The Necessity of Religious Evolution Why Absolute Truth must be disembodied from Theology

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In the present time, according to the Pew Research Center, there are five major religions and numerous folk religions in the world. Each of them has different stories to tell, different inspirations to act from, and different beliefs on the ideal spiritual practice to live a vigorous life in order to reach salvation. These questions then must be asked, is there a religion that has the correct pious ideal? If such a religion exists, would that mean that adherence to that religion would put those followers in a privileged position to reach enlightenment? Well, to answer yes would imply a large level of moralistic self-righteousness on the part of the individual who selects his or her own religion as the one true faith. This kind of approach would get many yeses around the world because religion is such a contested subject to the point where the morals within it are part of human identities and experiences. Therefore, the answers to these questions of uniformity are all a firm no, because such claims of absolutism are in conflict with the very goals of religion. These goals are to train individuals to have good moral character and be able to work harmoniously with the people that they encounter. Despite this reality, today we are seeing the rise of fundamentalist movements across the United States and the world, with these movements threatening the prospect of a greater religious truth through the unshackling nature of freedom and diversity.

What is common in the religious scriptures across almost all major religions is a supposed dualism between religious tolerance and intolerance. The juxtaposition of the verses 2:256 and 2:257 of the Koran are a perfect example of this because they claim that “there is no compulsion in faith” in 2:256, however, it goes on in 2:257 to speak of individuals that do not have faith as being the “people of the fire.” Christian thought contains dualisms of this sort as well where in Micah 4:3-5 the ideal vision for humanity is to let nations worship their own Gods and take up no swords against one another, while in Luke 11, Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” In response to these dualisms, how can such contradictory messages exist in scriptures that are meant to point people in a single direction? The answer is that the scriptures of world religions were created by humans and were meant to rationalize the world and its origins from the inspiration of a divinely inspired entity. So, because humans are the actors who perceive the supposed divine, that perception of the divine’s message is then influenced by the interworking of the human mind, which is governed by a different set of laws as opposed to the omnipotence and omniscience of a supreme being. This means that dualism exists in religious faith precisely because religion is a human institution that is trying to make sense of the world through a human translation of what Saint Thomas Aquinas would call an eternal law.

The explanation of dualism through religious faith can be proven through an analysis of human nature and an application of that analysis to spiritual ideas. According to the evolutionary biology columnist Luke Glowacki, of the Los Angeles Times, humans are prone to conflict due to the social underpinnings of group behavior, which this establishes the groundwork for conflict. Altruistic cooperation is also an inherent characteristic of human evolutionary nature, which provides the fundamental reason why dualism exists. Such a dichotomy can be established religiously, for example, within Christianity and Taoism. On the subject of the former, one of the most famous passages of the Bible, “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them”, is an unequivocal assertion of how the human race stands in relationship to God. The inception of the human race was inspired by a perfect benevolent harmony devoid of imperfection. This changed when the revelation of Adam and Eve occurred, which transformed human nature to a dualism between good and evil as opposed to perfect beneficence. Evil was created by sin that was inspired by the snake, which provoked imperfection. On the subject of the latter, Taoism takes an opposite attitudinal approach to dualism as a condition that gives morality its sanctity. In chapter two of the Tao-Te-Ching, it claimed, “As soon as beauty is known by the world as beautiful, it becomes ugly. As soon as virtue is being known as something good, it becomes evil. Therefore being and nonbeing give birth to each other.” This paradoxical observation is making the point that opposing qualities complement each other, which is due to the fact that without a state of antithesis to the contrary of virtue humans cannot regard such virtue with a sense of salience. If humans continued to claim that the world is a struggle between good and evil then the resulting separation would make the world conducive to cyclical conflict as groups of people would take this attitude toward each other without any middle ground to provide a resolution. The purpose of this elaboration is to show that dualism is an existential trait of human beings and is the trait that, depending on how it is managed within religious faith, can make or break the stability that religion is meant to provide.

Now that the theoretical basis for dualism is established as innate to nature and faith, the structural factors that lead to interreligious conflict can be prudently examined. One of the reasons why religious conflict occurs is that religions tend to be competitive toward each other in a pluralistic environment. In an empirical study by Robert Baro of Harvard University an increase in the extent of religious pluralism boosts the level of religiosity of the religious inhabitants of a country. This polarizing effect is especially prominent with the rise of fundamentalism in the context of globalization. Luminita Soporini, of the University of Oradea explains, “Before, the ideas and technologies needed centuries to extend to the whole world. However, today this can be accomplished in just a few seconds. With the help of the new communication means, new ideas can get around the world in just a few moments.” This environment of freedom and diversity is exactly what prompted the ability of fundamentalism to spread around the world because the diversity of thought that was now instantaneously viewable by anybody with a mobile device hardened the ideological resolve of fundamentalists to preach their message through a more convenient outlet. That idea is true from an empirical standpoint, because as shown by a literature review of over 350 academic papers by Michael Salzman, of the University of Hawaii, globalization created a large social anxiety effect from the resulting diversity in cultural exchanges and perpetuated the need for fundamentalists to force a conservative world view onto the newly chaotic world around them.

