In the last post, I discussed our move from the paradigm of agrarian civilization to something else that I call the advanced paradigm or mature paradigm. It’s a transition that’s not finished yet. It began in Europe in the 15th century or thereabouts, and over the centuries since then we have seen monarchies replaced with democratic republics, feudal economies replaced with capitalist economies that evolved into capitalist-socialist blends, patriarchy morphing into gender egalitarianism, and established, state-supported religion dropping out of the picture, replaced by a spiritual marketplace of ideas.
As with the change that occurred thousands of years ago when our ancestors settled into farming communities that grew into cities and the first civilizations, this one is driven by technology. All of our social institutions, political and economic arrangements, religious beliefs, and collective mores adapt to our material circumstances, and as technology progresses, those circumstances change. All of our ways of doing things change to accommodate them.
I could write huge amounts (and have before) on the political, cultural, economic, and global relations aspects of this transition, but in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m going to talk here about the spiritual and religious aspects. I’ll note in passing only that science fiction writers who depict a future society with advanced technology like faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, and human genetic engineering, but one substantially the same as our own in terms of politics, economics, and other social institutions, are confused. Star Trek got it right. Firefly got it wrong.
That said, on to the changes that have occurred and are occurring in religion.
The first change to manifest was the breaking up of monolithic religious authority. This change began in western Europe, so the authority involved was the Roman Catholic Church, which had become an effective religious monarchy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The lack of an Emperor is the reason why the western half of the old Imperial Church has a Pope, while the eastern half, called the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not. The Imperial Church featured the Roman Emperor as titular head of the religion. In the West, the Emperor was gone, so the Pope replaced him. In the East, he remained in power until the 15th century, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, hence, there is no Eastern Orthodox Pope. Once again, institutions follow material circumstances.)
The invention responsible for the splintering of the Catholic Church was the printing press. (That same invention would later drive democratic movements that overthrew kings or reduced them to figureheads.) Printing with movable type was introduced in Europe in the 1450s. Over the following century, printing reduced the cost of books, which made learning to read worth doing for the non-wealthy, and this led to widespread literacy on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a very long time.
Reading leads to thinking and questioning, and ordinary Christians in Europe wanted to read the scriptures for themselves and began to question the claims of the Church authorities. Against this background of growing religious dissent and dissatisfaction, Martin Luther’s famous protest against Church corruption sparked a conflagration. At the end of the firestorm, Europe was no longer a religious monolith, but had become a more diverse community spiritually (although still almost entirely Christian).
This led to other changes, particularly when a community had contending versions of Christianity, so that no one version was clearly dominant. This occurred increasingly in England, Germany, France, and other areas of Europe, and their colonies in the New World as well. At the same time, movements for increased popular representation and democracy in politics took shape, and this also influenced religious discourse. So did horror at the religious wars and persecutions that swept Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In consequence, the ideas of religious toleration and pluralism emerged, leading by way of the Enlightenment to the separation of church and state and religious freedom.
This takes us to about the beginning of the 19th century, so the transition to that point took roughly 350 years. With the separation of church and state, the political changes impacting religion were essentially complete, but changes to religion itself have continued past that point.
The technological changes that continue to impact religious thought include further improvements in communication technology (telegraph, radio, television, communications satellites, the Internet), and technologies with economic impacts (the steam engine, railroads, factory production methods, the airplane, modern agricultural methods and machinery, medicine, computers). The first has rendered the isolation that formerly allowed doctrinal purity impossible. The second has led to the obsolescence of many traditional moral concepts, particularly those that accommodated and regulated slavery and other forms of servitude, as well as sexual mores and gender roles that served the purpose of maximizing birthrates (a purpose that has now become self-destructive). In addition, the increasing dominance of science and the scientific method over the way that we establish facts about observable phenomena has rendered literal interpretations of scriptural stories such as the creation myth highly dubious. (It’s fair to note here that theologians did not, in pre-scientific days, generally advocate a literal interpretation of these myths. That’s a modern phenomenon and part of the reaction against these changes in religion.)
Today, all of the so-called “great” religions are under siege. Spirituality itself is universal and constant, but the religious doctrines and practices that clothe it are not. With the power of government removed (in the advanced world anyway), or guaranteeing peaceful discourse, the challenges to religious orthodoxy are ideas rather than guns. (Unfortunately, the religiously orthodox have been known to resort to guns as a defense against ideas.)
The challenging ideas come from three sources primarily:
The challenge from science goes beyond knowledge that calls literal interpretations of myth into question. A bigger and more fundamental challenge is posed by scientific method, and by what might be called meta-elements of scientific method. Scientific method per se isn’t applicable to spirituality, as science deals strictly with propositional knowledge and spirituality is non-propositional, but there are some accompanying attitudes and approaches that are transferrable. The most important of these meta-elements is the idea that all knowledge is tentative and gained through experience (or, in science itself, observation). Transferring this to religion means that no religious idea is permanent, but merely the best we can do at any point in time, and that the ultimate authority is our own spiritual experience, not revelation. It means the end of God’s law inscribed on stone tablets. It means that there can never be a Seal of the Prophets. It means the loss of authority for scripture.
Other religions also present a challenge to orthodoxy. That’s nothing new in itself, but the scale on which this is occurring is unprecedented and results from improved communication technology. It’s no longer the case that religious believers live in isolated communities and rarely, if ever, communicate with someone who believes differently than they do. In Christian communities in the West, ideas from Islam, from Buddhism and Hinduism, and from Neopaganism and New Age philosophy are influencing the evolution of Christian thinking. From the perspective of a Medieval Christian authority, all Christians today are heterodox and becoming more so all the time. The same thing is happening in other religions, too.
Finally, modernity itself challenges religious teachings that were established in the agrarian age. Traditional sexual morality doesn’t work well in a world that needs to reduce fertility rates rather than maximizing them, and in which declining violence and reduced need for hard manual labor make traditional gender roles increasingly absurd. The universe as we increasingly see it, vast almost beyond comprehension and with our little planet making up a tiny and insignificant part of it, carries its own weight of sublime and divine mystery and wonder, but is not really compatible with agrarian age concepts of man’s role in God’s world.
All of these pressures are causing religion to morph and change. It’s questionable whether any of the old great religions still exists in its original form, especially in the advanced nations. None shall endure. We will always have religion, but it will not — it cannot — remain unchanged.