04 December 2006


Evolution of Religion?

It seems that the Darwinian language of the theory of evolution is beginning to percolate into the thinking of religious leaders. The Archbishop of Canterbury (21 November) gave a speech about 'Benedict [the original Saint, not the present Pope] and the Future of Europe' in which he said: "... there is undoubtedly a spectrum of understanding from the ideologically secular liberal through to the most inflexible Muslim primitivist ..." and he refers to "these diversities". Further: "To pursue the metaphor of an ecology for a moment, we are speaking of commitment to human and cultural ‘biodiversity’." And: "A modern or postmodern society is unlikely, for good or ill, to be overtly committed to a single ideology; ..."

In his 'Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio 4 this morning (4 December)
Clifford Longley
picked up on this in terms of the Pope's visit to Turkey, saying, of the Archbishop: "The variety of religious faith in human society was analogous to bio-diversity among living things, he argued. We don't necessarily understand how it works, but we mess with it at our peril. And biodiversity offers a rich treasure house of resources, if we only discover how to understand and use them. Above all biodiversity implies respect and care, not the wanton imposition of uniformity come what may. And the same is true of cultural and religious pluralism."
Longley argues: "religion itself might yet have the answer to the problem that religion so starkly presents. That problem, in a nutshell, is the notion of a clash of civilisations."

The fact that religions evolve was evident in the testimony of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his interview with John 'Humphrys in Search of God' (14 November) who put forward the picture of God having 'evolved' from the fierce and fearsome Yahweh, smiter of nations and performer of miracles, via the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story "... the revolutionary moment at which God says I do not demand human sacrifices, I am not the god of the Greeks, of the Romans, of the Aztecs, I am the god that holds that life is holy, you must learn to cherish your children." Until, in modern times "... we do not live in the age of God the strategic intervener."

A student Meg Folcarelli (2004) asks: "Will religions disappear leaving only the materials and traditions as Dennett seems to suggest they will, or will they evolve, and change to meet our modern world." and the quotes Karen Armstrong's 'History of God': "for 4,000 years it [the idea of God] has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our own century, more and more people have found that it no longer works for them, and when religious ideas cease to be effective they fade away".

A biologist Ben Cullen in an article on 'Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion' (1995?) wrote: "Many religions are being vertically transmitted or family dependent, and we would therefore expect them to evolve toward symbiosis or at least benignness. As Dawkins has remarked, it is an extraordinary fact that if we adhere to a faith at all, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the same as that of our parents. This simple fact ought to ensure that if a religion which followed this pattern of transmission ruthlessly exploited its congregation, it would eventually plunge both itself and its people into extinction."

In a video interview with Robert Wright the theologian Keith Ward considers that the evolution of religion is "toward inwardness and self-transformation" (but somehow considers Hindus to be monotheists!).

Even Islam is said to be evolving, in Morocco.

Whether religion may have some evolutionary advantage over science is considered by Adrian Barnett (1999): "I read once that you need to study maths for about fifteen years before you can really get to grips with quantum mechanics. Who has the time for that, when crops have to be harvested? When physicists start talking about ten-dimensional vibrating strings and membranes, virtual particles and entangled photons, 'God did it' is so much easier for the majority of people to deal with."

The Bahai Faith thinks it has the problem licked already: "In reality, there is only one religion, the religion of God. This one religion is continually evolving, and each particular religious system represents a stage in the evolution of the whole. The Bahá'í Faith represents the current stage in the evolution of religion."

Another religion that claims the future is The Church of Reality, which "is an Open Source Religion" with "an evolving doctrine" that "may well be the next stage in the evolution of religion."

All this is being thrashed out, the IHEU reports, at a 'Workshop on the Future of Religion and Humanism' to be held following an International Conference on the Evolution of Religion at the Makaha Resort, near Honolulu, Hawaii on Wednesday, 10 January, 2007.

Finally, I note that the idea is not new. The Positivist Frederic Harrison wrote a book on 'Positive Evolution of Religion' as long ago as 1913.

Just a quick comment from one of my own areas of knowledge; the quote about the Baha'i faith may be misleading.

In reality there is nothing natural or selective about the Baha'i conception of the "evolution" of religion. What they call "progressive revelation" is the idea that God manifests in various messengers convenient for different times and places, Buddha there, Jesus here, Mohammed in this, Krishna in the other, etc. There's no natural selection, religion is intelligently designed by God at every stage! And even in the merely progressing sense of "evolution" -- not necessarily linked to natural selection as such -- even this isn't properly a part of the Baha'i faith, because they would I think find it hard and counter-intuitive to say that Islam is somehow more "progressed" than Judaism (for example) just because the former is younger than the latter. So really this "progressive revelation" is more of a "relative revelation".

I think this shows one of the ways in which religion has co-opted the language of evolution, while ignoring the real juicy bits.

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