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The Theory and Evolution of The Soul
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
PREFACE: This is the final part of a series of short essays called The Great Abortion Divide. It is less of an original essay than an organized compilation of my notes on the evolving history of the human soul. Its purpose is to give an overview how concepts of the human soul originated and developed over time. It is not my purpose or intent to minimize or refute anyone’s belief in the human soul, but only to point out that a rigid adherence to a specific doctrine regarding the human soul cannot be fully justified. My notes are taken from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other sources, as noted.
During the time period of writing The Great Abortion Divide there have been a number of attacks on Planned Parenthood facilities nation-wide, including a mass shooting on November 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A police officer and two civilians were killed. Five police officers and four civilians were injured. The attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., surrendered and was charged with first-degree murder. In his December 9th court appearance, Dear repeatedly expressed anti-abortion and anti-Planned Parenthood views, calling himself “a warrior for the babies.”
It may be that Mr. Dear is mentally ill, we shall see. Even so, his belief that every fetus, at any stage of development, is “a baby” reflects a religious doctrine shared by many. Biologically speaking, a single cell or even a fertilized egg is clearly not a baby with complex, fully functioning organs and a conscious, intelligent brain. Gestation is a biological process where cells develop to become” a baby”. You can argue, as I have in the past, that even an early stage fetus is treated by a woman’s body as a foreign object, but it is clearly not a baby. At what point that transition happens is open for debate. It is, in fact, at the core of the abortion debate.
From a legal perspective, personhood and certain (not all) human rights have been conferred at the time of birth. Even after a child is born, there are limits on the constitutional rights they have until they become legal adults. In limited cases, and under special circumstances, the courts have granted status to unborn fetus’ prior to birth. This was done, in one case I know, to protect the life of a child at birth from a schizophrenic mother who threatening to drown her baby at birth. The concept of assigning personhood to a zygote (a fertilizes human reproductive cell) and characterizing it as a human being is a more recent theological development. The principal argument for extending personhood to a fertilized egg (or even unfertilized eggs as some see it) is that it contains a human soul. (See Part II)
In most of our childhood religious training the existence of the soul is assumed. It is a self-evident fact and It receives no other explanation. We all have a soul. In Christian theology our soul contains or supplies our essential self and it collects the history of sins and good deeds while we are on earth. Human beings are “ensouled” by the time of our birth and leaves us (or our bodies) at the instant of our death. It continues its existence after death and (at some point) our souls are judged by God as worthy or unworthy of entering eternal paradise. If our souls are found to be unworthy they is cast into hell and eternal damnation. It is an essential tenant of Christian theology that our souls are not born pure. They are born with original sin that must be restored before we die. This is at the root of salvation theology. This concept of being “ensouled” with an imperfect soul speaks to one philosophic concept about how the soul originates. It suggests that souls, like people themselves, are somehow begotten from the souls of Adam and Eve who committed the first sin. There are other philosophic positions on the origin of the human soul.
These matters about the nature and origin of the human soul are not scriptural. The Torah, Bible and Koran offer no solid clues or specific instructions. It is therefore useful to a discussion about the morality of abortions to consider the philosophic theories of soul and how they evolved over time. Only then may we see the inherent uncertainty underlying the premise that a fetus is fully human in a spiritual sense. The categories that follow are my addition to the notes, but the content is not my own. This discussion below starts in ancient Greece, but the concept of soul goes back much earlier in time. The reason I start in Greece is because it was the Greeks who first introduced the concept of soul to the Hebrews in the Middle-East, according to many Greek and theological scholars.
GREEK theory of soul
Notes taken directly from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ancient-soul/
Life Force: The soul is, on the one hand, something that a human being risks in battle and loses in death. On the other hand, it is what at the time of death departs from the person’s limbs and travels to the underworld, where it has a more or less pitiful afterlife as a shade or image of the deceased person. It has been suggested (for instance, by Snell 1975, 19) that what is referred to as soul in either case is in fact thought of as one and the same thing, something that a person can risk and lose and that, after death, endures as a shade in the underworld. The suggestion is plausible, but cannot be verified. In any case, once a person’s soul has departed for good, the person is dead. The presence of soul therefore distinguishes a living human body from a corpse. However, this is plainly not to say that the soul is thought of as what accounts for, or is responsible for, the activities, responses, operations and the like that constitute a person’s life. Homer never says that anyone does anything in virtue of, or with, their soul, nor does he attribute any activity to the soul of a living person. Thus, though the presence or absence of soul marks out a person’s life, it is not otherwise associated with that life.
