the contrary, it inclusively opens its arms as wide as wide can be, ready to embrace all.

  4. Christopher

    Thanks for the ideas Terrence. I am not surprised that you level the “relativist” label on this particular theological interpretation. Though I don’t deny the propensity of relativist thought in today’s day and age (with serious implications abounding), I find it difficult to imagine how any of us could ascertain exclusive truth…particularly when the history of exclusive truths has largely been incorrect.

    Secondly, if Christ is the exclusive Truth, then what of the Godly people who, through no fault of their own, never learn of his name? Think of the Tibetan villager who tends to goats, takes care of his wife and children, is a steward of the earth, and a pillar of honesty in his community. Does he not receive salvation? Is he not whole? Is he… (gasp!) damned to eternal hell?

    I propose that the Exclusive Truth is more broad than we have accepted. This does NOTHING to diminish the role of Christ, particularly within our own personal Christian faiths. What the openness of this theology provides is the true inclusiveness of which you write; but more importantly, an acknowledgment of mystery, and the opportunity to openly accept divine revelation in the future.

    Exclusive Truth is a tempting thing to accept because it’s an easy answer in a complex world. But the complex world has complex answers, and our theology should represent that broadness of thought.

  5. GCC

    It seems to me the idea of religious exclusivism and absolute truth have been convoluted. The opposite of exclusivism is not relativism, it is inclusivism. A rejection of religious exclusivism is not a rejection of the notion of absolute truth.

    I think – based on other conversations we’ve had – that what Terrence means by “exclusive truth” is really “absolute truth.” Is that right, T? I think that calling Truth by the name God, and not a particular religious scheme, religious exclusivism has already been rejected.

    Christopher, I think the concern about those who haven’t been exposed to a particular religion is a non-issue based on Terrence’s comment because he mentions rather explicitly that what’s he’s calling “Exclusive Truth” does not require adherence to a particular “‘reilgious’ formula.” I think the concern about those who’ve never heard of Jesus is only a concern in the context of a need to “confess Jesus as lord” or something, which would then be a specific “religious formula.” To me this further signals a rejection of religious exclusivism.

    Oh, and as I mentioned above that formal education is not everything, here’s some proof…this guy has a doctorate:

  6. Grant, you’re correct in asserting that I mean “absolute truth” when I say “exclusive truth.” People often reply to such a belief in absolute truth as being an exclusive belief, and hence exclusive religion when applied to things religious in nature. It likely comes as no surprise to you that I don’t really care for the word “religion” because it is so broad in definition and application. I think a lot of others would agree, and I know some who already do. Some people would argue that my belief in “absolute truth” equates to exclusive religion, and I can understand such a conclusion; however I find it errant in the context of particular parameters.

    Grant, you are also correct in asserting that those not exposed to a particular religion is not inherently an issue for me in relation to my belief of “exclusive truth.” You correctly connected and applied my statement regarding “religious formulas” as well. The case of the Tibetan villager is precisely the type of person I had in mind in the midst of the “mess where exclusivity and relativism only appear to coexist to the outsider.” I’d venture to say some who call themselves “Christian” and believe in pure “exclusive religion,” would be astonished if God deemed a non-Christian, Tibetan villager as an individual after His own heart and/or righteous and/or redeemed the Tibetan villager unto Him. I think such astonishment will happen.

  7. GCC

    “…some who call themselves ‘Christian’ and believe in pure ‘exclusive religion,’ would be astonished…”

    THAT, is the religious exclusivism that I think/hope will die and am referring to here. It is that sort of exclusivism that I think can lead to the bad things mentioned above.

    I don’t think that a belief in absolute truth necessitates religious exclusivism. But it does seem that religious exlcusivism necessitates belief in an absolute truth. In one direction, the two seem connected. So, I wonder if the reason that belief in absolute truth is so often confused with (or assumed to accompany) religious exclusivism is because the religious exclusivists are so loud and present in society. They simply dominate the public perception of “People of Faith” and as a result, others end up equating their view with any belief in an absolute truth. And as a result, other faithful people find themselves (often embarassingly) attached to the loud exclusivists by default. I preceive a fair amount of reactionary behavior on the part of much of society (take Hitchens and Dawkins for instance), as the result of the offense (often moral) caused by those who “People of Faith” who tend to be so loud.

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