Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where We Were, and Are

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 1: Good and Evil as Religious Ideas.

Reading an old book is often like being an archeologist; digging into a layer of time buried by the sediment of past eras, and discovering a little about the way people lived back then.  While real archeology offers mainly views of where people lived, what they ate, and other factors which are inferred from the physical remains, old books offer an explicit peek at what people actually thought in the days gone by.  Those ideas can be peculiar to that era based on the culture, or they can be transcendent of that era based on the common experiences which are replicated today in one form or another.  The theology/philosophy of Paul Carus has both of these aspects.

Will Monism eliminate the idea of the Devil in order to make God the One and All? Or will it abolish both God and the Devil, to leave room only for a world of matter in motion? Will the future of mankind be, as M. Guyau prophesies, a period in which religion will disappear and give way to irreligion?  HOD, P2, Paul Carus

It is easy to imagine how someone today could be asking the same questions, but Carus was writing back 1900 C.E., in a time which is considered to be the "Golden Age of Freethought."  By then, Bible and comparative religion studies had rendered Christianity to be of questionable veracity, the theory of evolution had presented a conceptually feasible origin of our species, and astronomy was revealing our true place in the universe.  While most of the public was still religious, there was a buzz, a growing excitement among those bold enough to ponder the ramifications of this relatively new information, and they figured that the world was on the cusp of developing a new paradigm; but exactly what that would be was still unknown.

Now, over a hundred and ten years later, I think we are where Carus thought we would be within a few decades of the questions he had posed.  Our theological future is still unknown, but there is an accelerating decay from the Biblical dualism of the old era.

Atheism is gaining momentum.  Many decades ago, atheists were largely "unnatural," because faith was still so ubiquitous among the population that it took individual reasoning to overcome the mass cultural perspective of religion.  Now, atheism is a sizable enough minority that there are many atheists who were brought up without the trappings of faith, or who found that Christianity simply did not "work" for them and so they have dropped it for what seemed to be another viable option: no faith at all.

Others who are disenfranchised with divine duality delve into different formats of spirituality. Some define their own paths.  Some have become enchanted with Eastern-influenced versions Monism; either that there is but one God (who is more of the deist persuasion) or, more usually, that God is in everything and/or is everything.

Today, within some mainstream denominations of Christianity, while God persists, Satan has become a figurative or metaphorical character representing our reprobate desires within (as is possibly suggested in Peter's episode of rejecting Jesus' plans in Matthew 16:22-23 and Mark 8:32-33).  In some denominations, while Heaven persists, Hell is no longer a physical place with perpetually burning fires of torture, but has morphed into either a place of eternal separation from God or a state of annihilation.  O divine wrath, where is thy sting? (Matthew 3:7-10, Luke 3:7-9)

Of course, any time traditional ideas are challenged, there will be a faction which digs in, conservatively clinging to the past, willfully oblivious of the evidence against them.  We see this in the resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism.  I wager that we still have about a decade, maybe even two, before Fundy-lunacy reaches its peak and begins its painfully slow decline.  The shift will come primarily from the younger generations, who will be less willing to take such hard line stances against reality, or will be lured by more-tolerant, more-metaphorical denominations of the faith, or by the charismatic mega-churches with better religi-tainment, if they remain "Christian" at all.

Restriction of knowledge and cultural isolation are the strongest forces to abate the inclination toward Christian apostasy.  These strategies are increasingly difficult to execute in our modern world.  That is why I predict that within three decades, Christian Fundamentalism in the United States will become highly regional; down to specific smaller cities and towns, like Decatur, Alabama, as well as certain rural swaths, like the Appalachian Mountains.

I'll go into some of Carus' answers to those questions next time...


  1. Good points !

    I think, unlike Robert Wright, the religious thinking is not as 'evolutionary' as us non-believers we'd like to imagine. Humanity is not moving toward inevitable non-belief.