This religious fundamentalism, as a result of this existential anxiety, is characterized by a lack of acceptance for those outside of a rigid worldview and this characteristic of fundamentalism is prominent across religious faiths. According to a 2008 study by Baylor University a fundamentalist conception of God has a direct relationship to intolerance for minority groups. Examples of this effect include Christian fundamentalists in the United States, Anti-Christian Hindus in India, radical Islamist terrorists in the middle east, and even anti-Muslim Buddhist Monks in Myanmar. However, in order to know how these fundamentalists operate, where does this supposed lack of tolerance come from? Deborah Hall, of Duke University, answered this question in a 2010 Meta analytic review of  55 independent studies, and she found that intolerance among religious people stems from the infusing of cultural norms of social conformity and tradition, while agnostics had the highest levels of tolerance among those studied. Now, does this mean that everybody must become agnostics for intolerance to be eradicated? Of course not! The reason why agnostics tended to show greater tolerance is because of the values of acceptance and curiosity, which these values are present within the major religions. So, the fact of the matter is that a fundamentalist worldview is not necessarily correct when looking at its consequences for humanity and its ideological conception of truth.

To prove that the fundamentalist conception of truth stands on shaky ground, which claims that salvation demands faith in a single religion, one can look to the example of Christian fundamentalism in the United States as a case study. According to CNN News on June 21st 2012, the American Family Association, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and many other evangelical organizations get millions of viewers. These organizations spread anti-gay and anti-non-Christian rhetoric and are very well connected to conservative political movements in the United States. For refutation of the anti gay rhetoric, one can conclude that based on an analysis of the ethos of the scriptures on this issue that homosexuality is not a sin. This kind of holistic analysis was used to reject Ephesians 6 and the story of Ham as a justification for slavery. For refutation of the anti-non-Christian rhetoric, one must look to the question of how does one analyze the scriptures within religious faith? The answer to this question is that the Bible and all the others major religious scriptures that contain elements of intolerance, must have an interreligious criterion of beneficent evolutionary understanding. This criterion would dictate that the main principles of religious scriptures that argue for love, acceptance, and the leading of a spiritual life that are free from division, must be upheld. Simultaneously, the scriptures that advocate for violence, cruelty and archaic standards should be disregarded for the context that they were written in.

This criterion is integral to the understanding of all religious documents within history. As validated by Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation who countered that Islam is a religion of peace because,  “We recognize that when we interpret scriptures and texts and books and poetry that they are contextualized, that we have methodologies to approach them, when we’re reading Shakespeare, when we’re reading anything.” Nawaz went on to argue that when the scriptures are contextualized they must be judged on the cultural standards of their time period and only then “can society evolve.” So, when turning back to the idea of beneficent understanding, this criterion of acknowledging context can be applied to all major religions, through the lens of William Irwin of King’s College, by regarding each belief in a different concept of God as a question rather than an answer. The meaning behind this is that faith always comes with some level of doubt. When we create a dialogue on what we want our faiths to be, we must demand a multifarious understanding that does not blind us to the world around us.

This is exactly why Pope Francis has acknowledged  divergent paths to spirituality as long as that person has sincerity and good moral character. Pope Francis said, “God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.  In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil.  The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.” This is why the fundamentalist conception of absolute truth does not match the proper criterion for evaluating hermeneutics, because a criterion of religious truth must be arrived at through a free flowing process of discussion, instead of a multipolar debate about whose faith is better than the other.

How could such a criterion be achieved? The task to be achieved is for religion to be integrated with reason so that it can be flexible and evolutionary. Just like the islamic theological professor Abdolkarim Soroush of Harvard University wrote, “Religion is in no need of reconstruction and completion. Religious knowledge and insight that is human and incomplete, however, is in constant need of reconstruction.” While Soroush does not argue that the scriptures themselves have flaws, the important point that he is making is that religious scriptures have to interpreted over time in accordance with the kind of society people live in, which Soroush argues that it must be done through freedom that will lead to a constructive dialogue on what is and is not universal in the spiritual sense. One of the ways that the dialogue can be auspicious in promoting common ground between religious faiths is the utilization of the Buddhist technique of binegation.

The term was defined by Dr. Juichiro Tanabe of Coventry University to mean that, “Views are negated by the function of “reduction ad absurdum” and then opposing views that have arisen by the negation are also nullified in the same way.” The Personalist Controversy within the Buddhist Scriptures are a prime example of this practice, which denied the affirmation of the existence of a self because to believe in it would fall into an extreme and to deny it would fall into another extreme. This controversy is demonstrative of the reality that answers to the ultimate questions of life are not revealed in front of us. The world is full of opportunities to learn and improve upon our understanding of spirituality. That is true wisdom, which is defined by the ability to understand knowledge in ways that transcend conventional understandings and meet others at points of compromise. So, now that a potential technique to nurture religious understanding has been revealed, this can be used to promote a universal doctrine that can unify the religiously devout to promote peace within religion as a whole.

