Update: Monday, March 21, 2011
With regard to the evolution of religious belief, we are not singling out Christian fundamentalism as being any more or less subject to change over time than other religions. The evolution of religion is bound to affect certain sects within a variety of religions, not just Christianity; however, given the purpose of this blog and the history, experience, and beliefs of its authors, Christianity is the most relevant religion to discuss here.
The obvious answer is yes; although relatively resistant, Christian fundamentalist belief systems are certainly not immune to slow, gradual change (evolution).
Subject: Evolving religious beliefs — not organisms
We are discussing the evolution of fundamentalist Christianity — not the theory of evolution, evolutionary science, or the debate between special creationists and macroevolutionists. Thankfully, Christian acceptance of evolution seems to be on the rise – which might mean the ultra-conservative views of “special creation” (the belief that God created everything in six 24-hour days) and young earth creationism (the belief that our universe is 10,000 years old at most) are on the decline. I do believe creationism and evolution are worthwhile subjects to study, particularly for those of us who place a high value upon reason and rationality within the framework of religious belief… probably not for any fideists who may be reading.
Evolution of Christianity is evident from opinion polls
Perhaps the most interesting implication from the 2009 Harris Poll results is that so many Americans consider themselves to be Christians even though some Christians are starting to reject various parts of what used to be central, “must-believe” tenets of the Christian religion.
I am not suggesting that Christian fundamentalists have suddenly “gone progressive”; of course, the majority of Christians still hold to the traditional tenets of their religion. However, if we can back up a few steps and consider the religion as a whole, Christianity appears to be evolving – ever so slowly – away from literal fundamentalism and toward logic, reason, science, compassion, acceptance, perhaps with a dash of syncretism.
The evolution of Christianity toward love and reason is a profoundly encouraging trend (in our opinion) because it seems to indicate a more reasonable, objective, and positive interpretation of “revealed” religious text (in this case, the Bible) and may be closer to what was intended in the first place (although I don’t suppose anyone can know for certain). If this theory is correct, then religious fundamentalism outside of Christianity is also on a slow decline; and as such, even the most ultra-conservative Christians could view the trend as having some positive aspects.
Evolution of religious belief vs. conservatism, fundamentalism
The ongoing, gradual change in religious belief systems isn’t likely to occur at exactly the same rate for all denominations and flavors of Christianity. The most obvious “divination” (was that a pun!?) might be this: the more conservative the belief system, the slower the rate of change. That is, perhaps a negative correlation exists between the two variables of conservatism and rate of progressive change.
With regard to conservatism, the first variable: How can “degrees of fundamentalism” – the relative amount of literal Biblical interpretation, fideism (belief that reason and faith are hostile to each other), piety, religiosity (devotion to religion), devoutness, zealotry, etc. displayed by a particular denomination — be measured and conveyed? Well, I think most fundamentalist religious groups are quite aware of how conservative or “fundamentalist” their own sects are in relation to others; some groups might even covet the rightmost spot on the religious scale.
Perhaps one day folks will create annual award shows for fundamentalist religious groups. They could be hosted in conservative cities like Nashville, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. A wide-ranging system of awards could be devised, such as Most Fundamentalist Christian Sect, Most Certified Conversions, Best New Conflict with Science, Most Politically Active Denomination, Most Convincing Argument for Literal Bible Interpretation, Best Celebrity Conversion, etc. (unknown)
Of the hundreds (some would say thousands) of Christian denominations, divisions, and subgroups, which ones have the most fideistic, conservative, right-leaning, fundamentalist worldviews? “Born-again” Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals — and possibly Southern Baptists and Restoration Movement Protestants — are known to be on the conservative side (obviously not a complete list of far-right Christian denominations). Progressive, evolutionary change in these Christian fundamentalist groups might be slower than in the less conservative denominations and sects.
On the other hand, I might have it backwards. The more progressive Christian sects might not embrace as many change-prone beliefs in the first place: those that part with reason or otherwise “require adjustment” in order for their churches to retain a plausible balance between their accepted creed and scientific discovery, for example.
Not only is the “evolution of religion” idea interesting and encouraging to many people; the evolving nature of Christianity might also help explain why there are so many varying beliefs or creeds within Christianity, and differences of opinion — ranging from minor to major — about what it really means to be a Christian. ReligiousTolerance.org compiled a list of at least 40 variants or definitions of the word “Christian.” According to Adherents.com, the new edition of World Christian Encyclopedia tabulated 10,000 distinct religious groups, including 33,830 Christian denominations.
However, it’s important to remember that differences of opinion within the ranks of Christianity are not in any way a poor reflection on Christianity as a religion, just as wide-ranging viewpoints within a democratic republic such as ours do not reduce the appeal of democracy. After all, there are over 3.1 billion Christians in the world – so it’s reasonable to expect a large number of subgroups.
There have certainly been widely varying Christian views in the brief history of our United States. Many people during Revolutionary times and even today have been proud to count men such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and George Washington (can I include Thomas Paine in this list?) — the Founding Fathers, the framers of our Constitution – as being a part of the Christian community, even though the aforementioned men were not Christian fundamentalists in the modern sense. And since these men are called Christians, I have no trouble at all considering myself to be a Christian, as an adherent of the Unity Church (in the New Thought Movement vein of Christianity).
The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal – Slacktivist: ‘Test everything; hold fast to what is good. Excerpt from this interesting article:
In 1979, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.
Sometime after that, it was decided that the Bible teaches that human life begins at conception.
Ask any American evangelical, today, what the Bible says about abortion and they will insist that this is what it says. (Many don’t actually believe this, but they know it is the only answer that won’t get them in trouble.) They’ll be a little fuzzy on where, exactly, the Bible says this, but they’ll insist that it does.
That’s new. If you had asked American evangelicals that same question the year I was born you would not have gotten the same answer. [ Read more ]
All of this is at least food for thought. These subjects will probably always interest this serious spiritual seeker.
NOTE: I hope my attempts to write from a reasonably objective and detached viewpoint are evident. I refuse to write and publish a series of mere ideological rants based purely on opinion and ego; there are already too many of those.
Resources: Evolution of Christianity
- Is Christianity evolving?
- Harris Poll Reveals What People Do and Do Not Believe
- Varying definitions of Christianity
- Decline in Americans identifying themselves as Christians
- Evolving Christian Faith Network
- Islamic view of the evolution of Christianity
- Have faith, Christianity is evolving