    If a country goes through hard economic or survival times, religion will spring up again. Good-Evil Dualism serves as a cultural tool depending on the stresses of culture. And cultures rise and fall. Thus religions will rise and fall. We may see them decline but they may again climb. Cultures are tenuous.

  2. Thanks Sabio. I'd have to agree with you. The nature of spirituality at its core is anti-evolutionary, in that it does not necessarily draw on a survival of the fittest model. While beliefs are evolving to better coincide with our knowledge, I don't see universal atheism as a feasible end product, or perhaps I should say I don't see universal a-spirituality as a feasible end product.

    And I'd have to agree with you about the rise and fall of religions too, particularly relative to times of distress. However, I wonder if we are nearing the threshold where the next big resurgence of Christianity, if there is one, will necessarily be different; more metaphorical.

  3. Your prediction of fundamentalism being restricted to regional enclaves is intriguing. I could see it happening for the reasons you suggest. On the other hand, thanks to the Internet, the reverse could happen. It's possible that reasonable, wise, and intellectually mature people will be forced onto reservations—real or virtual.

  4. You may be right Paul. We are at a teetering point. I feel, maybe due to unjustified optimism or my biased desires, that the weight has shifted subtly toward a liberation from the yoke of Fundamentalism; at least with Christianity and in the U.S. Fundamentalism is a minority in the really big cities of New York, LA, Seattle, etc. For it's own peculiar reason, the overwhelming majority of Fundamentalists are Republican, and they are some fraction of them, as evidenced by Santorum's loss in the primary. So it appears to me that Fundamentalist, while being a significant sized minority, are not quite in a position to enforce a divine Dominion.

  5. Two things:

    "... and astrology was revealing our true place in the universe."

    I stumbled on the word choice - did you mean to use "astrology" here?

    and, "...within three decades, Christian Fundamentalism in the United States will become highly regional; down to specific smaller cities and towns..."

    Your bold prediction is intriguing. I think I'd agree with your short timeline and maybe even suggest we will see noticeable signs of change within the next ten years (due to the baby boom population bubble). It's tricky though. A lot of things can come up randomly too.

    Taking Paul's and Sabio's points into account, does this mean you also see a stabilizing of other factors? For example, instead of an economic collapse (which would likely rejuvenate fundamentalist spirit), do you see growth and balance ahead? Just trying to get a deeper picture of what you base your prediction on.

  6. Doh! Andrew, it seems that I have mistaken "astrology" and "astronomy." I have a tough time with words that sound similar. I was referring to, of course, the further development of telescopes, the study of planetary motion, etc. ;-)

    It's definitely tricky predicting the future, and I could be just full of foolishness, among other things. This is largely "gut feeling" analysis, but I think there are factors which support it.

    Fundamentalism is already in regional concentration in certain spots, as we can see by the Republican primaries, as no Fundamentalist would choose a Republican Mormon over a Republican Christian, and the Fundamentalists should have been attracted by Santorum's track record.

    I think that, barring some immediate crisis of the scale of the sub-prime failures, the economy will continue to limp, with high market volatility, into stability and recovery (although I don't think it will be a "full" recovery).

    In the fundamentalist realm, these are either the End Times or the times when Christians are to take over governments in the movement known as Dominion. Stability is the enemy of either of those thought processes, so any economic recovery will weaken that foothold.

    Also, many of the End Times fundamentalist have been playing the Chicken Little game with natural disasters. Once it becomes obvious that the recent disasters are not harbingers of Jesus' Coming, say in a decade or two, that claim is going to loose force, and adherents.

    Additionally, the fundamentalist's hard line stance social issues tends to turn people away as they learn more. It is rarely an attractive force for new recruits. In our social, media, and educational arenas, diversity already has a strong foothold, making it increasingly difficult not to be exposed to different ideas and philosophies, and increasing the likelihood that people will meet, accept, and respect people with those different views.

    The internet provides unprecedented exposure to different ideas and cultures, which also serves to weaken a Fundamentalist grip.

    So that's my outlook in a nutshell. I hope I'm right.