Human Life Force: … whatever precise way the soul is conceived of as associated with life, it is in any case thought to be connected not with life in general, or life in all its forms, but rather, more specifically, with the life of a human being.
General Life Force: In ordinary fifth century Greek, having soul is simply being alive; hence the emergence, at about this time, of the adjective ‘ensouled’ [empsuchos] as the standard word meaning “alive”, which was applied not just to human beings, but to other living things as well.
The semantic expansion of ‘soul’ in the sixth and fifth centuries is reflected in the philosophical writings of the period. For instance, once it becomes natural to speak of soul as what distinguishes the animate from the inanimate, rather than as something that is restricted to humans, it becomes clear that the domain of ensouled things is not limited to animals, but includes plants as well.
Thales of Miletus, who is credited with successfully predicting a solar eclipse occurring in 585, reportedly attributed soul to magnets, on the grounds that magnets are capable of moving iron (Aristotle, De Anima 1.2, 405a19-21). Thales’ thought was presumably that since it is distinctive of living things to be able to initiate movement, magnets must in fact be alive or, in other words, ensouled. Thus, while Homer spoke of soul only in the case of human beings, in sixth and fifth century usage soul is attributed to every kind of living thing. What is in place, then, at this time is the notion that soul is what distinguishes that which is alive from that which is not.
Socrates explicitly appeals to the idea that it is the soul that animates the body of a living thing
Motivational Force: It is also the case that an increasingly broad range of ways of acting and being acted on is attributed to the soul. Thus it has come to be natural, by the end of the fifth century, to refer pleasure taken in food and drink, as well as sexual desire, to the soul. People are said, for example, to satisfy their souls with rich food (Euripides, Ion 1170), and the souls of gods and men are claimed to be subject to sexual desire. In contexts of intense emotion or crisis, feelings like love and hate, joy and grief, anger and shame are [became] associated with the soul.
Soul as Conveyer of Attributes: In the Hippocratic text Airs, Waters, Places, the soul is thought of as the place of courage or, as the case may be, its opposite.
The connection between the soul and characteristics like boldness and courage in battle is plainly an aspect of the noteworthy fifth century development whereby the soul comes to be thought of as the source or bearer of moral qualities such as, for instance, temperance and justice.
Soul as a Source of Conscience: To educated fifth century speakers of Greek, it would have been natural to think of qualities of soul as accounting for, and being manifested in, a person’s morally significant behavior. Pericles acts courageously, and Hippolytus temperately (or chastely), because of the qualities of their souls from which such actions have a strong tendency to flow, and their actions express and make evident the courage, temperance and the like that characterize their souls. Once we are in a position properly to appreciate the connection between soul and moral character that must already have been felt to be natural at this stage, it should come as no surprise that the soul is also taken to be something that engages in activities like thinking and planning. If the soul is, in some sense, responsible for courageous acts, for instance, it is only to be expected that the soul also grasps what, in the circumstances, courage calls for, and how, at some suitable level of detail, the courageous act must be performed.
Thus in non-philosophical Greek of the fifth century the soul is treated as the bearer of moral qualities, and also as responsible for practical thought and cognition.
[The soul].. as Plato conceives of it in the Phaedo, is crucially characterized by cognitive and intellectual features
Body/Soul Distinction: As a result of these developments [the semantic expansion of the word “soul”], the language made available something that [earlier] Homeric Greek lacked, a distinction between body and soul. Antiphon says of a defendant who is sure of his innocence that though his body may surrender, his soul saves him by its willingness to struggle, through knowledge of its innocence. For the guilty, on the other hand, even a strong body is to no avail, since his soul fails him, “believing the vengeance coming to him is for his impieties”
Plato [later] furnishes the conceptual framework needed for saying that body and soul differ in kind, the one being perceptible and perishable, the other being intelligible and exempt from destruction. What he does, in fact, conclude is that the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being, and that the body is most like perceptible and perishable being.
