Thursday, April 15, 2010

Evolution of Religion

The idea of the evolution of religion is often used to oppose conservative Christianity. I have problems with evolution in biology, but applying it to other disciplines without proof or mechanism is illegitimate. Also, while biological evolution is largely in the unobservable past, religions continue to appear in the full light of history. While I am committed to a specific theological view, I think it helpful to look at how religions develop and ask how this applies to Christianity.

Most new beliefs are started by a leader or small group of leaders. These represent a definite departure from previously held beliefs. To gain converts you must be sufficiently different to be noticeable. Once such groups exist they can develop over time. Some leader may take them off in a different direction. Now time and geography can cause a group to drift apart into two (for example Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). But these are minor deviations and take a long time to produce. If there was ever a fundamentally different belief that grew up slowly in the community, I do not know of it.

Now the leaders of new movements are of three types. Some are interpreters; they take the beliefs of a group and interpret them in a different way. (A good example of this is Martin Luther.) This person does not claim any new information and presupposes a existing belief system. The second type is the philosopher whose thoughts are given a theological veneer. A good example of this is Confucius, who after about 2600 years is still recognizable for what he was. The third type of leader is the prophet, who claims supernatural revelation. That there were people who made this claim is an historical fact (for example Mohammad, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith and Ellen G. White). There are three possible explanations for them. They may be con artists, they may be having some sort of psychological experience, or they may genuinely be in touch with supernatural powers. (Note, if you believe in supernatural powers there may be evil supernatural powers that delude people.)

In Christianity the logical originators are Jesus and his disciples. There is simply no reason for positing later, anonymous originators, especially considering the time frame involved. While some have claimed questionable ancient originators for their beliefs, there are reasons involved, and the people making this claim are normally not anonymous. Also, Christianity as it has come down to us is clearly of prophetic origin. That it was originally one of the other types and was distorted into the prophetic type in (at most) a couple of hundred years is preposterous. And since the obvious originator is Jesus Christ, we are left with the basic three possibilities, that He was a conman, a madman, or who He claimed to be, God come in the flesh. But that He was a philosopher or rabbi who was afterward changed by his followers into the Son of God does not fit the normal pattern.

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