Why does religion lag behind culture?

It’s probably not surprising in my current situation that I’ve been thinking a lot about why religion in general, and the CofE in particular, seems to be so slow to react to shifts in wider culture. Of course, there’s the obvious problem of how to reconcile modern ethics and ancient religious tradition, but there are plenty of individual liberals and progressives in even the most conservative groups, and possibly even a majority overall. So why do religions tend to rigidly enforce one interpretation and insist that everyone should fall in line?

The church is generally happier with this sort of change

A few months ago, the Church of England once again started the process of examining issues around human sexuality in time-honoured fashion, forming a committee to help in producing a new consultation document, which will then in all likelihood lead to further discussion, examination of the issues, horse trading and compromise deals, at the end of which it’s possible that the church might – eventually – change its policy. A bit.

The composition of the committee was promptly criticised by some groups, concerned that its members have little experience or knowledge of the subject, but include what appears to be a deliberate mix of attitudes, including a representative of each major grouping within the church. There has also been concern voiced that the group is entirely male, and almost entirely composed of bishops. In a strange way, I think this starts to answer the question.

Because religions aren’t democratic. They operate on a broadly hierarchical basis, in practice if not in theory, so the people at the top aren’t there because they reflect the views of adherents to their tradition, but because they reflected the views of the people making the appointment. And those people were making the appointment because they held senior positions in the hierarchy, which they got because they reflected the views of the people making that appointment, and so on, and so on.

Yes, this is a simplification. The appointment process is a bit more complicated than what I’ve described, clergy change their views as well, and religions believe that they receive guidance from God, rather than just choosing their personal favourites. But anyone hoping to be appointed to a senior position will be expected to adhere to official doctrine, and that official doctrine is ultimately determined by people in senior positions.

Of course, the process isn’t unique. It’s quite similar to the management of a multinational corporation (for example), but there are a couple of important differences. Most obviously, a business isn’t run along dogmatic lines that tell you how to live, but there’s also the question of tradition. Religions depend on a weight of tradition for their authority. It’s a little cynical to define a religion as a cult that’s been around for a while, but there’s an element of truth in it. Consider recent softening of popular opinion on Mormons, or how Scientology might be regarded in a couple of hundred years.

That dependence on tradition means religions have a strong presumption in favour of existing beliefs and practice. They need a very good reason to discard hundreds or even thousands of years of history, because that history’s vital to their position, so again, there’s a reason to prefer candidates who support the status quo. You need a certain amount of moral authority to have a chance of significantly changing doctrine, but the only people who have that authority (in the church’s eyes, at least) are those in senior positions in the church, so we’re back to square one.

So I think religions get stuck in a rut, and the longer they spend following their own tracks, the more weight they give to that tradition and the harder it is to break out and do things differently. When Martin Luther wanted to make some changes, he effectively had to create a new church. It’s often said these days that he’d be very happy within the modern Catholic church, but it’s taken the best part of 500 years to achieve that degree of change within the church.

I don’t have 500 years. I’d like to see some sign that the church as a whole is moving quickly in the right direction, but sadly, my hopes aren’t high.

Photo by Clearly Ambiguous, used under Attribution License


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

16 responses to “Why does religion lag behind culture?”

  1. 2012 and all that says :

    I’m not really sure that Luther would be happy with the Catholic Church. Sure, there are some things he would be happy to see: freely available bibles, services given in parochial languages, the end of indulgences, the end of the power of the monasteries and bishops.

    He won’t be happy that they still have a Pope or his claims to scriptural infallibility and he might just take exception to their tentative acceptance of evolution or their mild affection for Jews. He would still be critical of their avarice and usury in the form of a Vatican bank.

    In his book Godless Morality Richard Holloway points out that churches like to claim that they are the leaders of social reform when in reality they are the laggers who like to take credit when enough time has passed.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      It’s a while since I studied Luther’s complaints, and in my experience it’s often said that he’d never have nailed his theses up if the church had been as it is today. He wouldn’t feel 100% happy, obviously, but his main objections seem to have been addressed eventually. That’s not something that bothers me hugely, though – it’s just interesting to see how much time it can take to achieve change through different routes.

      I like Richard Holloway a lot, and yes, I think he’s spot on with this. There’s another post I’d like to write on that very subject when I get round to it.