Immortality of Soul: It is probably true that in mainstream fifth century Greek culture, belief in an afterlife of the soul was weak and unclear
.. Socrates’ arguments for the immortality of the soul, most prominently in the Phaedo, are offered to interlocutors who, at the outset of the discussion, are by no means convinced of the idea. “Men find it very hard to believe”, Cebes says at Phaedo 70a, “what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies.” This view .. includes the idea that the soul is a material thing, and is destroyed by being dispersed, “like breath or smoke” (70a). Glaucon, in the last book of the Republic (608d), is taken aback by Socrates’ question,
“Haven’t you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?”
He looked at me with wonder and said: “No, by god, I haven’t. Are you really in a position to assert that?”
Qualities of an Immortal Soul: Moreover, apart from the question of immortality or otherwise, there is the further question whether the soul, if it does have some form of existence after the person has died, “still possesses some power and wisdom”. Answering both questions, Socrates says not only that the soul is immortal, but also that it contemplates truths after its separation from the body at the time of death.
[Again,] … the soul is most like, and most akin to, intelligible being
Socrates attributes a large variety of mental states (etc.) not to the soul, but to the (animate) body, such as, for instance, beliefs and pleasures (83d), and desires and fears (94d). At the same time, the soul is not narrowly intellectual: it too has desires (81d), even passionate ones (such as the non-philosophical soul’s love [erôs] of the corporeal, 80b), and pleasures as well, such as the pleasures of learning (114e). Moreover, the soul’s functions are, as we have seen already, not restricted to grasping and appreciating truth, but prominently include regulating and controlling the body and its affections
Where Immortal Souls Reside: The argument that sheds most light on what Plato takes the nature of the soul to be is the affinity argument (78b-80b). This argument confronts head-on the widespread worry that the soul, at or soon after death, is destroyed by being dispersed. It begins by distinguishing between two kinds of things: on the one hand, things that are perceptible, composed of parts, and subject to dissolution and destruction; on the other hand, things that are not perceptible, but intelligible (grasped by thought), not composed of parts, and exempt from dissolution and destruction. These two categories are obviously mutually exclusive.
JEWISH theory of soul
Notes taken directly from The Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12340-preexistence-of-the-soul
Life Force: There are no direct references in the Bible to the origin of the soul, its nature, and its relation to the body
The Mosaic account of the creation of man speaks of a spirit or breath with which he was endowed by his Creator (Gen. ii. 7); but this spirit was conceived of as inseparably connected, if not wholly identified, with the life-blood (ib. ix. 4; Lev. xvii. 11).
[T]he Alexandrian Jewish school, especially of Philo Judæus,.. sought [in an] allegorical interpretation of Biblical texts the confirmation of his [God’s? Plato’s? not clear from the text] psychological system.
Body/Soul Distinction: Only through the contact of the Jews with Persian and Greek thought did the idea of a disembodied soul, having its own individuality, take root in Judaism and find its expression in the later Biblical books, as, for instance, in the following passages: “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord” (Prov. xx. 27); “There is a spirit in man” (Job xxxii. 8); “The spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccl. xii. 7). The soul is called in Biblical literature “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah.” The first of these terms denotes the spirit in its primitive state; the second, in its association with the body; the third, in its activity while in the body.
In the three terms “ruaḥ,” “nefesh,” and “neshamah” Philo sees the corroboration of the Platonic view that the human soul is tripartite (τριμεής), having one part rational, a second more spiritual, and a third the seat of desire. These parts are distinguished from one another both functionally and by the places occupied by them in the body. The seat of the first is the head; of the second, the chest; and of the third, the abdomen
In rabbinical literature the dualism of body and soul is carried out consistently.. .”The soul of man comes from heaven; his body, from earth”
Immortality of Soul: An explicit statement of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul is found in the Apocrypha: “All souls are prepared before the foundation of the world” (Slavonic Book of Enoch, xxiii. 5); and according to II Esd. iv. 35 et seq.the number of the righteous who are to come into the world is foreordained from the beginning. All souls are, therefore, preexistent,
Both the rational and the irrational sprang like two scions from one root, and yet are so strongly contrasted in their natures that one is divine, while the other is corruptible.
