Saturday, March 26, 2016

From Being “Real” to Mythic: Do Religions have Lifespans?

Thousands of years ago, Greeks acted out narratives from what we now refer to as myths. The word myth connotes a religious narrative that has long-ago expired from being believed to be actual. Of course, no Christian in modern times would refer to the Passion as a myth; to refer to the crucifixion and resurrection as mythic would be insulting. Yet as a society increasingly secularizes, the events in the religious story gradually give up their all-embracing signature. As Good Friday or Easter becomes “just another day” for more and more people in the increasingly secular West in particular, the respective events lose their hegemony in defining for people in their daily lives what the Friday and Sunday are about. That is, the events "deflate" from being perceived as all-embracing in the sense of defining the significance of the days. If sufficiently relegated, the story itself can more easily be viewed as myth, rather than real. Notice religion’s appeal here to history or at least empiricism as a validator. Without such a basis intact, religious events are somehow less real in a religious sense of meaning.[1] In fact, a religion’s situs in a society can go from default-status to ultimately being replaced. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in the late nineteenth-century prefigured the rise of secularization—the discrediting of the reigning concept of the deity by ascribing the vice of vengeance to it inexorably deflating the Abrahamic religions. Particularly astonishing is not the fact that religions have lifespans, but, rather, that any given religion in decline can endure an incredible amount of time at that stage. This phenomenon can prompt a person to wonder whether the religions are not human, all too human.
The process by which a religious narrative goes from losing its totality “in the real world” to being replaced, and thus deemed a myth, is not linear or steady, if Thomas Kuhn’s ideas on scientific revolutions applies. Yet nor is such a life-cycle short, ending in a sudden collapse similar to how the U.S.S.R. ended. In this regard, I depart from Kuhn's theory in so far it is applicable to religion.  
According to Kuhn, “intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by sudden paradigm shifts. There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed. Then there’s a model crisis, when the whole thing collapses. Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.” Then there’s the revolution phase, during which “you get a proliferation of competing approaches, a willingness to try anything. People ask different questions, speak a different language, congregate around a new paradigm that is incommensurate with the last.”[2]
In terms of Christianity, the “period of normal science” is easy enough to picture. The Inquisition, for instance, points to that period existing historically in Europe, and to the enforcement powers that a “normal science” can enjoy. The loss of such powers goes a long way, I submit, in accounting for the incredible slippage that takes place once a religion is no longer the normal science. In the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, a Christian church in Europe had much less leverage with which to “police” members deemed as heretics; a Christian unhappy with one’s church could simply pick a different sect or melt into the secular society. Such “model drift” is gradual, whereas a model crisis is not.
I’m not convinced that a religion collapses practically overnight in a crisis. Rather, I suspect that the drift gradually opens an increasingly wide area wherein other models can originate and take root. As a religion moves off the stage of normal science and is thus rendered increasingly transparent, questions naturally arise as the dogmatism of the normal science has been removed. Christians might begin to ask themselves: Did Jesus really exist? No evidence exists? Does religion really depend on history for validity anyway? Was God behind the Big Bang? Is religion overreaching when it tackles cosmology and the natural sciences more generally? Did we really share a common ancestor with the chimp?[3] Did a pope really write a letter as an archbishop stating it would be better to move a pedophile priest to another parish (to become its youth minister) in Germany than to risk harm to the universal church from a scandal? Does his ascendency anyway to the papacy implicate the religious organization (i.e., the Church) itself?
The scandal of pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is an interesting case, for, by all rights, the cascading news should have triggered at some point a collapse of the religious organization; and yet, the status quo that includes that mammoth Christian sect (i.e., denomination) continued even as a scathing film, Spotlight, won the Oscar for best picture in 2016. A religion having enjoyed the status of “normal science” apparently has reserves of staying-power even in the face of abject hypocrisy occurring on a systemic basis (i.e., not just a few individuals).
The life cycle of an established religion is, I submit, quite long, and longer than expected or anticipated. Besides the power of the vested interests, human beings are too much like herd animals, especially in organizations, to get up and move to another pasture unless really prodded hard with a hot iron. Plus, cognitive dissidence—such as in “the Church can’t be that bad, or I would not be a member”—can reinforce denial. Lastly, to be an institution recognized by society is to get loads of legitimacy simply in existing. Such legitimacy has a way of silently drowning out even true charges of lewd or sordid behavior—not to mention hypocrisy. None of this even gets to the broader trajectory of a religion’s lifecycle. It can take a long, long time for a religion to run its course—and then it may stick around even longer in a hybrid capacity.
The longevity is in spite of the fact that the longer a religion endures, the further the stretch from the context of its origin to the present-day. A religion gets harder and harder to translate as the world changes from the world in which the religion first found expression. Texts of a religion coming out of an ancient agrarian world are not easily translated into a modern, urban world. Moreover, to the extent that religions tend to be rather fixed, even rigid, the “inability” (actually choice) not to adapt to changes in not only the world but also the development of mankind’s understanding of religion itself implies a limited lifespan. Yet very ancient religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, endure in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, any of these religions could survive in a limited and perhaps even barely recognized form in a newly developed hybrid form.
I’m not convinced that the notion of one paradigm cleanly replacing another applies to religion. Perhaps over a large enough span of time, very different paradigms can be identified. Hence we can distinguish the older polytheistic nature religions from the ancient Middle Eastern monotheist faiths. More narrowly, closer to a religion’s lifespan and what comes after, however, I suspect that hybrid paradigms emerge, pick up, and carry on some remnants of the religion. In Judaism and Christianity, the notion of a remnant (i.e., of a people, and outcasts, respectively) has a special place.
In the theory of organizational life-cycles, an organization toward the end of its decline can spawn a re-energized, or emergent, organization that retains some of the characteristics without all the bureaucratic baggage. A large corporation might spin off a division, for instance, that itself becomes a large company retaining some of the original company’s culture. Similarly, Christianity in the year 2200 might have left the Passion narrative and complicated theology behind. Yet Jesus’s teachings themselves, such as in the Sermon on the Mount, which are relatively compatible with secularity, might survive in altered forms or even new religions—or even in secular culture itself! Many Christians in 2016 would remonstrate that such a religion would not really be Christian at all, given the historical litmus test enjoyed by Christology (i.e., true belief being the Incarnation). Nevertheless, the retention of Jesus’s teaching would make the new paradigm quasi-Christian, or at least “Christ-like.” Indeed, to the extent that the new focus results in less hypocrisy, the hybrid might actually be more Christ-like. Beyond the lifespan of such a hybrid it is difficult from the standpoint of 2016 to speculate on what paradigms might come next. My point is simply that some of the bath-water will probably be used even after the focus on the baby has waned. Perhaps a religion is like a slug in that both move slowly and are not apt to change quickly, and yet both can exist for a very long time.

[1] Here I’m relying on ch. 12 of my book, “God’s Gold.” In that chapter, I contend that religion overreaches in claiming history for itself. For a religion to use history as a sort of anchor is to make a category mistake.
[2] David Brooks, “The Post-Trump Era,” The New York Times, March 25, 2016. Brooks is drawing from Kuhn’s text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
[3] See ch. 12 of my book, “God’s Gold.”