Ask Tim

The wannabe intellectual in me can't resist thoroughly exercising my useless Masters education by addressing this alcohol inspired theological inquiry from Facebook:

Can new religion be designed in the same manner of a new language? can religion reinvent itself in the same manner of changing scientific theory? i'm curious and drunk, and i dont get to go to theology pub in the great pacific northwest. topics for your next meeting, perhaps.

Yours truly,
White, Inebriated, and Southern

Well WIS, to start with language, my thoughts are that there are probably some parallels between language and religion. In both cases, the most common mode of change is the sort of cultural drift that happens unconsciously over time and distance. The variation in Christian denominations that arises primarily along national or regional lines, for instance, is probably akin to the variation in dialects that have arisen between my Damn Yankee self and your Southern Fried tongue. Also, shifts in both religion and language seem to happen most frequently across populations when 1) governments force it on their people or 2) economic interests merit conversion. And asinine, concocted 'new languages' like Esperanto and Klingon have a lot in common with the new religion that I've created, which I'm calling 'boredianity': nobody wants to practice either unless they're crazy.

But I do think that there are some significant differences between language and religion. With language, the creation and adoption of new words or dialects seems to be wholly pragmatic (rather than politically motivated) and generally unconscious, and to happen across populations rather than springing up in insulated 'cults'. In contrast, I think that the creation of a successful new religious movement requires 1) At least one Guru: an intuitive genius who synthesizes a mythology and set of rituals that is compact and makes sense of at least some major aspect of reality in a compelling way, and that they really believe to be a 'message from God' (Anthony Storr's 'Feet of Clay' is a great book on this kind of person, and is very healthy for religious people to read.) and 2) at least one 'True Believer' charismatic apostle who can build the community apart from the leader, and provide a model for others who would follow the leader religiously: Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad/Malcolm X, Joseph Smith/Brigham Young, and dare I say it, Jesus/Paul are all good examples. Smaller, less influential movements arise in a similar pattern with new religions and inside of old ones. Roughly, these movements arise as a (usually unconscious, though L. Ron Hubbard was explicit about it) means to establish individual or group power and influence. I don't know much about language, but I don't know of any parallel there. In short, what I would say is that if you create a new language from whole cloth, probably no one would use it (unless they're weird language nerds). If you create a new religion from whole cloth, probably no one will use it either, unless you're an intuitive genius and you really believe what you say to be true, and you can find at least one really charismatic person to follow you enthusiastically.

And the comparison between science and religion is an interesting one. Liberalism has essentially been trying to reinvent/allegorize the Christian theological system for over a century, in the attempt to incorporate new truths that came to be generally accepted through Biblical Criticism and the rise of modern science. The jury is still out on whether they will be successful. If I'm honest. my expectation is that it is actually a failing endeavor, and that most of the things that were compelling in the Christian message (and ritual) are eventually lost when you stop believing the story literally. I would expect that, with some of the major scientific theories (as evidenced in the Copernican, Darwinian and Einsteinian revolutions, for instance), the likely situation will be that a new form of religiosity will largely replace the old 'organized national religion give us your money and your life' form. It might not be called religion, and it won't function in the way that religions have in the past. Christianities and Islams and Hinduisms will continue to exist - the old stories will continue to be told, but not for the same reasons and not in the same ways - but they'll be significantly different as they become increasing touch with reality as it is understood in the modern world. This might not happen, and definitely won't happen quickly - we're moving through a strange period of struggle between religious communities that is reshaping things in unpredictable ways - but that's my guess.

Sincerely, and you're welcome,