[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.
General Life Force: Maimonides, except in a few instances, closely followed Aristotle with regard to the ontological aspect of the soul. The life of the soul, which is derived from that of the spheres, is represented on earth in three potencies: in vegetable, in animal, and in human life.
The Status of Soul: Philo does not say why the soul is condemned to be imprisoned for a certain time in the body; but it may be assumed that, as in many other points, he shares also in this one the views of Pythagoras and Plato, who believed that the soul undergoes this ordeal in expiation of some sin committed by it in its former state (see Philo Judæus).
Even before entering the body [presumably as the animating life force] , the mind [one aspect of soul] possesses not only rational faculties, but also ascending powers which distinguish the lower orders of creation, the habitual, the organic, the vital, and the perceptive.
As a divine being the soul aspires to be freed from its bodily fetters and to return to the heavenly spheres whence it came.
The Rabbis [tradition, however, holds] that the body is not the prison of the soul, but, on the contrary, its medium of development and improvement. Nor do they hold the Platonic view regarding the preexistence of the soul. For them “each and every soul which shall be from Adam until the end of the world, was formed during the six days of Creation and was in paradise, being present also at the revelation on Sinai. . . . At the time of conception God commandeth the angel who is the prefect of the spirits, saying: ‘Bring Me such a spirit which is in paradise and hath such a name and such a form; for all spirits which are to enter the body exist from the day of the creation of the world until the earth shall pass away.’ . . . The spirit answereth: ‘Lord of the world! I am content with the earth, where I have lived since Thou didst create me.’ . . . God speaketh to the soul, saying: ‘The world into which thou enterest is more beautiful than this; and when I made thee I intended thee only for this drop of seed.'”
The Rabbis question whether the soul descends to earth at the moment of conception or after the embryo has been formed
[NOTE: This is the likely origin of Christian beliefs that human life is sacred from inception, or even before inception, but even in the origin of the concept it was a debated point as to when the soul entered the body, at inception or upon the development (birth) of the formed body.]
Mutability of Human Soul: This belief was rejected by the scholars of the Talmud, who taught that the body is in a state of perfect purity (Ber. 10a; Mek. 43b), and is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode. When God confides the soul to man He says, according to the Haggadah. “The soul I have given thee is pure; if thou givest it back to Me in the same state, it is good for thee; if not, I will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a).
The soul has control over [the inclination towards good or evil], and, therefore, is responsible for man’s moral conduct.
The descent of the soul into the body is necessitated by the finite nature of the former: it is bound to unite with the body in order to take its part in the universe, to contemplate creation, to become conscious of itself and its origin, and, finally, to return, after having completed its task in life, to the inexhaustible fountain of light and life—God.
Where Immortal Souls Reside: [again, the soul] is destined to return pure to its heavenly abode.. if not, [God] will burn it before thee” (Eccl. R. xii. 7; with some variations in Niddah 30a). [NOTE: The threat here is not that our soul will be consigned to hell, but that it will be destroyed, its immortality terminated.]
The entry of the soul into the embryo (see Golem) is similarly described in a conversation between Judah the patriarch and the emperor Antoninus. The spirits which are to descend to earth are kept in ‘Arabot, the last of the seven heavens, while the souls of the righteous dead are beneath the throne of God. Associated with this belief is the Talmudic saying that the Messiah will not come till all the souls in the”guf” (the super-terrestrial abode of the souls) shall have passed through an earthly existence (‘Ab. Zarah 5a; comp. Gen. R. viii. and Ruth R., Introduction).
[In the Talmud tradition the] soul’s relation to the body is an external one only: when man sleeps the soul ascends to its heavenly abode (Lam. R. iii. 23). There it sometimes receives communications which appear to the sleeper as dreams.
