It’s been three weeks now. The rain won’t let up. The foundation trenches for the house I’m building look like mud-filled moats. I can’t get any work done. So I’m reduced to this, pontificating on religion, even as I’ve always considered religion as something like political ideology—a poor perspective from which to observe and understand we curious hairless apes.
I don’t know quite why I’ve been lately drawn to investigating religion. Maybe I’m getting old and subconsciously scared of where I might go when this gig is up. My agnostic grandfather got religion along about his late eighties, and for what I figure was exactly that reason. But I’m only fifty-four, and while a few health issues have developed over the years, I’m not figuring the end is nigh (though, one never knows—I don’t want God to think I’m presumptuous or anything).
Maybe I’m interested because my son is starting seminary in the fall and I want to know something of what he will be learning. He’s followed the millennial trend and moved back home with us to pursue his godly studies. I’ve nicknamed him “the monk.” But that’s just being optimistic. I know he’d never enter a monastery. And I doubt he’ll even get a job after seminary. That’s why we spent a hundred grand on his education: so we could have a live-in man servant. Except, having been coddled all his life at home until now, he’s a lousy servant with a snarky attitude. He seems incapable of seeing the contradiction between the piety he seeks to exude and the piety of a servant’s heart he refuses.
But in truth, if my son’s attending seminary piqued my interest in religion, it is more likely due to that ages-old father-son rivalry thing–not wanting him to get smarter than me—than to wanting to share in his education. Biology ever and always explains everything.
Whatever the reasons, I wished I’d soon get over it. Religion is a confused mess. Especially Christianity in America. It makes about as much sense to me as Hinduism in India (which had a 5,000-year-or-so head start on becoming a tangled mess of theological briars), yet, unlike Hinduism, I was born into Christianity and have lived it all of my life (but very perfunctorily, like most everybody else). When I’ve been interested to do so, I’ve concentrated my investigations on the questions religion purports to answer—who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going—through what I see as less emotional and more rational lines of inquiry, namely science and philosophy.
Science tells me I’m a hairless ape with a ridiculously big brain (for my body’s size), riding a planet around a minor star in the Milky Way galaxy. Science’s origins myth has the universe starting from nothing/something (it really doesn’t know, as its language—math—breaks down at the initial point) about 13-15 billion years ago (it probably gets the age right). Science doesn’t know where the universe is ultimately leading and doesn’t care why (in a transcendental sense) it is heading there. In other words, science doesn’t know any more than religion of where it is we came from and where it is we are going. At least honest scientists admit as much. An honest theologian can claim to know such things, including providing a contrived purpose for it all, and no one questions him on it. A scientist can’t.
But science does know, for instance, that the earth is circling the sun, something which religion denied until about four hundred years ago (actually, ‘til only just recently in the Catholic church, but nobody has much paid any mind to what the Catholics thought about the matter since Copernicus and Galileo). And it knows that the sun is one of trillions and trillions and trillions of stars in the universe. And it is reasonably certain that life on earth got started about three and half billion years ago. How it started, science can’t say. Neither can religion, though it claims to know.
Philosophy does little in the way of answering the three questions, but shows how to think about them, so is helpful. Religion more often than not discourages thinking. Religion is tribal that way, caring more that everyone believe the same thing than that the thing believed has some basis in observable reality.
In fact, the religious impulse could be considered as one means of expressing a deeply-ingrained tribalism that aids tremendously in survival and propagation. Since it really doesn’t matter on a day-to-day survival basis where we come from or where we are ultimately going or why, but survival often depends on close-knit bonds among the members of a survival cooperative (i.e., families, clans, tribes, nations, states, i.e., groups generally progressing in size through history), commonly-held religious belief provides a perfect cement for holding groups together and for identifying others that might impair prospects. Religion provides a powerful demarcation line between those who are, as we say in the South, ‘wid ya’, and those who are ‘a’gin ya.’
My meandering religious inquiry led me to a couple of books found at my local library, Religion in America: A Short History (by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker and Randall Balmer, 2003) and The Evolution-Creation Struggle (by Michael Ruse, 2001). Both are history books. To understand anything–from theoretical physics to the importance of salt to civilization’s development–you must know something of its history. It is possible to know a thing in a useful, exploitable way without understanding it. The stream from a garden hose can be magnified in power by partially squeezing the hose end shut. It doesn’t take knowing the Bernoulli’s Principle to exploit the knowledge that water accelerates out of a squeezed hose end, but it takes knowing the Principle, at least in a general sense, to understand what is going on. Knowing and understanding are two separate things. It takes knowledge to understand, but knowledge alone isn’t enough.