  2. Sabio Lantz says :

    Good point that conservative policies in institutions can be beneficial. Changing with the wind can destroy a group. Care in preserving the good is important. But that letting the only means of change lie in the hands of those invested to preserve change results in a dying organism. Good points.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I have to be careful on this, because I’ve also complained in the past about how the church eventually follows whatever the wider culture dictates, despite claiming to be a vessel for an objective, timeless moral code. If that teaching had remained constant, it could claim to have a clear moral basis, and if the church had been at the forefront of change, it could claim to be progressive. As it is, I think neither claim has any plausible basis in fact.

      • Sabio Lantz says :

        Here is the rub:
        There is no One church.
        There is no One Christianity
        There are tons of varieties of everything.
        Generalities are so fun, yet so often highly mistaken.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Yes, that’s an important point, as long as that variety isn’t simply used to duck any criticism.

        What interests me particularly on this topic is that I think there’s a very odd disconnect at the moment between the church as individuals and the church as an institution, something that I’ve particularly noticed in the last few years.

      • Sabio Lantz says :

        Again, I think we nee to be very careful about talking about “the church as an institution” — generalities are usually wrong.

        For instance, Pentecostalism, with prophecy and such allow for much more change via the gifts than Catholics would. The more we break down the analysis into smaller groups, the more accurate we get — which should tell you something about generalizations.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Damn you, you didn’t even say all generalities are wrong! 😉

        Of course, my recent experience is basically limited to the Church of England, which (as I say) is my particular focus. It’s a diverse body, but I think I can safely speak of the CofE as an institution, because it is one, with a single structure and hierarchy. Or would you disagree?

        This is an interesting subject. It reminds me a little of a back-and-forth between theists and atheists about whether it’s necessary to reject/disprove each individual god that’s proposed, but I think it’s rather more interesting and more subtle than that. I’ll have to line up a post about this at some point.

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    LOL — concerning “ALL generalities”

    Yes, I agree, if you speak of the Church of England, there is much more meaning to the generalities. But you can’t say, “religion in general, and the CofE in particular,…” because then you are trying to get away with a logical fallacy of over generalizing.

    So you will avoid many unnecessary arguments if you are careful with your logical fallacy of overgeneralizing. It is not as satisfying to be careful and narrow your focus for accuracy but you must decide if you are more interested in rhetoric or in real understanding.

    BTW, have you read my post that criticize comment hierarchies? They are worse than Church hierarchies!! 🙂 Can you see the problems it causes here?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m interested in understanding, of course, and I don’t think I’m ever going to feel comfortable with any view that paints everything in black and white, but I reserve the right to engage in rhetoric when something’s annoying me, or just when it suits me. Sometimes a rant is just what the doctor ordered.

      I confess that it might have been careless or inaccurate to generalise across religion as a whole, but I was just using it as a jumping-off point for the meat of the post. I don’t think it changes anything to say “much of religion” or similar. There is something interesting here, though, about what we can legitimately say about X or Y, and I’m going to have to write about that at some point.

      I remember from previous comments that you don’t like comment hierarchies. I’m undecided, but haven’t found them enough of a problem to seriously look at changing the arrangement of my comments. I’ll ponder it.

      • Sabio Lantz says :

        @ Recovering Agnostic
        Absolutely !
        You go for that rabid, ranting, rhetoric — you get ’em dawg.

        I think care in generalizations do matter — you don’t.

        Well, as Mark Twain apparently helped point out: “That is what makes horse races.”

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Maybe I’m not getting my view across very well. I do think it matters to be careful about generalising. I’m just not convinced that it makes a material difference in this case.

        I also think it’s possible to get too hung up about it. If I’m writing about some aspect of Christian theology, should I clarify at every turn that not all self-identified Christians believe this? Even the people who font could be counted on one hand?

        As a logical formulation, it would be false in this situation to state that all Christians believe X, but I’m not always making a formal logical claim. When I’m just opening up an area for discussion, I don’t really want to get into detail of whether it applies to everyone, and I don’t think it’s very important, so I claim artistic licence.

        Anyway, I promise I’m going to write about this properly some time soon, because I find it interesting.

  4. Sabio Lantz says :

    I see you made comments only 3 levels deep — so unless you have deep threads, their weakness won’t be apparent. Sorry, I forgot I mentioned them too you.

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