Good and Evil of Soul: A parallel is established between the soul and God. As the world is filled with God, so is the body filled with the soul; as God sees, but cannot be seen, so the soul sees, but is not to be seen; as God is hidden, so also is the soul (Ber. 10a). The Rabbis seem to have considered discernment, reflection, and recollection as faculties of the soul; but they held that the power by which man distinguishes between right and wrong and the inclination to one or to the other are two real essences which God places in the heart of man. These are called “yeẓer Ṭob” (good inclinations) and “yeẓer ha-ra'” (evil propensities).
[The Jewish philosopher ] Saadia devoted the sixth chapter of his “Emunot we-De’ot” to questions concerning the human soul.. According to him, the soul is created by God at the same time as the body. Its substance resembles that of the spheres; but it is of a finer quality.
The Body as Incubator For The Soul: [The Jewish philosopher, Saadia, also postulated that].. like every created thing, the soul needs a medium through which to attain activity; and this medium is the body. Through its union with the body three powers which are latent in it are set in motion: intelligence, passion, and appetite or desire. These powers or faculties are not to be considered as three separate parts of the soul, each having a different seat in the body, but as belonging to the one and indivisible soul, which has its seat in the heart. It is to the advantage of the soul to be united with the body. Without this medium it could not attain paradise and eternal bliss, because these are vouchsafed to it only as a recompense for its obedience to the will of God.
POSTSCRIPT: A review of the history and evolution of human thinking on the concept of “soul” makes it clear, at least to me, that there is enough uncertainty to question the religious doctrine that all abortion is murder. It certainly is not a doctrine on which one should justify murdering healthcare professionals who assist woman wanting an abortion. Yet this is exactly the moral basis that anti-abortion advocates use when trying to extend the existing statues on murder. It clearly is a religious belief for which there is no consensus or certainty among Christians or the population at large. This account may not persuade anyone to change their firmly held beliefs, but it is my hope that it opens up a more fruitful and well considered dialogue.
The Great Abortion Divide – Part I
The Great Abortion Divide – Part II
Religious Dimensions of the Abortion Debate
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
After 2000 years of Christianity, the idea that the Bible is incapable of being wrong first developed among Protestants about 100 years ago. http://j.mp/1oCQrA0 But it is a mistake to view each and every detail of the Bible as inerrant. Anyone who holds this belief can’t possibly be correct since the Bible is so self-contradictory.
Do you want some examples? Try taking this New Testament biblical quiz:
It is a very humbling experience.
The Bible may be the inspired word of God, but it certainly was not written in a day. It was drafted over more than a thousand years. The New Testament was likewise drafted over the course of nearly 200 years, starting about 50 years after Jesus’ death. It was written by mostly anonymous authors in various locations, none of whom were eye witnesses to the events in Jesus’ life.
If you wanted to read the New Testament in the order it was written, you would have to start with the letters of Paul, probably beginning with Thessalonians. The remarkable aspects of these earliest writings of Paul is that he never quotes Jesus nor provides any biographical information about him. This couldn’t have been because the words of Jesus were well documented, since these were literally the first documents written.
The first Gospel of the New Testament was the book of Mark, written some 20 years after Paul’s letters. This was the first draft of the life, times and sayings of Jesus. Some scholars believe that Mark served as a template for the later works. Written 70 plus years after Jesus’ death, the author of this Gospel is unknown. It has the fewest biographical details about Jesus and the least amount of red ink (direct Jesus quotes). This account begins with John the Baptist at the start of Jesus’ ministry. It tells us that his family thought he was out of his mind while others thought he was possessed by the devil. It ends with his crucifixion, resurrection and being “taken up into heaven”. In addition to having fewer details than subsequent accounts, it also has certain details that are missing in later Gospels. For example, Mark very specifically states that the cross of Jesus was carried by another person.
“A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
In the other Gospels, Jesus carried his own cross, falling down several times under the burden, etc. The point here being that details are fluid and sometimes contradictory, as would be expected given the generations over which the New Testaments were written.
The Gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written sometime between 80 and 90 years after Jesus’ death. It was later named after Matthew, who was certainly not alive to write this text. And then, surprise, the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John followed, probably in that order, but who knows exactly? The last of the four Gospel’s was the book of Luke. It may have been written as late as 120 years after Jesus died.