I had only sketchy knowledge of the history of mainstream religious practices and beliefs in America, so figured I best start there if I were to ever gain an understanding. To say the least, the history of religion in America is complicated. Take just one example—the Puritans of New England.
The Puritans were a movement started in England in the late 16th century to reform (purify) the Church of England. They claimed the Church of England was still too Catholic, though it had split from the Roman Church in the early 16th century during Henry the Eighth’s reign. There were two flavors of Anglican Church reformers (Anglican Church=Church of England)—the Separatists, also known as Pilgrims, and the Reformers, known as Puritans. As the appellations imply, the Separatists believed the Anglican Church beyond redemption, and that only by going their own way could they save their mortal souls. The Reformists believed an ember of divinity yet smoldered that could be flared anew with a spark of reform. It was a group of Separatist Pilgrims that sailed to North America’s shores in 1620, departing from Amsterdam after having already given up on England. They established the first permanent English colony north of what would become the Mason-Dixon line in what is today known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. (There was already established, but barely surviving, a colony in Virginia of a more entrepreneurial than theological flair. The Virginia Colony was a get-rich-quick scheme that didn’t pan out so well at the first. The Plymouth Colony was a get-to-heaven-quick scheme that worked quite well in its early years at shuffling a goodly number of its denizens off this mortal coil.)
Though being the first to establish a colony in what became Massachusetts, the Pilgrims were soon overwhelmed by the influx of Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, primarily in what became Salem and Boston. The two groups had lesser differences than similarities, especially in the New World, arrayed as they were as representatives of the English culture against an unforgiving environment and a hostile indigenous population (the first Thanksgiving is the last time Indian relations were friendly), so the Pilgrim/Puritan split became fuzzy with time and today the two are often confused.
Both the Pilgrims and Puritans rode a long train of history to arrive in America. They were a Calvinist sect (along with Scottish Presbyterians, and others) of Anglicans that arose in England after the Church of England split with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530’s during the reign of Henry the Eighth. John Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther and a prominent leader of the Protestant Reformation, the 15th and 16th century schism in Europe when the Protestant Reform movement split from the Roman Catholic Church (as opposed to when the Orthodox Church in the east split from Rome around the turn of the millennium). The Reformation’s general starting point is considered Martin Luther’s pinning of his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg, Saxony in 1517.
The Roman Catholic Church, having enjoyed by the time of the Reformation a near thousand-year reign as the most powerful institution in Europe (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire around 500 ad), had grown corrupt and decadent, while the many ruling fiefs of Europe were slowly consolidating and gaining power. Luther attacked perhaps the most corrupt and decadent of its practices, the Church’s selling of absolution for sin (the indulgences).
An outrage like indulgences could never have arisen in Christianity but for the Church having become the temple religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century ad, after Roman Emperor Constantine the Great came to believe that his vision of a cross before a battle propelled his army to victory. In fits and starts, the religion replaced paganism, starting with Constantine’s declaration of its adoption in 312 ad. And before adoption by the Empire as its official creed, Christianity would surely have died aborning upon Christ’s death (and resurrection) had Saul of Tarsus not himself experienced a conversion event as he traveled to Damascus to persecute Christians. Christianity was a tiny Jewish sect before Paul’s conversion (a change of name coming with the conversion). Paul opened the religion to converts from any who would believe, not just the Jews.
Thus it went: Christ to Paul to Constantine to the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Reformation to John Calvin to the Anglican/Catholic split to Puritans to Pilgrims to America. That greatly simplifies things, obviously, but is still a long list of “but-for” causes of how things happened.
Even as Paul opened Christianity to the unwashed heathen Gentiles, fifteen hundred years later, John Calvin would use Paul’s writings to close it once again, decreeing that by dint of a few of Paul’s comments in Romans (Chapter 8: 28-30*), none could be saved by faith or works, but that God preordained the ‘elect’ for salvation. With Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination—his greatest contribution to Christianity–salvation became a matter of God’s whim. It’s a doctrine that makes sense only if you don’t think about it. If there is no way to save one’s self from eternal damnation, then why bother at all with Christianity? Why bother doing anything? Curiously enough, all the Calvinists who adopted Predestination used it to compel piety and fealty and hard work among their faithful—such behavior providing evidence that one was a member of the elect—which led to the aphorism arising of the “Puritan Work Ethic”, which some social and economic philosophers (Max Weber, of note) have credited for the ascendancy of capitalism in the Industrial Age.