Such a universal doctrine would reconcile the basic altruistic values of the diversity of religious thought into uniformity and then would focus education to teach individuals how to conduct interfaith dialogues on the particular disagreements within faith and how to resolve it. The former is especially possible through the integration of religious doctrines together in order to mold an intercultural understanding across multiple channels of thought. The American philosopher, Ken Wilber, has created a list of such values in which he concluded that all religions believe in a power or state higher than oneself, there is a condition of suffering or sin that leads to a lack of vigor and amity in the world, a path toward liberating oneself from this condition is possible, and that following this path can lead to a state of bliss and fulfillment in one’s life. A kind of agreement to this, starting from the top of the spectrum among religious leaders, can lead to a trickle down effect to all the devout followers of religion. An example of this comes from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2012, which explained that the Muslim initiative, “A Common Word Between Us and You”, combined a total of 138 muslim scholars and led to a declaring of common ground between Christianity and Islam, while being positively received by the Christian leaders of the world. Initiatives like this should continue and new initiatives should spring up to support this kind of thinking on a pedagogical level in the form of teaching universal values.

In order to teach universal values, impartiality must be enforced in the process. The Harvard educated philosopher, Daniel Dennett, did a TED Talk on this very issue and stressed that such teaching would instill knowledge on the various faiths to prevent misunderstanding and would not enforce a particular agenda. This would not only prevent a legal violation of the separation of church and state, because secular views could also be represented, but Michael Walzer of Harvard University pointed out that it could infuse the teaching of democratic values in order to allow for the creation of a mindset of interdependence within religious faiths and an ending of the fundamentalist religiopolitical movements that have had unintended consequences for the stability of  religion. This mindset, expressly advocated for by Linda Groff of California State University, “enables an appreciation of the interdependence of species in the global ecosystem, of particular cultural meanings in the context of the total global cultural system, and of particular faiths in the rich diversity of global religions.” It could also allow for the vision of religion, which was proclaimed by a 2013 policy paper by the Brookings Institution, to become a bridge builder, rather than as a bridge destroyer that is dominated by absolute truth.

The rewards of an interdependence between religious faiths include the economic benefits of a more socially cohesive global community, the formation of a controlled democratic mindset, and the curbing of a sense of apathy toward religious faith. This social cohesion would come from the increased tolerance that would result from the agreement to universal principles and the inculcation of democratic values like compromise, which would be disciplined through practices like binegation. The impact of this social cohesion, according to a study by Robert Foa, of Harvard University, would be an increase in economic growth, which is due to a new sense of social harmony. Furthermore, the formation of a more tolerant attitude toward other faiths, which would come from a dissolution of absolute truth, would end the corruption of liberal democratic ethics by fundamentalists. John Rawls of Harvard University, explains, “[Fundamentalist religious doctrines.., will reject the ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy. They will say that democracy leads to a culture contrary to their religion …. They assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides the politically reasonable.”” This is true because fundamentalists want a homogenous society with no trace of pluralism or compromise outside of a sense of groupthink, which this is anathema to democracy.

Contrary to this vision, an interdependence between religious faiths would erase the trends that are leading to a decline in devoutly religious individuals. A review of polling data by the Week Newspaper found that millennials in the United States are becoming less religious because of the infusion of religion and politics together and the anti-gay bias largely present within Christianity. Aforesaid decline of religiosity is present across the world, with BBC News reporting in 2014 that the nonreligious population across the world has increased from 4% to 13% . Such an outcome is a tragedy because religion can offer a solid sociomoral foundation to those who seek it. The late revolutionary psychologist and former president of the Austrian Medical Society, Viktor E. Frankl, described in his struggle within many Nazi concentration camps that spirituality was one of the main factors in helping him and his fellow Jewish prisoners survive the camps. The reason is because spirituality protected their faith in the future, whilst the prisoners that lost faith in the future and their spirituality were “doomed.” Therefore, religion must adapt if it is to survive the coming of a nihilist vision of the future.

When asked if he was a Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” This quotation embodies an aphorism of liberalism that must be applied to religion if it is to be a force for social justice. In order for religion to grapple with the demons of its inner nature, we must take control and end the fundamentalist movement across the world. That can only happen when the idea of absolute truth is abolished within theology and replaced with a paradigm of tolerance and acceptance of freedom and diversity. This holistic peace paradigm will allow religion to assume a democratic character and can save the world from being strewn with division and conflict within faith. Such a framework will take the form of compromise, which will allow for religion to increase social cohesion, prepare individuals to develop virtuous moral character, and will allow individuals to work harmoniously with others across the world. The conservative philosopher Ayn Rand would condescendingly call this a “middle of the road morality”, but such a morality is the only way that religion can continue to grow and spread the benefits of a purposeful path into posterity.