The last book written in the New Testament is 2 Peter, believed to have been written between 150 and 200 CE.
Of course there were very many other scriptures and texts written during the first and second century about Jesus and the early Christian church. The task of sorting all this out to come up with a single version of the New Testament began in earnest in the 4th Century, concluding around the middle of the 7th Century. However, even today there remains differences in what constitutes the Holy Bible. For example, the Old Testament Book of Wisdom is included in the Catholic bibles but not the Protestant bibles. Most Christian fundamentalists today rely on the Protestant version for their sources. They do not accept the Book of Wisdom, for example. Add to this the fact that every different translations leads to different interpretations.
I believe it is fair to say the New Testament was written by many people over a number of generations and refined into the several versions we have today over the course of many centuries. It was not created in a day. It evolved, just as the Christian understanding of its means, and the Christian experience have evolved over time. The Catholic Church today certainly doesn’t act on many of the beliefs it held in the 13th or 14th Centuries. Over the millennium many different sects and permutations of Christianity formed and dissolved. Each group has pulled from different details, translations or interpretations to create unique constructs, and each in turn have been challenged or even attacked by other Christian groups doing the same. In this way, what it means to be Christian has evolved, and it will continue to do so in the future.
There is plenty of room for doubt when interpreting bible passages. In fact, there is plenty of room to doubt the legitimacy of the whole Christian faith if you are inclined to do so. The existence of God, after all, cannot be proven or disproven. This is what distinguishes faith and knowledge.
But the leap from faith to a fundamentalist dogma that the Bible is the inerrant word of God is another matter. Religious faith need not require the rejection of reason nor intellect. Belief in what is, or can be known, and faith in what we cannot know, are not mutually exclusive until we cross the line into religious fanaticism. Religious fanatics reject empirical facts that contradict any of their religious claims. The rejection of empirical reality is, in fact, what defines fanatic beliefs. In this regard all religious fanatics are alike. They require a fidelity to tenants of faith that directly contradict the natural world of the Creator God they worship.
In the long arch of history, those who reject the evolution of Christian faith, those who try to deconstruct our present knowledge or force conformity to an unsustainable Christian understanding will ultimate fail. The only question is what damage will they do along the way. Who will suffer and for how long before the latest versions of religious fanaticism become extinct.
By Brian Lynch, MSW
During most of human history divine creation was the only paradigm for understanding our place in the universe. It was the grand context, the social ocean in which we lived out our lives. Human beings were divinely created in a special way that set us apart from the rest of God’s creatures. We were born, we lived and died in God’s world. There were no alternative perspectives. Our frame of reference, world view and the society in which we lived were profoundly influence by this inescapable constant. There were always questions and great disputes about nature, especially with the rise of science, but nobody seriously doubted our divine creation. Religion, and therefore religious leaders, held sway over every aspect of our social and intellectual development… that is until one reluctant scientist came to see that human beings arrived here by natural evolution and not a single act of divine creation. Charles Darwin glimpsed the profound impact his discovery would have on the world. He knew there would be unintended consequences and a contemporary backlash that would make his life difficult. He waited as long as possible before publishing “On the Origin of Species.”
At that moment a new paradigm for human understanding became inevitable. It spawned a natural view of creation and the universe that would successfully compete with mystical beliefs in a god-centered universe. It eventually opened up a vast new social space that could be occupied by those seeking an alternative to a religious view. Today we call this vast social space a secular society, but nothing like it ever existed before. It was (and can still be) liberating and wide open with possibilities that were unimaginable under the divine paradigm. It was a space where science and technology thrived. A new sense of objectivity was a direct outcome. Ethics and morality could be studied from perspectives that were independent from specific religious texts. New philosophies sprung up and took root. It allowed us to create secular institutions of learning, medicine and other scholarly disciplines . We created secular governments, secular economies, secular business corporations and all manner of social organizations not immediately related to religion. It allowed for the creation of truly pluralistic societies and more religious tolerance than the world had ever known. But it also challenged and diminished the power of religions across the globe.