*And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the first born among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
After only a few years in the New World, church membership among Puritans/Pilgrims dropped precipitously as a percent of the New England population. Whereas in the 1640’s, church membership had been as high as 70 and 80 percent, it was half that by the 1670’s. The Puritans, who became known as Congregationalists for their refusal to allow power in any but their individual congregations, were by and large the most powerful institution in New England at its initial settlement. But they faded rapidly, as other sects arose, new settlers rejected the old ways, and members migrated elsewhere.
Their decline in membership is perhaps not randomly coincidental to the fact that the Congregationalists were the official church of New England, supported by Crown taxes, and later by State taxes, up until the 1830’s (the First Amendment prohibition against establishing a religion was inapplicable to the states until the passage of the 14th Amendment in the 1860’s). In other words, the Puritans were the church and the state, all at once, for a very long time (over two hundred years), and England’s experience, along with the rest of Europe, even until today, is that once the church becomes an agency of the state, church interest and allegiance suffers. All of which, taken together, gives the lie to the myth that America was at least partially founded so that people could worship whatever God they pleased, however they pleased, or none at all. In Massachusetts, and many other states (notably, Virginia, with the Anglican Church), no matter what were your beliefs, you still had to support with taxes (and in some cases, attendance), the official church of the state.
There were many more twists and turns to the Puritan/Congregationalist story. The Salem witch trials of the late 17th century, where at least nineteen “witches” were hanged, probably represents the nadir of the church’s response to the growing secularization of the population, and ironically, probably also nailed shut the door to sustained revival, though there were many attempts along the way. The Congregationalists are now down to less than one-half of one percent of the American population, with three active sects; the United Church of Christ, the ultra-liberal wing of the denomination, with about a million members (they were one of the first to ordain gays, e.g., and presumably would happily nowadays ordain witches); the National Association of Congregational Churches, a more mainstream denomination with about 70,000 members, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, an evangelical sect, with about 40,000 members.
And this is just a very sparse thumbnail sketch of just one Christian denomination that came to these shores from Europe. There were dozens more, all of which enjoy as much or more in the way of a complicated history. And then, there were the sects that arose indigenously from the verdant American landscape. Take, for example, the Seventh-Day Adventists.
William Miller was a farmer in upstate New York who dropped his plow to take up preaching in Baptist congregations in the 1830’s. Through careful study of biblical texts, particularly the numerical codes in Daniel, he concluded that Jesus Christ would return on March 21, 1943. His views spread rapidly through his own publications and through the New York Herald. Many thousands prepared for the day. And were, of course, disappointed. Miller said (paraphrasing), “Wait! I got it wrong by a year or so. Christ will come on October 22, 1844.” When that date came and went with no returned Christ (what came to be known as the Great Disappointment, a desultory part of the period known as the Great Awakening, for its revival in religious, i.e., Christian, belief), Miller went back to farming. The movement he started, however, carried on, though in greatly diminished numbers. Ultimately it was taken up by Ellen G. White, a vision-possessed, passionate follower of Christ, who wrote extensively on subjects many and varied, and set the groundwork for the growth of the sect into a major denomination.
The Seventh Day Adventist Church was formally founded in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1863, with a membership of 3,500, who were drawn from many Christian denominations. It adopted the Sabbatarian belief that worship should be on Saturday (specifically, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), which had nothing to do with its premillennialism beliefs that Christ would return to start a thousand-year reign on Earth that Miller had sparked with his predictions. Sabbatarianism became a cornerstone of its faith, so much so that it believes any who worship on Sunday are doomed to eternal damnation. The Church dealt with the apparent error in Miller’s predictions by claiming they were fundamentally correct, because Christ did return, just not to earth. He returned to a special sanctuary in heaven, from where He has been specially situated to conduct investigative justice in which He verifies eligibility for salvation. The Church still believes in Christ’s imminent return to earth, but refuses now to put a date on it, saying that doing so would be contrary to a humble reading of the scriptures.
The Church requires immersion baptism as a condition of both church membership and of salvation. Eschatologically, the Church believes that body, mind and spirit are one, and that there is no eternal soul. After judgment, nonbelievers aren’t sent to hell, but the fact of their ever having existed is completely extinguished.
Somewhere in the scriptures (because the Church believes in the inerrancy of scripture), the Church discovered a requirement for vegetarianism, which helps explain the situ of its original headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is also the headquarters of J.K. Kellogg’s cereal company (Kellogg’s corn flakes). J.K. Kellogg, was a Seventh-Day Adventist and a vegetarian. Which dovetailed nicely with his ownership of a cereal he was hoping would supplant eggs and bacon for breakfast. About 30-40 percent of Adventists are vegetarians.
