Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Evolution of Faith, Religion and Spirituality

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr., February 21, 2016

            Faith, religion and spirituality are similar but have important differences.  Faithis a personal belief in supernatural matters that are beyond rational understanding (see Hebrews 11:1).  Religion is an institutionalized faith that is defined by doctrine, while spirituality is the faith of an increasing number of noneswho have rejected institutional religion.

            Religions are diverse, and except for fundamentalist religions that resist any change to their traditional doctrines, most religions evolve with changing times.  American forms of Christianity evolved from Roman Catholicism, which has itself evolved from earlier forms.  All modern forms of Christianity are amalgams of local culture and traditional Christian doctrines, so that American forms of Christianity are quite different from their African counterparts.

            Islam, like Christianity, has many forms that are shaped by their surrounding cultural values.  In libertarian democracies like America, Muslims have adapted their Islamic beliefs to libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law values, but most Muslims in Islamic cultures are fundamentalists who have rejected modernity and retained Islamic Law, or Shari’a, which stifles libertarian human rights with apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent any freedom of religion or speech and deny equal justice under law to women and non-Muslims.   
            Polls indicate that institutional religion is declining and personal spirituality increasing in libertarian cultures where the freedoms of religion and speech allow free discussion and choice in matters of faith, religion and politics.  The increasing number of nones in libertarian democracies reflects a decline in religion but not in personal faith.  By way of contrast, in Islamic cultures an increasing number of fundamentalist Muslims, known as Islamists, continue to allow Shari’a to define the rule of law and deny themselves libertarian human rights.

            Fundamentalist believers consider advances in knowledge and reason a threat to the sacred truths of their ancient scriptures and traditional doctrines.  They are minorities among Jews and Christians in libertarian democracies, but they are in the majority among Muslims in Islamic cultures, ranging from moderate Islamists to more conservative Salafists and Wahhabis.   

            Islamist terrorists like those of al-Qaeda and ISIS are motivated by radical forms of Islamism and use violence to impose Shari’a worldwide.  Like other religious fundamentalists, Islamists consider their holy book, the Qur’an, to be God’s perfect and immutable truth, and they resist any progressive interpretations of the Qur’an or Shari’a.

            Just as progressive religions reflect their cultural context and evolve with changing times, the faith of individual believers also evolves with their personal experience and reason—at least for progressive believers.  Fundamentalist believers resist any change to their traditional beliefs unless and until they open their hearts and minds and become progressive believers.

            The United Methodist Church offers a paradigm for progressive believers in their evolution from religion to faith and spirituality.  It is described as Our Theological Task and is set forth in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and it is based on the four elements of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason.  It is a useful paradigm for all people of faith, even those who choose to cross the boundaries of church doctrine and risk entering the undefined realm of spirituality.

            Scripture and the traditional interpretations of scripture are the beginning point for all believers, even fundamentalists.  But progressive believers go beyond scriptureand tradition and use experience and reason to expand the boundaries of their faith.  That takes believers into uncharted areas beyond church doctrine where they may become noneswho reject their original religious preferences; but many if not most nones retain a personal faith, or spirituality.

            Seeking new spiritual truths based on experienceand reason is a natural part of our journey of faith, but historically this has been denied by laws prohibiting heresy, apostasy and blasphemy that deny the freedoms of religion and speech.  Such laws are relegated to history in the U.S., but apostasy and blasphemy laws are currently enforced in Islamic cultures where they provide underserved legitimacy to Islamist terrorists and to authoritarian rulers who use them to deny fundamental freedoms to all Muslims and to counter political opposition.

            Muslims in Islamic cultures should take a lesson from libertarian democracies and insist upon the freedoms of religion and speech at the foundation of their rule of law.  Those freedoms would not only allow the evolution of individual faith, religion and politics in Islamic cultures, but also undermine the legitimacy of Islamist terrorists and authoritarian rulers who use apostasy and blasphemy laws to promote their nefarious purposes.

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today?, January 25, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; The Future of Religion: In Decline and Growing, June 7, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Faith and Religion: The Same but Different, October 4, 2015; and Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics, February 7, 2016.

Egypt’s authoritarian military regime uses censorship and apostasy and blasphemy laws to discourage opposition to its oppressive religious and political doctrines.  See Documenting Oppression Against Muslimsat and Egypt’s Liberals Being Sacrificed on the Altar of Religion, Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, February 15, 2016 at

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