The secular paradigm that has emerged is not antithetical to God or a rejection of religion or spirituality. It is just a social framework. It is a religion neutral space where individuals are free to explore spirituality, question their beliefs or challenge tenants of their faith traditions without fear of social reprisals. It also allows citizens to accept or reject a creator god. In these ways it undermines priestly traditions and the central authority of many world religions. Religious fundamentalists who view the world as either good or evil are prone to see secularism as evil.
It is almost unimaginable today to conceive of a world without a secular alternative to a totally faith based society, especially when the fault lines separating the secular and religious worlds are still so active. In my view, the growing religious fundamentalist movements around the globe are just the most recent reactions to the declining power of organized religions to effect social change. Among Christian fundamentalists, at least, Darwin’s theory of evolution still remains at the epicenter of competing beliefs, especially with respect to the belief systems to which children are exposed. So much of the polarity and apparent disconnect found in our current politics derives from these underlying tensions between the religious and the secular. In fact, many of the global conflicts today share these same roots. The denial of climate change and the mistrust of science by conservative or fundamentalist constituents are a further manifestation of this divide.
The 19th Century saw the rise of civil secularism and the 20th Century was its flowering period. Secular societies refer to themselves as the “modern world.” They are associated with the rise of free markets, powerful business corporations and the technological revolution that has transformed every aspect of modern life. The global rise of religious fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity and secularism. It is easy to see this play out in the Middle-East where Muslim fundamentalist have resorted to violence in efforts to regain control over their people and establish Shari law. Islamist groups openly reject modernity and refer to the United State, that great exporter of secular culture, as “the Great Satin.”
Here at home these same underlying tensions are hidden in plain view because our fundamentists happen to share America’s dominant religion. The rise of politically active religious conservatism should also be seen as a rejection of modernity and secularism, just as it is in the Arib world. In many Christian communities there is strong peer pressure for Christians to conform to social norms that most resemble 18th Century America. There is also a strong distrust of secular media, secular science and especially secular government. Christian fundamentalist often view the government as corrupt because it is non-thestic and therefore evil. Secular society is evil because individuals are free to reject God’s authority. They seek to change that and establish the centrality of God in government and all aspect of American life. A theocracy would not be out of the question for them. Theirs is a direct assualt on our constitutional government as it was originally intended. Out of “Christian love” the majority of American’s continue to tolerate the increasingly intolarent Christian Right.
Ironically, most Christian fundamentalists have no problem embracing godless corporations and the free market economy. Secular society has allowed capitalism to slip the bonds of religious morality. This launched a corporate movement that is currently challenging and overpowering civil control of government. Part of the reason for its success is this alliance with the Christian right. The dynamics between secular society, fundamentalist religious society and the corporate, free market elite account for most of the forces driving today’s social changes. The current government shutdown might signal the first crack in the corporate/fundamentalist alliance.
This conceptual outline of underlying social forces has helped me make sense of current events and today’s social movements. I find myself returning to these themes whenever I need to place new developments into context. I hope that other readers might find this framework as useful.
What does the following two graphic images have to say about teenage pregnancy and religion? It might be a coincidence that the most conservative religious states have the most teenage pregnancies, but it might also be that both of these factors are related to some other factor. The researchers who studied this data suggest that it may be conservative religious views on birth control (and abortion?) that are causing this result. What can be said for sure is teenage sexual activity doesn’t appear to be less prevalent in more religiously conservative areas of the country.
Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States
The children of teen mothers have been reported to have higher rates of several unfavorable mental health outcomes. Past research suggests several possible mechanisms for an association between religiosity and teen birth rate in communities.
The present study compiled publicly accessible data on birth rates, conservative religious beliefs, income, and abortion rates in the U.S., aggregated at the state level. Data on teen birth rates and abortion originated from the Center for Disease Control; on income, from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and on religious beliefs, from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey carried out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. We computed correlations and partial correlations.