From its founding, growth was slow but steady, until the twentieth century when it exploded. With membership of around a million in the 1950’s, it ballooned to five million by the mid ‘80’s. The Seventh Day Adventist Church is today often cited as the fastest growing, and most widespread, Protestant denomination, with over twenty million active worshipers filling pews each week in 202 of 230 countries recognized by the UN. The bulk of the adherents are outside the US, which hosts only about a million of its faithful.
Its adherents are also among the longest-lived. Owing perhaps to its rejection of nicotine and alcohol and caffeine (and maybe its vegetarianism, and maybe spending Friday nights in church rather than in debauchery, like I used to do), its members are reported, according to a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, to live four to ten years longer than the average Californian (where reside the majority of US adherents).
The Seventh Day Adventists were a new faith for a new age in a new land. And as quirky as many (myself included) might find their beliefs, their beliefs seem to be meeting what I see as religion’s highest purpose—making life better for the believers while not making things worse for others. At the end of the day, it matters little whether one believes that Christ ‘returned’ to a heavenly sanctuary instead of to earth. Or what day of the week God expects to be worshipped. What matters is living well. And the Adventists, perhaps because their unusual beliefs provide the inspiration, seem to be doing just that.
And this again is a very truncated sketch of the history and development of but one Christian denomination, in this instance, an American original. It is worth noting that even among the Millerites from whom the Seventh Day Adventist Church flowered, the Adventists weren’t the only denomination that the premillennialist farmer turned failed prophet seeded in the wild, fertile soil of American belief. And the Adventists themselves have splintered into subgroups. Not surprisingly, at least one Adventist sect is devoted to reforming the wayward mainline Adventists, calling itself the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement. Birth, establishment, schism, reform, or reform and schism: It seems an endless cycle among religious groups.
The Adventists believe in a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, and as recently as 2014, their President, Dr. Ted Wilson, asserted that believing in evolution was incompatible with the Adventist faith. God created the world in six literal days, and rested on the seventh (Sabbath) which is why we should rest, and worship on the Sabbath (but God didn’t have to spend his down time in worship, and worship seems, at least to me, a lot like work, including not least, dressing up nice and playing the status game with often ornery, or at least haughty, people—but maybe that’s just been my worship experience). God created man perfect and in his image. But man fell, whereby God redeemed him with the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, leaving no room for the idea that man gradually evolved, or is evolving to a more perfect state of being, as the evolutionism movement claimed after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859.
The evolutionism movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a derivative of the Progressive movement of that time, strains of which survive unto today. Adherents believed in progress—that a general improvement in the human condition was possible through science—and that evolution yielded progress—from a lower plane of existence to one higher—with mankind at its apogee, yet still improving, so long as Darwin’s mechanisms be allowed to freely operate, or even better, if natural selection were helped along a bit. It was this line of evolutionary progressivist thinking that yielded the happy field of eugenics in the early twentieth century, and forestalled the acceptance of evolution as a legitimate field of scientific inquiry until the latter half of the century. Evolutionism proponents, if of any Christian faith at all, were generally postmillennialists, believing that it was mankind’s charge to perfect the world for a thousand years so that Christ could return. The Adventists, like most other evangelicals, were premillennialists, believing that Christ would return and do the work of perfection for them, which would then commence his thousand-year reign, giving them little reason to worry about the evolution of mankind to a higher plane of existence, which they anyway felt was only possible through Christ’s saving grace.
The adherents of evolutionism and creationism have fought a long and fruitless struggle over the last century and a half as to which view of mankind’s origins and destination were correct. In the meantime, evolution gained respectability as a scientific endeavor, and made great strides in understanding the nature of life on earth by the simple dint of viewing it as a process of continuous adaptation to an ever-changing (if tectonically slowly) environment.
What to make of all this? Religion has been a pervasive part of the American experience, just as it has everywhere else. It can be justifiably assumed that ever since mankind’s disproportionately large brain grew smart enough to realize the contingent nature of his existence, and to thereby question from where he and his society came and from where he and they might be going, religion arose to provide answers. In that light, religion can be considered an evolutionary adaptation necessary for carrying around the existential weight of a big and powerful brain—itself the adaptation most responsible for mankind’s success—capable of asking such questions. Our big and capable brains are all at once a help and a hindrance. Religion ameliorates the hindrance by quelling the paralytic feeling that ensues when we become bogged down with existential questions having no immediate bearing on surviving and prospering in the here and now.
It seems to matter little what one believes about origins and destinations, just that one believes something. My wife has a colleague, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, who is the manager of all her employer’s operations in the Southeast. As an Adventist, he presumably believes that his ‘reports’ (HR lingo for people he manages), most of whom undoubtedly worship his same Christian God, but on Sunday, are destined for what passes for hell with the SDA (an erasure of one’s existence). Do such beliefs make him a bad manager? Not at all, so long as he compartmentalizes them appropriately. He also presumably believes that the earth is roughly six thousand years old, with man arriving fully formed, created from its clay by the hand of God. But none of that need impair the conduct of the manager’s daily work affairs.