Increased religiosity in residents of states in the U.S. strongly predicted a higher teen birth rate, with r = 0.73 (p < 0.0005). Religiosity correlated negatively with median household income, with r = -0.66, and income correlated negatively with teen birth rate, with r = -0.63. But the correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate remained highly significant when income was controlled for via partial correlation: the partial correlation between religiosity and teen birth rate, controlling for income, was 0.53 (p < 0.0005). Abortion rate correlated negatively with religiosity, with r = -0.45, p = 0.002. However, the partial correlation between teen birth rate and religiosity remained high and significant when controlling for abortion rate (partial correlation = 0.68, p < 0.0005) and when controlling for both abortion rate and income (partial correlation = 0.54, p = 0.001).
With data aggregated at the state level, conservative religious beliefs strongly predict U.S. teen birth rates, in a relationship that does not appear to be the result of confounding by income or abortion rates. One possible explanation for this relationship is that teens in more religious communities may be less likely to use contraception.
Premise: Until Christianity (and other major religions) views salvation as more than a personal journey the Earth and all future generations will be condemned by those who ignore or contribute to environmental degradation. From almost any spiritual perspective, the Earth is sacred, yet how we treat it is profane. In my view, the outcome of personal salvation is death, both spiritually and literally, if a person does not atone for environmental sins and alter their relationship to the Earth. All the major religions of the world should be rushing towards achieving a sustainable relationship with nature.
The following is a brief twitter exchange between this author and “C” a Christian for whom Jesus is Central to his life. We can’t be afraid to talk about religion and the environment regardless of our personal beliefs or religious affiliations. The fate of the planet may depend our ability to communicate across religious and cultural boundaries. Start here. Share your thoughts and ideas then start a conversation on your own blog. Time is of the essence.
C: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice! Phil 4:4
B: God created the Earth, pronounced it good, so we should rejoice in the Earth from which we’re made also. What do you think?
C: If by rejoice in the earth you mean to thank God for His gifts and to cherish them and use them responsibly, then yes, I agree
B: We attend to our relationship to God and each other but ignore our relationship to the rest of creation. Doesn’t seem right. God so loved his creation, even before man, that he proclaimed it good, but Christians today seem so estranged from the Earth. If you love God and your neighbors yet poison the stream behind your house how can you expect to be welcomed into heaven?
C: Well, our welcome into heaven depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ, but I hear what you are saying
B: Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, they are the same, they are the One, right? We don’t have separate relationships with each. I just don’t see how someone can harm the Earth yet be right with God. Why isn’t this a bigger part of salvation theology? Is degrading the environment a sin? If so, where is our atonement? If not then does God not care about his creation? In short, why aren’t Christians leading the environmental movement? I don’t understand.
C: It does not matter if it is a sin or not. We will not be judged on the basis of our sin or relative righteousness…. Jesus died on the cross to reconcile sinful Man to a Holy and Just God. If being sinless was our responsibility to salvation, then we would all die separate from God. The question is then, what will you do with Jesus?
B: Accept Jesus and He saves you from sin and separation. But don’t we have to change our ways? Can’t keep sinning, right? If salvation through Jesus means turning away from sin, we still have to know what is unacceptable to God. We have choices. Therefore it does matter if degrading the environment is a sin. I tend to take this question literally via Matthew 7:16.
B: From a Biblical perspective the catastrophic impacts of climate change is the wrath of God for ignoring or abusing his creation.
C: God judges based only on our relationship with Jesus, not sin, not environmental responsibility, just Jesus
B: Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit all being one makes your statement confusing.
C: One God, but 3 distinct and eternally separate persons, and yes, it is confusing to our limited minds
B: True, but the particle wave nature of light provides at least some analogy for understanding the trinity. How might God judge if you accepted Jesus in your heart on Sunday and dumped toxins into the river on Monday? We must change!
C: Read Phil 3:3-8. Our righteousness is rubbish (“dung” in the KJV) in the eyes of God. It is not what we do, but what He has done.
B: Three lines later verse12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own…”
B: My larger point is that what Christian’s do or fail to do in this world after they are saved matters in the final judgment. You can’t affirm life in the hereafter if you are not life affirming here and now. The Christian communities should be on the front lines of environmental protection. If we condemn all life on Earth we are ourselves condemned, here and in the hereafter. This is an urgent spiritual matter.