All of which explains why so many and varied belief traditions can flourish at the same time. Their content doesn’t matter. What matters more is that they help in quelling existential angst such that life can carry on. And since content doesn’t matter, the arguments over who’s particular worldview is correct can smolder and flare for centuries.
But I have thus far mostly ignored the social, tribal aspects of religion, which are at least as powerful a part of its phenomenon as its usefulness in quelling existential angst, and are far more deleterious to human affairs. People in the US today often claim of Islam that it compels jihad, i.e., war and terror against infidels. My response to that is always, ‘Yep, just like Christianity compelled the Crusades.’ But the truth is that neither compels any such thing, though both can be used as part of the social bonds that bind like to like (a biological imperative) and excludes others, such that killing seems acceptable. It isn’t Judaism, Islam or Christianity that compels genocide, conquest and terror. But faith often is a convenient demarcation line for determining who gets killed and who lives. Religious belief or belonging is at least partially an expression of our impulse to form cooperative survival groups (clans, tribes, nations, etc.) primarily focused on protecting against other, similarly formed, cooperative survival groups. Jews slaughter Pagans. Muslims slaughter Jews. Christians slaughter each other (according to distinct readings of the Gospel), and slaughter Muslims, and Jews. And Muslims slaughter Christians. And all of them justify their killing by faith, and some (Jews and Muslims) can even do so through scripture. Even as, among the faithful, such things are forbidden.
Along with the metaphysical and tribal foundation for religious belief and practice, there is the ethical. Religion provides a guide for how believers are to treat one another in civilized society. The Torah provided very detailed guidelines, ranging from the practical (how to manage female menstruation), to the esoteric (the materials and dimensions for the ark of the covenant) and ritualistic (how to celebrate holy days and observe the Sabbath). Christ distilled all the laws and edicts of the Torah to the Golden Rule and the only commandment superior to it—loving God and only God. Mohammed simply acknowledged Christ as a prophet and added that there is no God but God.
But the ethics of Abrahamic religion often extend only to co-believers and sometimes only within sects of believers. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (starting on August 24, 1572 and lasting several weeks, until October 3), French Catholics (i.e., confessors of Christ) slaughtered their brethren French Huguenot Protestants (i.e., also confessors of Christ) by the thousands. The Huguenots were French Calvinists, and Calvinism was a rival sect of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, which itself had split from Catholicism. Treating one’s neighbor as one would wish to be treated, as all the major religions assert as an ethical guide, is profoundly reliant on how “neighbor” is defined.
The rituals and proscriptions that envelop the ethics of belief often make little sense to the casual observer (i.e., people like me). Why would God care whether a man’s beard is trimmed or untrimmed or cleanly shaven, as various sects of each Abrahamic religion assert? Or what a woman, or man, wear on their heads? Christ turned water into wine, yet Adventists (and many other Christian sects) abstain from any sort of alcohol (or tobacco or caffeine) while also believing that God compels vegetarianism, which is nowhere to be found in the scriptures. Puritans and many others abstained from joy (at least in their outward demeanor), which neither Christ nor his prophetic predecessors counseled. Roughly 6/7ths of the world’s population happily and healthily dines on pork, but a billion or so Muslims and Jews reject it as unclean.
It’s all such a confused mess. I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to gain an understanding of we curious hairless apes, particularly those of my native land. Viewing our activities through a religious prism seems to obfuscate more than clarify. Religion feels like more of an effect than a cause. It feels like more of a spandrel* in the social architecture, than a foundation to it.
Fortunately, God has finally parted the clouds in my corner of his universe and let the sun shine through. Time to put all this aside for now, and tend to things more real. I’ve got some mud to dig out of those trenches.
*A spandrel is the triangular space formed between an arch and the ceiling or beam it is supporting. It was originally (early during the Roman era) considered the superfluous byproduct of a building’s architecture, but was gradually used as a place to carve decorations, enhancing the utility of the architecture through enhancing its beauty. The Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould used the spandrels of San Marcos (a Venetian basilica) as a metaphor for things in biology that aren’t adaptive, but are the superfluous result of adaptive processes that nonetheless aid in survival and propagation, which is how I’m using it here. Religion, particularly organized religion, seems to me to be the ultimate spandrel.
One of the spandrels of the Basilica of San Marcos in Venice,By Maria Schnitzmeier – Detail of Image:DSCF0077.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1454444